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This blog reflects on soccer qua football all over the world. The blog has a specific investment in attractive, attacking football and, as such, focuses on Brazil, the most emphatic historical exponent of the beautiful game.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Flashback: The Magic of Ronaldo

Brazil 2-Germany 1. International Friendly. Gottlieb Daimler Stadium, Stuttgart, Germany. March 25, 1998.

Weeks before the first World Cup ever to be held in France, football superpowers Brazil and Germany squared off in a friendly at the Gottlieb Daimler Stadium in Stuttgart, Germany. Mario Zagallo fielded a star studded squad that epitomized yet another golden age in Brazilian football. Zagallo started Claudio Taffarel in goal, Cafu, Junior Baiano, Aldair, Roberto Carlos in defense, Dunga and Cesar Sampaio in central midfield, Denilson and Rivaldo as attacking midfielders, and Romario and Ronaldo near the mouth of goal. The veteran Brazil coach opted for a 4-2-2-2 formation given the ultra-attacking firepower at his disposal, with Bebeto on the bench and the up and coming prodigy, Denilson de Oliveira, wearing the number 10 jersey.

Berti Vogts's German team boasted their own share of household names including Jurgen Klinsmann, Andreas Moller, Oliver Bierhoff, Jurgen Kohler and Christian Ziege. The match against Germany marked one of Brazil’s final stops on their Nike Brazil World Tour of friendlies before France 1998, and the stadium was packed with fans anxious to see the home team clash with the boys in gold and blue despite near freezing temperatures. Fans all over the world, meanwhile, awaited with baited breath yet another rare glimpse of the "Ro Ro" strike partnership between Romario and Ronaldo, two of the most brilliant marksman in the history of football.

The game started scrappily at first. Both teams attacked down the center of the pitch, with direct end to end play and a go for goal attitude toward the game. The Germans didn’t hesitate to use the time honored strategy of fouling the Brazilians whenever they started to break in midfield. Dietmar Hamann repeatedly stopped Denilson in his tracks as he attempted to burst down the left side and Jurgen Kohler confirmed his reputation as one of the best man markers in Europe by shadowing Ronaldo deep into the center circle and fouling the 1996 and 1997 World Player of the year precisely as he received the ball and turned and darted toward the German goal. Klinsmann, Bierhoff and Moller threatened on the counter-attack and, on the whole, the Germans did a fantastic job of containing some highly skillful opponents by allowing Romario and Ronaldo only a handful of scant touches on the ball.

Against the run of play, Cesar Sampaio scored on a header from a corner kick in the 27th minute with what he later called the “shoulder of God”. But from here on, the rough play continued even though Brazil started to string together more passes as Ronaldo, Romario, Rivaldo and Denilson began to collectively swarm towards goal. Minutes before the half time whistle, Jurgen Kohler committed a studs up foul on Cafu and promptly earned a red card from referee David Elleray. Kohler’s ejection appeared to make it curtains for Germany, trailing 1-0 and down a man against the best ball possession team in the world. But Brazil captain Dunga made matters more interesting when he correspondingly received a red card for a late challenge on Ulf Kirsten. Within ten minutes of Dunga’s ejection, Germany displayed their hallowed tradition of coming from behind as Ulf Kirsten toe poked an equalizer in the 65th minute following some lax Brazilian defending.

Now, it was 10 versus 10 and anyone’s game. Germany pressed forward as the home team, but in the game’s dying minutes, Ronaldo’s magic sealed the game for Brazil. Roberto Carlos picked up Moller’s misplaced pass and burst down the left flank. Seeing the German team caught up field, he delivered a magnificent diagonal through ball to Ronaldo who had retreated to his team’s center circle arc and followed every inch of Moller’s misplaced play. Like a sprinter out of the blocks, Ronaldo exploded forward, eyeing the ball like a hawk, out-muscling a pair of defenders and using his speed and balance to power himself into the box. The Brazilian ace sidestepped goalkeeper Andreas Koepke and tucked the ball into the back of the net with his characteristic composure in front of goal. After appearing invisible for much of the game, Ronaldo finally displayed his trademark explosive pace and ability to power through defenses. His goal marked an extraordinary finish to an otherwise scrappy but hard fought game marked by 2 red cards and 6 yellows, with both Brazil and Germany anxious to send some messages to the global football community prior to France 1998.

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