As the Brazilian national anthem floated around the Stade de France, the camera kept lingering on one man. His identity was not a surprise. Ronaldo, after all, was the greatest player in the world, O Fenomeno, the star of a Brazil team that was hoping to become the first to retain the World Cup on two separate occasions. Nothing unusual about that, you might think; television prefers to focus on the talent and in 1998, no one was as ferociously talented as Ronaldo, whose supernatural mixture of power, pace and skill had made him the player every child in the playground wanted to be; at the age of 21, the hopes and dreams of a nation rested on his shoulders.
The assumption was that they were broad enough to handle the pressure – but this was not a normal evening, even by the manic standards of a World Cup final. Sixteen years on, the events of that Paris evening remain shrouded in mystery and intrigue, the murky circumstances that led to Ronaldo first being omitted from the Brazil team sheet and then reinstated some of the most bizarre – and, some insist, scandalous – the sport has seen. It is a depressing but still fascinating story of claim and counter-claim, of conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, of rumours of self-interest and political manoeuvring, of angry denials and scattergun accusations and, above all, a story where pinning down the truth can feel like a troublingly elusive task.
To this day, only a select group of people know what happened in the hours and minutes leading up to the final, what compelled Brazil's coach, Mário Zagallo, to backtrack and name Ronaldo in his starting lineup. Given that it later transpired Ronaldo had suffered a seizure in his hotel room in the afternoon, was saved by his team-mates and had to be taken to hospital, this was hardly a case of a manager making a decision on tactical grounds. That was too tall a story to sell; the widespread belief was something bigger was at play.
What we know is that on 12 July 1998, Brazil were in the World Cup final against the hosts, France, and because they had Ronaldo they were the favourites. At 7.48pm local time, 72 minutes before kick-off, the first team sheet was printed and submitted to Fifa, whose delegate surely did a double take once he had scanned the piece of extremely important paper in his hands. "Yes, everything seems in order here. Taffarel; Cafu, Júnior Baiano, Aldair, Roberto Carlos, Leonardo, Dunga (captain), César Sampaio, Rivaldo, Bebeto, Edmundo. Edmundo? Edmundo?! Wait a minute, where's Ronaldo? Mr Zagallo, are you sure there's no mistake?"
There was no mistake. Zagallo was said to have made his decision at about 5pm, telling Edmundo that he was in the team and Ronaldo, Brazil's top scorer with four goals, was on the bench. He subsequently informed the rest of the team and, in an attempt to motivate them and lift their spirits, he reminded them that he was part of the Brazil side that won the 1962 final without Pelé.
A good try on his part but some of those players had earlier seen one of their team-mates, their talisman and an apparently healthy young man, convulsing on his bed.
The list was the first one given to journalists, just after 8pm, and the unofficial reason given for Ronaldo's absence was that he was suffering from an ankle injury he had picked up in the semi-final against Holland five days earlier. Cue bedlam. Cue chaos. Cue questions as journalists scrambled around the press box, tripping over each other as they tried to find out what was going on. On the BBC, John Motson was in a magnificent frenzy. "I've never seen anything like this in my career," he whirred. "The scenes in the commentary box have been absolute mayhem and chaos."
Ronaldo's omission had come out of the blue. Even though there had been allegations that his weight was higher than usual and there was also a hint of the knee problems that would afflict him later in his career, pain and stiffness caused by tendinitis restricting him throughout the tournament and requiring the use of painkillers to get him through matches, he had still been Brazil's best player and he was expected both to start and dominate the final, even against a French side that contained some of the most formidable defenders in the world.
It was impossible not to be overcome by a sense of disappointment – no Ronaldo, no party. "He didn't come to France to compete with the players of his generation but to seek a place amongst the best of the two millennia – this one and the coming," Jorge Valdano wrote the day before the match. "If Romário, his predecessor, was subtlety, Ronaldo is exuberance. If Romário's habitat was the penalty area, Ronaldo's home would need to measure half the size of the pitch. If Romário is the past, Ronaldo's almost cybernetic play belongs to the future." To put it into context, imagine the reaction if Argentina reach the final in Brazil this summer and Lionel Messi is not playing. Twitter would crash, Jim White's head would explode and over on ITV, Roy Keane would be glaring at Adrian Chiles.
