World Cup: The Ultimate Samba

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Brazilian captain Cafu lifts the Cup after his team beat Germany 2-0

This, Then, is the defining memory of World Cup 2002: a triangular haircut, a toothy grin and a young man dancing in delight. For Brazilian striker Ronaldo — who scored both goals in Brazil's 2-0 defeat of Germany in Sunday's World Cup climax — it was about more than a quick-thinking 67th minute finish and a beautiful 79th minute shot. Yes, those two goals clinched him the Golden Boot award as the World Cup's top scorer, and drove Brazil to victory. But they also marked his triumphal return to the highest echelons of the sport after years in the wilderness.

Global football, too, returned to normal. After a torrent of upsets in the early stages of World Cup 2002, Brazil, football's hyperpower, clinched its fifth World Cup. The Germans, superpowers themselves with three previous titles, had to settle for second. What a match it was; the Germans unexpectedly aggressive, claiming 56% of the possession, winning 13 corners and hitting the woodwork; the Brazilians weathering the storm before launching themselves forward to secure their victory. In the end, Germany, World Cup 2002's most parsimonious defenders, yielded to Brazil, its most spirited attackers. At the finish, tiny Japanese origami cranes rained from the sky, commemorating a predictable conclusion to this most unpredictable of tournaments.

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Did we really expect anything else? Sure, we had a month-long football festival in two countries without strong soccer traditions, and yes, it was full of surprises. There were the astonishing early eliminations — favorites Argentina and reigning champions France headed home after the first round. There were the shock victories, like Senegal's 1-0 win over the French in an opening match that set the tourney's roller-coaster tone, and the U.S.'s 3-2 defeat of Portugal that helped the Americans advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930. And there were the Cinderella marches of host countries Japan and Korea, both of whom went further than anyone imagined. Maybe all these surprises seduced us briefly into believing in football's parallel universe, where Davids topple Goliaths. But by the end of World Cup 2002, the giants were engaged in the final battle for supremacy. And the natural order had been restored.

As ever, it was about the talent — and cheek — of Brazil. Though Luiz Felipe Scolari's squad had looked shaky in the qualifying round that led up to World Cup 2002, once the real thing got underway the SeleCao showed what they were made of. They had World Cup legacies to live up to — like their victorious PelE-inspired side of 1970. The 2002 team won all their first-round, Group C matches and then defeated Belgium, England and Turkey to make the final. Even when they played poorly, they prevailed. Their three "Rs" — Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo — provided the World Cup with breathtaking and controversial moments.

Two of them combined for one of the best goals of the tournament in Brazil's quarter-final match against England — a scintillating Ronaldinho run, finished off by a showpiece Rivaldo left-footed flick. (Earlier in the tournament Rivaldo provided the tournament's most distasteful piece of gamesmanship when he feigned a face injury from a ball struck by Turkey's Hakan Unsal that had hit him on the leg. The Turk was sent off for a second yellow card offense — an incident that earned Rivaldo heavy criticism and a not-so-heavy fine.)

But it was the Ronaldo subplot that gave this tournament its real drama. At the age of 25, the former wUnderkind played in his second World Cup final, trying to make up for his near career-wrecking appearance in the World Cup 1998 finale against France. He suffered a seizure just before that match — allegedly brought on by a combination of pressure and injections to treat a dodgy knee — and played as if in a zombie-like trance. In subsequent years at the Italian club Inter Milan, Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima, dogged by injury, never regained his sparkle or his reputation.

Until this tournament, where his enterprise and goals in the early rounds had football-lovers quietly hoping that the prodigal son was finally going to return to the stage where he belonged. His clever goal against Turkey, taken early, had put his team through to the final. Then his two strikes to the back of the German net — which gave him an overall tally of eight goals in seven games — finally laid his World Cup ghosts to rest.

Between their ability and their artfulness — and their 72-year history of qualifying for the cup — Brazil was from the quarter-finals the team-most-likely. And Germany the team-second-most-likely. After their ignominious exit from Euro 2000, the world thought it would be a long time before Germany could build a team with enough depth to duke it out at the highest levels of international football. Even at World Cup 2002, Germany's detractors pointed out that the side's route to the final was the easiest possible one. Aside from the plucky Irish — whose captain, Roy Keane, had been ejected from the squad for extreme insubordination — Germany's Group E opponents included an erratic Cameroon and a poor Saudi Arabia. After the group stage, Germany advanced to the final by defeating Paraguay, the U.S. and then Korea, three nations that could hardly be described as major football powers.

