July 7, 1998, Stade Velodrome, Marseille, France
World Cup Semi-Finals: Brazil v. Netherlands (1-1; 4-2 on penalties)
Football fans await the World Cup with baited breath every four years, but the World Cup of 1998 figured exceptionally in the hearts and dreams of soccer fans all over the world because of one man: Ronaldo. The buck toothed Brazilian striker had been in blistering form in 1996 and 1997 with Barcelona and Inter Milan respectively. In the 1996-1997 season, he scored 47 goals in 49 games for Barcelona and went on to score 34 goals in 47 games for Inter in the 1997-1998 season, his first in Italian football. Although he had accompanied the Brazilian team to World Cup glory in 1994 at the tender age of 18, Ronaldo did not play in a single World Cup game in the U.S. and hence was widely expected to take the 1998 World Cup by storm. Now, at the age of 22, Ronaldo commanded the field as if he were a 30 year old after having had the experience of captaining Inter Milan in the latter stages of a gripping battle for the Scudetto that saw Inter inched out of the title by Juventus in the final games.
Having reached the semi-finals against Holland, only two games stood between Brazil and World Cup victory. Coached by Mario Zagallo, Brazil arrived in France as favorites, largely on the strength of Ronaldo’s shoulders and his ability to change a game. The team had just come through a thrilling 3-2 victory over Denmark in the round of 16, but they knew the Dutch would be more organized and exhibit a greater degree of ball control than the Danes. Zagallo fielded a 4-2-2-2 formation with Roberto Carlos, Aldair, Junior Baiano and Cafu in defense, Dunga and Cesar Sampaio in defensive midfield, Rivaldo and Leonardo as attacking midfielders and strikers Ronaldo and Bebeto up front wearing the number 9 and 20 shirts respectively. Full-backs Roberto Carlos and Cafu had carte blanche license to supplement the Brazilian attack by roaming up and down the flanks. As the tournament unfolded, Brazil fans warmed to the brilliance of Barcelona striker Rivaldo, whose golden left foot scored two pivotal goals in the preceding match against Denmark.
The Dutch fielded their share of world class talent in a standard, European 4-4-2 formation with Phillip Cocu, Frank de Boer, Jaap Stam and Michael Reiziger in defense, Zenden, Edgar Davids, Wim Jonk and Ronald de Boer in midfield, and the illustrious strike partnership of Patrick Kluivert and Dennis Bergkamp up front. The game featured two central match-ups: Dunga and Edgar Davids went head to head in the battle for midfield while Jaap Stam was given the Herculean assignment of man marking Ronaldo. Given the history of Brazil’s climactic 3-2 victory against Holland in the 1994 World Cup, both teams began gingerly, treating each other with tremendous respect and collectively creating a first half stalemate as the Dutch did well to contain Brazil's overlapping full-backs and render it difficult for Rivaldo and Leonardo to create space in midfield. Conversely, Aldair and Junior Baiano gave Bergkamp little room to play and shut down the supply of passes to Patrick Kluivert.
Scarcely had the whistle blown after half-time, however, than Roberto Carlos found Rivaldo, who in turn delivered a terrific through ball to a Ronaldo who raced into space behind the Dutch defense, fended off shirt pulling from Frank de Boer and buried the ball through the legs of Edwin van der Sar to open the scoring. In this piece of play, we saw Ronaldo at his trademark best, getting away from his marker Stam and maintaining his balance on the run despite Frank de Boer’s efforts to restrain him. But despite numerous opportunities for Brazil to capitalize on their lead, they failed to score a second goal and ultimately fell prey to the aerial strength of the Dutch in the form of a header equalizer by Patrick Kluivert in the 87th minute. Nevertheless, Brazil continued to threaten both deep into regular play and the 30 minutes of injury time. Denilson entered the game as a substitute for Bebeto in the 70th minute and he and Roberto Carlos took ownership of the left flank, creating multiple opportunities for Ronaldo and Rivaldo in the process. Ronaldo had a bicycle kick chance on goal that was defended off the line by Frank de Boer in addition to a curling, right footed shot saved by Edwin van der Sar as the game turned into a nerve racking battle with the prospect of the match ending at any minute in extra time given the golden goal rule.
At every moment in which play was suspended, Zagallo talked earnestly to his team. Stepping out of his usual contemplative position on the bench, he passionately delivered instructions to his team and waved his hands in illustration as the match wore on into extra time. As the referee blew the whistle for penalty kicks, both teams collapsed in exhaustion on the pitch. Zagallo began yelling wildly and moved from player to player, embracing their faces with his hands like a father and injecting a final dose of energy, power and belief into his team. He told them that Brazil was going to win the match and ultimately lift the trophy in the final. And after Taffarel made the final save in the dramatic penalty shoot-out, the "Old Wolf" as Zagallo is nicknamed in Brazil, burst into tears of joy.
The 66 year old Zagallo had broken down into tears after Brazil's thrilling 3-2 victory against Denmark in the quarterfinals. Flushed with deep feelings after the Denmark game, Zagallo required medication to calm his irregular heartbeat. But after the semi-final victory against the Netherlands, the Brazilian celebrations were even more effusive than against Denmark since the nerve jangling victory had required penalty kick conversions from Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Emerson and Dunga, and near clairvoyant saves from goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel. On the pitch, Dunga and Taffarel chest humped each other in celebration. Meanwhile, on the bench, Zagallo burst into tears as he was hugged by Zico and the rest of the Brazil coaching staff. Unable to contain himself, Zagallo strolled onto the Stade Velodrome somberly, took off his spectacles and wiped the tears flowing from his eyes as he took stock of the stunning victory. Despite all his experience as both a player and a coach, Zagallo wept on the field for two matches in a row like an Italian at the opera. Calming his racing heart, the Old Wolf celebrated with tears of joy as he looked ahead to the dream final where Brazil would defend their World Cup title against the home team at the Stade de France on Sunday.