Confusion reigned, and Brazil did not emerge for their warm-up, but rumours then started to circulate that a modified team sheet was on the way and Ronaldo was going to start after all. Sure enough, when it arrived at 8.18pm, a furious Edmundo was on the bench and Ronaldo was in the team. He had made quite the recovery in such a short space of time. Eyebrows were raised.
Ronaldo was the last Brazil player out of the tunnel. The camera focused on him and continued to do so during the anthem, its attention diverted away to something less important every so often but always returning to its primary target before long, training its glare on Ronaldo as if it was trying to bore a way into his soul, to reveal to the world what was going on behind that impressively impassive look on his face.
For his part, Ronaldo's poker face was giving nothing away. Or maybe he was in a daze. There was a hint of a smile, nothing more than that, and Ronaldo stayed still when the anthem finished. "Ronaldo," ITV's commentator, Brian Moore, said, "Well he's come through that dramatic injury crisis."
With the viewing public and the media still in the dark about what had occurred behind the scenes, there was an assumption that Ronaldo's presence would swing the final in Brazil's favour. Yet they had been heavily criticised throughout the tournament, a consequence of Zagallo's caution, their rickety offence and their reliance on Ronaldo, who was quiet during the group stage but explosive in the knockout rounds, scoring twice and hitting the woodwork twice in the 4-1 win over Chile in the second round, creating a goal for Rivaldo in the 3-2 win over Denmark in the quarter-final and scoring in the semi-final against Holland, who were defeated on penalties.
Pelé felt Brazil were a collection of great individuals rather than a great team, while Johan Cruyff went further. "I said at the start of the tournament that I did not like this Brazilian team and I still say that. It would be really bad for football if Brazil won with such poor play because this team is imitated throughout the world."
Writing on the morning of the match, Ruud Gullit said he was disappointed with Brazil and felt Holland had been the strongest side in the tournament until their elimination on penalties. But Brazil were mentally stronger than the Dutch and Zagallo was unrepentant about a gameplan that veered towards bus parking. "We couldn't risk leaving any open spaces," he said. "Otherwise we would have lost – easily."
But as stoutly as Brazil defended against Holland, the sorry facade came crumbling down against France. Inside a minute, a long ball from Lilian Thuram caught out Baiano and Stéphane Guivarc'h, he of apostrophe and Newcastle fame, ran through to hook a glorious chance over the bar. Minutes later, Zinedine Zidane nutmegged Aldair, releasing Guivarc'h, who fluffed his lines again. A Zidane free-kick from the left found Youri Djorkaeff unmarked and he headed high and wide. Brazil were all over the place and Zagallo was soon off his seat, arms outstretched, demanding more from his players. Yet they could not raise their tempo, the lack of a warm-up unsettling them, and the sloppiness of their passing was only matched by the paucity of their imagination and the sluggishness of their movement.
And then there was the sleepwalking figure of Ronaldo, who barely touched the ball in the first half, was tracked and hassled everywhere by the persistent Frank Leboeuf, playing instead of the suspended Laurent Blanc, even when he dropped deep. On the few occasions that Ronaldo saw the ball, he was on the halfway line, had his back to goal and was slow to react, constantly allowing Leboeuf to step in front of him to win back possession for France.
Barely 20 minutes had been played and it was already clear that all was not well for Ronaldo, although the ITV commentators were not yet aware of the full extent of the situation; like the rest of us, they did not know about the fit. "If it was anyone else, he wouldn't play but he is so vital and inspiring," Kevin Keegan observed. "At the moment, it's a gamble that hasn't quite come off. My feeling on ankles is they don't get better, they get worse the more you play. Look, again, on his heels there." Moore agreed with his co-commentator. "The one thing he has is electric pace and you need strong ankles for that," he said. Ronaldo lost another battle with Leboeuf and Keegan said: "He doesn't look in any way up for it."
