December 8, 2023

The story behind Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win

The story of Japan/South Korea 2002 is dominated by one of the most heartwarming stories in the history of the World Cup – the astonishing, triumphant return of Ronaldo.

Football’s biggest star at the time of the game’s globalisation, Ronaldo had endured a dreadful four years. There was the mystery of his ill health on the morning of the 1998 final, and his tepid performance in Brazil’s 3-0 defeat by France. And then there were horrific knee injuries which left many to believe he would never play again.

Instead he roared back with eight goals in 2002, including the only one in the semi-final against Turkey and both in the 2-0 win over the Germans in the final. With the aid of an unorthodox partially shaved head, making him look like a cartoon character, Ronaldo carried Brazil to their fifth – and most recent – World Cup victory – and if anything his contribution has been under-estimated.

That is because most of the planet did not get to see Brazil in qualification. Injury ruled Ronaldo out of the entire marathon campaign, a prolonged nightmare that only just came up with a happy ending.

Brazil used three coaches plus a caretaker. All of them had serious problems, including Luiz Felipe Scolari, who took charge a year before the World Cup and only just managed to steer them over the line. 

More than 65 players were used as Brazil desperately searched for a blend. Rivaldo briefly flirted with the idea of retiring from international football. Psychologically he was not up to the task of leading the team. He only blossomed once Ronaldo returned to lead the attack. In truth, the return of Ronaldo gave Brazil two new top-class players, freeing Rivaldo to find his best form. 

To Ronaldo’s eight World Cup goals, Rivaldo added five – and there were two more from Ronaldinho, the new kid on the block who had also hardly featured in qualification. The three Rs led the way; the rest of the team only contributed three goals to the campaign, all in the group phase against China and Costa Rica.

Brazil’s 2002 side had an attack to dream about, and won all seven games on the way to the title. Why, then, is this not remembered as one of the great World Cup wins?

The reason is surely to be found in the poor overall quality of the action in Japan and South Korea. Brazil had a 100 per cent record, but it is hard to think of one truly outstanding team performance – and, indeed, they may well have been fortunate to get past Belgium in the second round. Instead of the attractive flow of previous Brazilian triumphs, this one was more based on occasional moments – and it proved good enough to beat a very mediocre field.

There is an easy explanation for the low level of football, and the fact that unfancied sides like Turkey and South Korea reached the last four. Even the beaten finalist would admit that theirs was far from a classic Germany team.

In a bid to avoid the rainy season, the first Asian World Cup kicked off earlier than usual, with the inaugural game on May 31. That meant there was less time to recover from the rigours of the European season – at a moment when the Champions League had been extended to include a second group phase. 

The big-name players with the top European teams were exhausted. Defending champions France – the team Brazil really feared – suffered an injury to Zinedine Zidane and crashed out without scoring a goal. Argentina, who had run away with the South American qualifiers, were simply not fresh enough to play the high-intensity style of coach Marcelo Bielsa.

Brazil had worked out in advance that the winning team would be the one that best handled the sports medicine side. True, coach Scolari made a significant contribution. He showed surprising tactical flexibility; having made his name as a bread-and-butter 4-4-2 man with a clear preference for a target man centre-forward, he now did something totally different. 

With an experimental side, Brazil crashed out of the previous year’s Copa America with a quarter-final defeat by Honduras. But it had given time for the coach to have a look at a back three system,  which come the World Cup would give attacking full-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos the freedom to push forward. 

The combative Lucio marshalled the defence, with Edmilson versatile enough to move up into midfield when required.  The coach’s new system worked – and the fatherly ‘Big Phil’ proved so good at promoting a positive atmosphere that the squad became known as ‘the Scolari family.’

But the work of the physical preparation team was even more important. The excesses of the domestic calendar, crammed with too many games, had forced Brazil’s specialists to develop means of keeping players fit.  This was their moment.

Inter were not able to whip Ronaldo into shape. Brazil disagreed with their methods and took over his recuperation, getting him in top condition in time for the tournament. Barcelona argued that Rivaldo was not fit enough to play the World Cup. Brazil disagreed and went to work on him. Cafu and Roberto Carlos had played through the European season, but were still full of gas to charge up and down the touchline.

Some unlikely heroes emerged. Gilberto Silva was a reserve until the eve of the competition, when captain Emerson ended a training session by playing in goal and injuring his shoulder. And after the near-thing against Belgium, Kleberson was brought in to tighten up the midfield and enjoyed a storming end to the tournament.

But it was Ronaldo’s World Cup. As a 17-year-old he had been taken to USA 94 in the expectation that he might be a secret weapon. In the event the coaching staff thought he was too dazzled by the bright lights and decided not to risk him. His France 98 had its highs but ended on a profound low. The 2002 tournament belonged to him.

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery

Tim Vickery is a football writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He covers the South American game for ESPN, the BBC, World Soccer and others.

View all posts by Tim Vickery →

2 thoughts on “The story behind Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win

  1. I attended most of Brazil’s games that campaign and I noticed too that Brazil always seemed to have an “extra gear” they could use when needed. This could have been a fitness advantage as you discuss. This was most obvious in the semifinal against England where in the 2nd half England looked completely gassed and could not compete.
    A couple other things that struck me about Brazil’s team:
    One is that they played a counter attacking style – they didn’t constantly push forward or try to win the ball back immediatdly as they had in 94. They were very patient and when they scored and had the advantage they were content to settle defensively and let their opponent move derper into midfield and then look to counter. This tactic was also key to keeing the side fresh. The fact that they had so much attacking talent on the field at the same time meant defenses couldn’t concentrate on any one area of the pitch and they were spread out and exposed to Brazil’s individual superiority. You alwdys felt they were capable at any time to put on an attacking football show but they only did it when they needed to.
    Secondly Rivaldo role was really key to control of so many critical points in the games and the team’s success. Everytime the team needed something to happen, someone to step up to wrest control of the game, it was usually Rivaldo who would take the chance – the equalizer against England, the first goal against Belguim, the shot that Kahn spilled for Ronaldo’s tap in and the superb dummy for the moment of hesitation Ronaldo needed to bury the second goal past Kahn in the Final – these are just 4 examples that come to mind. Scolari himself credits Rivaldo for being his most impactful player at the tournament.

  2. Hey John, thanks a lot for your in-depth comment. It was a real pleasure to read it.
    Thanks to Tim, we have such brilliant articles, and more are coming.

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