A few days ago, an idea came to mind – write about memorable personal football Moments. The one that follows is my first. The tournament, France ’98, crystallised my love for the beautiful game. The Moment, itself a painful one, is still seared into my mind. I recall where I was, what I felt, how I felt it. I’ll hopefully be releasing more of these in episodes over time. Football as such a big part of my upbringing is more than just watched – it is lived and breathed, felt sometimes with a depth that that can incapacitate (as later episodes will show) in unexpectedly swift and surprising ways. As you read, recall your Moments.
‘Ole Ole Ole!’
My first experience of tournament football was France ’98. The sound of Ricky Martin’s iconic ‘Ole Ole Ole’ continues to reverberate in the annals of my memory. For a time after the tournament, it was by far my favourite song, sound, even. Pulsing with Latin brio and energy, it wasthe perfect opening to an expanded, and ultimately classic, World Cup. Brazil, perennial favourites, scored a 2-1 victory over the plucky Scots. Brazil was my team – well, Nigeria was, but Brazil was my team. It was the team I chose, not the one I was born into. The world champions. Even a Nigerian youngster was aware of the embodiment of surprise and flair that was the Brazilian footballer. To take on and defeat Brazil at the time still amounted to a victory worth telling posterity. In fact, till today, the Nigerian Super Eagles are serenaded to the trumpet tune of “When Nigeria beat Brazil, when Nigeria beat Brazil oh…”
They were big. And at the time, they possessed the world’s greatest footballer – Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima (I was a nerd back then – some would say still am – and was smug about knowing his full name). Ronaldo, the buck-toothed, blur of footwork, sniping, striking bull of a striker. Lithe, predatory, generous, unbelievably skilful. A two-time FIFA Player of the Year at 21, he was the Lionel Messi of his time. Nike saw all this, saw his global appeal and snapped it all up – just could and often just did it all on his own. I had started playing football then and wanted to be him. His football boots were unique, made for a likewise once-in-a-generation footballer – I wanted them (still do – I see they’ve been re-released in limited edition). He was Brazil’s hope – he was my hope for Brazil and for football. Again, he was also only 21.
I don’t intend this to be a eulogy or celebration of the France ’98. It’s just about one moment, perhaps my first truly vivid football memory (besides me playing, of course). It was in the final. I can’t remember the score at the precise point but I know that France was ahead. It was 1-0 at the time of my moment – my recollection of how I felt was one of futility and defeat in the face of the circumstances. Sat on the floor in front of the TV, willing something to happen out of nothing, I watched Ronaldo chase down a long ball only to be hurdled/clattered into by a flying Fabien Barthez. The impact of the French goalkeeper knocked Ronaldo out. The ball was cleared from danger but the camera panned to a prone Ronaldo. Barely moving, he was mortal. To the extent that a child can rail, I did – “is that not a foul? It’s a penalty! It was rough! He can’t do that? Who is this keeper?!” I was hurt. No child wants to see their idol made to look less than their deified position. After some attention, he got up and zombied his way through the rest of the game. At the final whistle, France erupted in joy. In Lagos, I erupted in tears for football for the first and last time.
With the passage of time, we’ve got to learn more about that memorable night. Roberto Carlos, one of his closest friends and roommate at the time, has spoken of Ronaldo succumbing to a seizure so violent Carlos himself had to take emergency action to prevent Ronaldo swallowing his tongue. Indeed, Ronaldo was left off the initial starting line-up released to FIFA, but was later reinstated. Some have speculated that Nike pressure meant that he had to play, with Nike not able to have the most marketable footballer in the world (by far) missing out on the most-watched single event at the time. Ronaldo wandered around in a daze with his Nike R9 boots and silver medal dangling around his neck. This time he couldn’t do it – but Nike was winning.
Last week Michael Owen tweeted about Ronaldo “putting the pounds on.” Michael Owen is an idiot. Idiots like him intentionally or not continue to encourage the description of one of the greatest players in history as “fat Ronaldo”. I followed Ronaldo until his final days at Corinthians, knees shot, heavy but still sublimely potent. At his retirement press conference, he spoke, for the first time, about his hypothyroidism which was detected too late in his career. He tearfully recalled taking the jibes for years, the shots about his weight and apparent lack of professionalism. For the 7-year-old not wanting to see his idol defeated, I felt vindication.