When you associate Brazilian superstar Ronaldo with the city of Paris, the unfortunate and poignant thought that first enters people’s minds is that controversial night on July 12, 1998.
World Cup hosts France prepared to take on South America’s finest, Brazil, who were led through the tournament by their talisman Ronaldo, the poster boy of France 98’ having netted four times in the run up to the final.
Anticipation grew, as the World prepared to see the Zidane versus Ronaldo show. However it would turn out to be just the Zidane show, as France ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. The football world was shocked when Brazil’s number 9 was missing from Mario Zagallo’s team sheet. That shock turned to confusion when rumours spread of Ronaldo’s health, allegations circling that he had suffered a fit in the build up to the game. We will never know what happened in that Brazilian dressing room 17-years-ago, but the Ronaldo who did start was a shadow of the man who had lit up the tournament in the three weeks previous.
May 6, 1998, almost two months before that infamous final, the Parc des Princes discovered exactly why those who watched Italian football were referring to Ronaldo as Il Fenomeno (The Phenomenon). Luigi Simoni’s Inter travelled to the city of romance to take on fellow Serie A rivals Lazio in the 1998 UEFA Cup Final. Two Italians in Paris sounds like the perfect love story, however it would be one that ended in heartbreak for a Swede who has broken a few hearts in his time, Sven-Goran Eriksson.
Having just lifted the Coppa Italia, Eriksson’s Lazio left Rome in confident mood. As well as overcoming AC Milan in the Coppa Italia, Lazio had been undefeated against the Nerazzuri that season, drawing 1-1 at the Guiseppe Meazza and demolishing Inter 3-0 at the Olimpico. Lazio’s confidence may have played into Inter’s hands and the 3-0 rout just months before was fresh in Nerazzurri minds. They were out for revenge.
Simoni lined up with a 4-3-3 formation, with Ivan Zamorano and Ronaldo leading the line and Youri Djorkaeff taking up the trequartista role. This meant Il Fenomeno was facing off against one of Europe’s hottest young prospects in Alessandro Nesta, playing at the heart of the Lazio defence. It would be a night the young Italian will remember for the rest of his life, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.
Within the opening seconds of the match, Nesta found himself face to face with Spanish referee Antonio Lopez Nieto, as he had a fist full of Ronaldo’s shirt in a desperate bid just to get near the Brazilian number 10. Moments later Ronaldo was at it again, leaving Nesta for dead and on his backside as he danced passed him with ease. He was making one of Serie A’s best look like a mere school boy.
After Ivan Zamorano gave Inter the lead early on, the waves of Inter attacks continued and nearly paid dividends. Neat play by Javier Zanetti down the Ieft flank found Ronaldo on the edge of the box, and his thunderbolt of a strike cannoned back off the crossbar with Luca Marchegiani helpless in the Lazio goal. Inter went in 1-0 up at the break, but the story of the half belonged to Ronaldo.
Ronaldo and Nesta were at it again as the second half begun, with the Italian struggling to come to terms with what he was up against. Ronaldo’s shear power, strength and pace were proving too much for the Lazio youth product. Picking the ball up 20 yards from his own goal, Ronaldo took off in a George Weah style run. Dodging tackles left, right and centre, he eventually came up against Nesta, who, knowing he couldn’t deal with the Brazilian maestro, attempted to foul Ronaldo, kicking, pulling and holding him back. But the 6’2” defender just bounced off Il Fenomeno, finding himself face down on the lush green turf of the Parc des Princes.
Lazio had no answers and even a Vladimir Jugovic elbow to the face couldn’t keep Ronaldo down. Inter scored from the resulting free-kick, as Javier Zanetti got on the end of a knock down to smash the ball into the top right hand corner of Marchegiani’s goal. It was 2-0 and Inter were out of site.
With the game wrapped up, the only thing missing was a Ronaldo goal to cap off his virtuoso performance. It came with 20 minutes to go and the move summed up the struggles of the Lazio defence. The whole Aquile back line pushed up trying to play the forward offside, however Ronaldo’s pace and intelligence deceived the Laziali once again. Ronaldo found himself one-on-one with Marchegiani and a swivel of the hips put the Lazio stopper on his backside as the forward danced passed him, effortlessly slotting home to make it 3-0. The goal became ‘vintage Ronaldo’, his trademark step-overs consistently flummoxing goalkeepers and defenders during his illustrious career.
The goal only served to inspire Ronaldo further; his lightening quick feet making the likes of Pavel Nedved and Diego Fuser look distinctly average. Lazio’s players just couldn’t get near him. If being 3-0 down wasn’t enough, Alessandro Nesta’s night was just getting worse, as Ronaldo continued to torment. It eventually took a double team of Nesta and Matias Almeyda to stop him in his tracks. The frustration of Nesta boiled over in the dying minutes as he and Ronaldo had a verbal and heated exchange, stemming from the fact that the young centre-back couldn’t handle Ronaldo from the first kick to last. Indeed, one of Italy’s most talented defenders in recent years would later admit “Ronaldo is the hardest attacker I’ve ever had to face. He was impossible to stop.”
The world of football always knew Ronaldo was good but this was the night he confirmed that he was a phenomenon. As such, the next time you hear the words Ronaldo and Paris mentioned in the same sentence, don’t recall the sad moments that stole the headlines in the build up to the World Cup Final of 1998, recall the match in which he single headedly dismantled Lazio’s defence, helping Inter to lift the UEFA Cup.