Nike’s manipulation of the ’98 World Cup cost football Ronaldo’s finest moment

FIFA: big corporate giants and corruption; words which seem to go hand in hand. A greed which has stretched back to the replacement of Stanley Rous with Brazilian, Joao Havelange, at FIFA in 1974. If it isn’t illegal ticket sales, it is the buying of votes to host the World Cup. Scandal, money laundering, corruption; all too familiar terms with the elites of football. 

The darkness which FIFA has brought into the sport knows no boundaries, with football’s greatest event, the World Cup, tarnished and not just down to who gets to host.

The 1978 World Cup has to be the worst of them, where games were dictated by Argentine President, Jorge Rafael Videla, who was running concentration camps for people who revolted against the military just a mile away from the main stadium.

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Fast forward 20 years, and to a World Cup which still has conspiracy theories doing the rounds: France ’98. A unique tournament for more than one reason; it had gone from 24 to 32 teams, fourth officials started using electronic boards, golden goals were introduced. But more importantly, it was Sepp Blatter’s first tournament.

Brazil were heavy favourites, with the Brazilians going into the tournament as holders, they were also the only side to have won the World Cup on a foreign continent. And having the likes of Cafu, Dunga, and Rivaldo also helps. But it was the then-Inter Milan striker, Ronaldo, who was to grab the headlines.

The Brazilians were less than convincing from the off; a sluggish 2-1 victory over Scotland, a 3-0 victory over Morocco and a 2-1 defeat to Norway in the group stage was hardly the form favourites of a competition should be boasting about. The hosts, France, were more convincing. Three wins out of three from the group, nine goals scored, one conceded; the only blip being a Zinedine Zidane red card following a stamp on Fuad Amin.

Nevertheless, heading into the knockout stages, it was clear who the ‘in form’ team was.

Source: Sportskeeda

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The French side’s navigation to the final was harder than Brazil’s. A quarter-final fixture against Italy predictably ending in a 0-0 draw, and having to be settled over penalties. No real surprise considering the pragmatic Italian approach, coupled with the Azzurri not knowing how to utilise their strike force – according to Zidane.

“Italy had maybe the best strikers in the tournament, but didn’t know how to use them.”

Zinedine Zidane

The French team’s harder path to the final, and still conceding just one goal in the three knockout games, gave further confidence to the hosts with Brazil still yet to look convincing, and conceding four goals in the knockout games.

Regardless, the Brazilians still went into the final as favourites,  because they had Ronaldo, who was tipped to dominate football deep into the up and coming century; FIFA’s star man, Nike’s posterboy. The extent of the pressure on the young then-21-year-old is evident through the Guardian’s description of the striker:

“If Romário’s habitat was the penalty area, Ronaldo’s home would need to measure half the size of the pitch.”

The Inter Milan man had the world watching; he’d already bagged four goals, and his team weren’t even playing to the best of their ability. But, having all media outlets’ eyes on him, having all expectation, it buried Ronaldo, like the yips affecting a golfer at the Masters. His roommate, Roberto Carlos, explains of this fear which was crippling the striker.

“The pressure had got to him and he couldn’t stop crying.”

Roberto Carlos to ESPN.

But, it wasn’t just the world and the media watching; Ronaldo was in a corporate chokehold. It’s been suggested that following Ronaldo’s panic, the manager pulled him out of the starting line-up 72 minutes before kick-off, only to be reinstated 30 minutes later.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my career. The scenes in the commentary box have been absolute mayhem and chaos.”

John Motson on BBC Sport

Cue the conspiracies, and the main one doing the rounds was that Nike had reportedly put pressure on Brazil coach, Mário Zagallo, to play the No. 9. Further suggestions of this have come out that Nike’s £105m sponsorship deal with the national side, meant the corporate giants had control as to who the team’s management would select; they obviously wanted their main man showcasing the Nike merchandise.

There’s also suggestions that Nike had threatened to withdraw their sponsorship money if the Brazilian striker wasn’t going to play.

We wonder what drove the infamous image…

Source: Twitter

Whatever was behind the peculiar behaviour of the Brazil striker before kick-off: injury, love life, or just genuine sporting fear; it seems odd how such factors arose when they did. Nike more or less owned the CBF, when the dotted line was signed in 1996 for the £105million contract; the Brazilian national side were in an unmovable chokehold controlled by the corporate giants.

France ended up running out 3-0 winners, and Ronaldo was virtually anonymous all game baring a challenge on Fabien Barthez.

That was meant to be Ronaldo’s final. But the icon’s finest moment was robbed from him, from us and from the footballing history books.