Ronaldo: The mystery of the 1998 World Cup final, and why Brazil's star striker barely turned up

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 7/13/2020, 4:07 p.m.
It's one of the great mysteries of our time: not the Loch Ness Monster, Stonehenge or the Lost City of ...
Graffiti depicting Brazilian football star Ronaldo, painted by Brazilian street artist Paulo Consentino in celebration of the FIFA 2014 World Cup./Credit: Nelson Almeida/afp/getty images

By Don Riddell, CNN

(CNN) -- It's one of the great mysteries of our time: not the Loch Ness Monster, Stonehenge or the Lost City of Atlantis; it's the case of the missing striker -- not so much a whodunit, more a kind of a what the heck happened?

Those who were plagued by those strange events will never forget the dateline: Paris, July 12, 1998, a game four years in the making -- the FIFA World Cup Final.

Historians will record the game as a 3-0 win for Zinedine Zidane and France, a result that sparked emotional scenes of celebration on the Champs-Élysées for the tournament's host nation.

It was the only World Cup final that Brazil lost between 1994 and 2002, but there was so much more to the story, and much of the excitement played out before a ball had even been kicked.

The drama of the moment is perhaps best summarized by the renowned BBC match commentator John Motson, who covered 10 World Cup tournaments during his broadcasting career.

"The team sheets were handed around by the stewards as usual; lo and behold, Ronaldo's name was not there and everybody looking at their handout had the same reaction," Motson told CNN Sport.

"There were people standing up and waving and asking what was going on? We sat there in an absolute ferment for quite a long time."

Bombshell

Ronaldo was one of the biggest stars in the world game, the man Brazilian fans expected to lead them to a fifth world title. The notion that he wouldn't be playing was simply unthinkable.

For context, try to imagine Argentina playing in the World Cup final and Lionel Messi being dropped from the team, without any prior indication of a problem or an injury.

That was the magnitude of the bombshell that landed on the Stade de France that summer's evening, 22 years ago. As those events unfolded in front of a global television audience of hundreds of millions of fans, nobody seemed to have any idea what was going on.

"My reporting colleague, Ray Stubbs, saw Pele sitting in the commentary box," Motson recalls. "He ran down and asked him what it was all about. Pele just spread his hands and said he knew nothing."

Motson colorfully describes a state of total confusion lasting for what felt like 'half an hour' and the delivery of an amended team sheet did little to clear things up.

In this alternative lineup, Ronaldo was going to be playing as Brazil's number nine. But, devoid of any further explanation, no one could say for sure whether Ronaldo would really be playing until the referee blew the whistle and he could be seen standing in the middle of the field.

In those uncertain moments, Brazilian, French and football writers from all over the planet were desperately trying to make sense of it all. Was the first team sheet a mistake? A typo? Was it gamesmanship?