There were only fleeting glimpses of Ronaldo's coruscating speed. Midway through the first half he burst past Thuram on the left and although he sliced his cross, France's goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, almost flapped it over the line. Then, shortly after Zidane had headed France into the lead from Emmanuel Petit's 27th-minute corner, Dunga knocked a straight ball over the France defence for Ronaldo to chase but out came Barthez, taking out ball and striker in one go. Ronaldo lying prone on the ground was the last thing Brazil wanted to see but he got up after a while.
France, meanwhile, were enjoying themselves and after Petit, Djorkaeff and Guivarc'h wasted further opportunities, Zidane headed in his second just before half-time. Again Brazil had been found wanting at a corner, this time from Djorkaeff's delivery. Zidane, who had been in disgrace after his foolish red card against Saudi Arabia in the group stage, had finally arrived on the big stage after disappointing in successive Champions League final defeats for Juventus against Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid. "I'm not very good with my head," he Trevor Brooking-ed.
That much was evident when he lost his cool against the Saudis and France laboured without him against Paraguay in the second round, but he returned against Italy in the quarter-finals and then played in the Thuram-inspired victory over Croatia in the semi-finals. "Zidane, Zidane, Zidane … France was in the grip of 'zizoumania'," Marcel Desailly wrote in his autobiography. "I never imagined it could grow to such proportions. Sometimes I asked myself if one human could withstand such passion. And did he, in any case, quite resist it? At the start of the tournament we found him a little febrile, more stretched, more demanding than usual, at least on the pitch. That febrility culminated in his expulsion against Saudi Arabia. And after a moment of depression, he reacted like a champion and started to prepare himself for the quarter-final."
Desailly's comments offer an insight into the suffocating pressure placed on the most gifted players during major tournaments and even after that torrid first half, Zagallo did not remove Ronaldo, whose one sight of goal resulted in him firing straight at Barthez after 55 minutes. Roberto Carlos, his closest friend in the squad, wondered whether it was too much for him and said that Ronaldo had been "in tears in the night and in the afternoon he went yellower than our shirts".
Although Desailly was sent off for a second booking and, belatedly, Brazil stirred into life as the match wore on – with Ronaldo lasting the 90 minutes and Edmundo introduced with 15 minutes to go – they were caught on the break towards the end, Patrick Vieira setting up Petit for France's third. Brazil had been comprehensively beaten. France were the world champions.
While France celebrated their first World Cup, an inquest into Brazil's non-performance was beginning to rumble. The spotlight was thrust upon Zagallo and he admitted the fears over Ronaldo affected his team psychologically. "For the whole of the first half I was wondering whether to take him off," he said. But Zagallo became angry when probed further about Ronaldo's condition and eventually stormed out of the room, shouting "I have my dignity." All was not well.
So why didn't Zagallo remove Ronaldo? First, he said, he did not fancy dealing with the outcry if he had substituted him. Yet conspiracy theories also abounded, the most prominent of which was that Nike had pressurised Brazil into playing Ronaldo. Two and two were added together and it was alleged that Nike used its £105m sponsorship deal with the CBF, the Brazilian football federation, to push for the inclusion of the most marketable player. "Here was a 21-year-old player, the best player in the world, surrounded by contracts and pressure," Roberto Carlos said. "It was as if this was always going to happen to him. Something had to give. And when it did, it happened to be the day of the World Cup final."
For many in Brazil, pointing the finger of blame at a major corporation made sense and gave a voice to fears that money was ruining the people's game. As the protests in Brazil against Fifa and this year's World Cup have demonstrated, that feeling has not gone away. However, Nike swiftly and strongly denied allegations that it had exerted any influence over Ronaldo and was never proven to have done anything untoward.
Slowly but surely, though, details began to seep out and it became clear that the supposed ankle injury was a cover story. "It was as if a malaise had come over him," Roberto Carlos said. "Not even he knew what was going on."
