On Sunday, in the soaking rain of Yokohama, Japan, the oldest 25-year-old in the world was able to smile again. For four years Ronaldo Luiz Naz�rio de Lima had been the embodiment, physically and mentally, of a train wreck—a bullet train wreck. His nerves jangled, his knees mangled, the Brazilian striker was a cautionary tale, a transcendent talent lost to the Fates. Yet as his two goals led Brazil to a 2-0 win over Germany and an unprecedented fifth World Cup title, Ronaldo rediscovered his enchanting mix of youthful wonder and regal majesty. Suddenly his nutty coiffure, a tiara of hair on an otherwise shaved dome, looked less like a relic of the Star Wars bar and more like a crown for the once and future king.
The Brazil mystique is back. Or, as Ronaldo happily put it a few days before his 11th and 12th career World Cup goals, tying him with Pel� for the most by a Brazilian: "The nightmare is over."
It had originated in Paris, in the hours before Brazil's World Cup '98 final against France. After an ordinary pregame lunch, Ronaldo returned to his room and went into convulsions. "It was a really strong and shocking scene," his teammate Edmundo later testified in an investigation by the Brazilian national congress. Ronaldo, he said, "was lying down and hitting himself with his hands, with his teeth locked together and his mouth foaming." Though an exact cause was never established, Ronaldo, then 21, appeared to have suffered some sort of attack—a "brainstorm," as the European media called it. He played like a zombie that night, and Brazil lost 3-0, its worst defeat in 87 World Cup games dating to 1930.
Thus began a three-year cycle of pain for Brazil and Ronaldo, the world player of the year in 1996 and '97. While playing for his club team, Internazionale of Milan, in '99, he tore a tendon in his right knee. Five months later, after rushing through rehab, he ruptured the ACL in the same knee during his first game back. All told, between Nov. 21, 1999, and Sept. 20, 2001, Ronaldo played just seven minutes of competitive soccer. In his absence Brazil struggled as it never had before, losing six World Cup qualifiers and coming perilously close to missing the tournament for the first time. Under Luiz Felipe (Big Phil) Scolari, their third coach in three years, the Brazilians arrived in Asia as the oddsmakers' fifth choice to raise the Cup, despite the presence of their fit (albeit rusty) star.
Still, the mystique had never disappeared completely. Not long after their 2-1 quarterfinal win over England, the Brazilian players were celebrating in the locker room when, according to one team insider, somebody knocked on the door. It was David Beckham, holding an England jersey. "Hi, sorry," Beckham said. "I just wanted to know if Ronaldo wanted to swap shirts with me." Over in the corner, defender Roberto Carlos furrowed his brow. " Beckham?" he asked. "Are you sure? I already traded shirts with him."
"You must be mistaken," Ronaldo told his teammate after returning with Beckham's jersey. " Beckham just gave me his." Shaking his head, Roberto Carlos opened his equipment bag and fished out an England top. As it turned out, Beckham—easily the most popular player in Europe—had traded his game-worn shirt with Roberto Carlos, then retrieved another shirt to exchange with Ronaldo. David Beckham, just another Brazil memorabilia hound.
Yet while the Brazilians had avoided the upsets that claimed favorites Argentina and France, and while Ronaldo had scored a tournament-high six goals through the semifinals, even Pel� confessed to lingering doubts about the Phenomenon's mental fitness. Last Friday, when confronted by a horde of 200 jostling, cursing, sweat-marinated reporters at Yokohama's Mitsuzawa Park, Ronaldo was asked time and again if his "brainstorm" would recur. "Everyone keeps reminding me, and I don't know why," he said, the smile wiped from his face. "I am trying to be calm, to find tranquillity. I am not even thinking of '98." Instead, he said, he was spending hour after hour at the team hotel playing video games—the same video games that warn that excessive use can cause...seizures.
That wasn't the only suggestion that Brazil was perhaps laying a trap for itself. "We have to win," said right back Caf�, the captain, who was playing in his record third straight World Cup final. "If we don't, it's going to be a disaster even bigger than 1998." As if to heap more pressure on his players' shoulders, Scolari kept reminding them that for Brazil, finishing second "is like finishing last." Before every game the coach showed the team a videotape of Brazilian fans celebrating after triumphs and despairing after defeats. "There is nothing better to encourage you," the goalkeeper Marcos explained, "than to see Brazilians suffering with you."
Though scientists breathlessly announced last week that soccer-playing robots will be able to beat the world's best team by 2050, let the record show that the Germans nearly made it happen in 2002. After all, the Mannschaft had plowed through its half of the draw with mistake-free efficiency, if not the slightest bit of attacking flair. Only the dominance of Oliver Kahn, the impossibly Teutonic goalkeeper, had saved the Germans from elimination in their 1-0 quarterfinal win over a more deserving U.S. team. Afterward, Franz Beckenbauer, the grumpy German legend, muttered, " Kahn apart, you could take all of them, put them in a bag and hit them with a stick. Whoever got hit would deserve it."
Kahn nearly pulled off another shocker on Sunday. Three times in the first half Ronaldo slipped free to face him one-on-one. Three times Ronaldo failed to score. Brazil's Kleberson beat Kahn with a magnificent drive, only to watch it slam off the crossbar. Shortly after halftime German striker Oliver Neuville hit the Brazilian woodwork himself, and by midway through the second half the two teams seemed headed for a draw that would have to be resolved by the much-hated penalty kick shootout.