The team doctor, Lídio Toledo, spoke to the media and said: "He was not feeling well this afternoon and now he's better. What happened to him? Quite simply, he felt faint and after that he went to rest. I stress that he is feeling better now."
Perhaps he was but soon the Brazilian newspaper O Globo was reporting that the decision had been taken out of the hands of Zagallo and Toledo by Ricardo Teixeira, the head of the CBF and the son-in-law of João Havelange, the outgoing president of Fifa.
The paper claimed Teixeira was told that Ronaldo had to play and also that the player had said he was ready. The only statement Ronaldo made was to tell Globo television a few weeks later that he was not a coward. He has since maintained that he was fit. At a low-key reception to welcome home the squad, he recalled the moment his world fell apart. "I don't remember properly but I went to sleep and then, like the doctor said, it seems I had a seizure for 30 or 40 seconds," Ronaldo said. "I woke up and then my whole body was in pain. But with time the pain got less and I relaxed a bit."
Brazilians were unsatisfied. Zagallo lost his job. Coaches followed him out the door, doctors too, and an inquest was launched in Brazil's national congress. There it emerged that the squad had lunch before the final, before returning to their rooms at the Château de Grande Romaine hotel at about 2pm, whereupon Ronaldo, who was with Roberto Carlos, began to have a fit, his body convulsing and his mouth frothing. When Roberto Carlos began screaming for help, Edmundo, who was in the next room, came in to find the shocking scene.
"César Sampaio, the defender, was the first person to administer first aid," Alex Bellos wrote in the Guardian in 2002. "He got to Ronaldo before the doctors did and, with Edmundo holding him down, put his hand in Ronaldo's mouth to unravel his tongue and prevent him swallowing it." Ronaldo then fell asleep. People looked in on him every minutes but he did not wake up until tea, when Leonardo insisted that he should be told about what happened.
Toledo and one of his colleagues, Dr Joaquim da Mata, examined Ronaldo and he was taken to the Lilas clinic in Paris at 5pm. One suggestion, made at a later date, was that Ronaldo had been given a valium to calm him down but the tests showed nothing and he was given the all-clear at 6.30pm, arriving at the stadium at 8.10pm and telling Zagallo that he wanted to play. So he played, apparently neither the manager nor the team doctors wishing to stand in his way. "Imagine if I stopped him playing and Brazil lost," Toledo told the commission. "At that moment I'd have to go and live on the North Pole."
Zagallo also angrily denied he had been ordered to pick Ronaldo. "If there had been interference, I would have resigned," he said. "I have never accepted interference as coach of any club or national team."
For all Zagallo's protests, it was highly debatable whether Ronaldo was the best person to decide whether he was ready to play the biggest game of his life seven hours after having a convulsion. Professor Alex Caetano de Barros, employed by Internazionale, Ronaldo's club, to examine the striker, said letting him play was "an absolute error, since the 24 hours after a convulsion are those when a recurrence is most likely".
Could the painkillers Ronaldo was taking have been behind his collapse? A month after the final, Da Mata spoke out. "Never, in all these years, have I seen before a player with a convulsion," he said. "I see young Ronaldo that day and I'm thinking tragedy." He said that he had prescribed a common painkiller after Ronaldo aggravated a knee injury early in the tournament and said it was taken orally rather than being administered via an injection, which would have been too dangerous. "The medicine we use is not so strong, to cause convulsion," Da Mata concluded.
Globo would also hear from an anonymous team official that Ronaldo was given an injection of a cortisone with anaesthetic on the morning of the final. It was later claimed in the Brazilian press that the drug had entered a vein accidentally.
Whatever the truth, and there are many shades of grey here, Jogo Bonito has rarely looked so ugly. But there was to be a happy ending when, after four years of being tormented by knee injuries, Ronaldo grabbed his chance of World Cup redemption by scoring the goals that helped Brazil beat Germany in the final in 2002. Older, wiser and a little larger, O Fenomeno was back.
• This article was amended to say that Zinedine Zidane played against Italy in the quarter-final