Like the Brazilians, Germany had a football heritage to live up to. But the team it fielded on Sunday bore scant resemblance to its imaginative sides of the past. "Der Kaiser" Franz Beckenbauer, who had participated in German World Cup victories as both player and manager, offered this unenthusiastic analysis of coach Rudi VOller's squad during the tournament: "We don't have any bad players, but at the same time there aren't any truly good ones either." German football at World Cup 2002 was not about being pretty or polished; it was about being robotically, determinedly pragmatic. "There's never any spark of genius, "said Christoph Meyer, 36, a fan from Cologne, after Germany defeated Korea to qualify for the final.

But to others, Germany was all about grit. Consider the character it must have taken for the side to rebound from its 5-1 defeat at the hands of England last September in Munich, went the argument. And look at how their team — depleted by the absence of several top players, including the injured Mehmet Scholl and Sebastian "Basti Fantasti" Deisler, who missed the tournament — hung together. The giant German 'keeper and captain Oliver Kahn — who made a series of awesome saves and was named as the goalkeeper of the games — oversaw a defense so mean it conceded just one goal before the final. (His anguish after the final, where he spilled a save that allowed Ronaldo to score, was palpable.) The German fans revelled in their unexpected progress. Said Michaela Pilz, 36, from Dusseldorf: "I've been infected with World Cup fever."

Ah, the fans. If a sport is only as strong as their passion, one of the legacies of World Cup 2002 must be how football found its way into the heart of folks in the most unexpected places — like the host countries, where soccer is hardly the prevailing pasttime. In the first half of Japan's initial match against Belgium, which resulted in a draw, many of the 55,256-strong, blue-clad home crowd sat strangely mute. But when Takayuki Suzuki scored Japan's first goal of World Cup 2002, Saitama Stadium erupted in a frenzy of pride. And once the Japanese got the hang of it, they could not be stopped. The night their team defeated Russia, Kyoko Ebata, 28, a Tokyo artist, was out with friends in a local bar. "Everybody was doing what they wanted to do — to get excited and to shout loudly," she marvelled. "The Japanese celebrated like hell."

As for the Koreans, who could forget the sight of 40,000 delirious fans jumping up and down in Daejeon Stadium the night their forward Ahn Jung Hwan grabbed a 117th minute Golden Goal to knock Italy out of the World Cup? Or the 100,000 Koreans who, in the spirit of hospitality, served as volunteer supporters for other nations?

Even the English fans who made it to Japan — 1,072 were prevented from travelling to the Far East for security reasons — joined in the party. And behaved themselves. (The worst behavior came from Russian fans, who rioted in Moscow destroying Japanese cars the night their team lost to Japan. One person was killed.) The English, with their St. George's crosses, took their place in the stands as lovers of football; as did the ever-cheerful Irish in their leprechaun hats and orange-and-green samurai warrior outfits, the Mexicans in their gigantic sombreros, and the beautiful Brazilian women wearing little bikinis and big smiles.

Despite the enthusiasm, World Cup 2002 will not be remembered for the quality of the football. Perhaps that is because soccer's audience has become spoiled by the high standard of club competitions, such as the European Champions' League. And such a standard comes at a price; many of the globe's top players are stars on the European circuit, and some arrived at World Cup 2002 exhausted after long domestic seasons. Overall moments of brilliance, like the thrusting runs of Turkey's Hasan Sas and the second half of the final, were bright lights of World Cup 2002 against a bleak background of some stupefying games — like England's play-for-a-draw match against Nigeria in the oppressive humidity of Osaka's Nagai Stadium.

Nor will this cup be remembered as being problem-free. In the opening games, some seats stayed empty, as fans complained and organizers dithered. And at the end, Japan and Korea were left with 20 stadiums — several of which may now sit idle for some time — and a sinking acknowledgement that the World Cup economic windfall they had expected did not materialize. Contentious refereeing caused much public controversy, as fancied sides like Italy and Spain were knocked out of the competition, both falling to host nation South Korea. The conspiracy theorists had a field day, insisting that the tournament was "fixed" or at least some referees were tainted. At the top of the sport, FIFA, global football's governing body, denied the allegations and deflected criticism of organizing SNAFUs.

In the end, what made this World Cup truly memorable were the tiny bonfires that football's up-and-comers set under the established sides. Although no underdog actually broke through, what fun it was to watch the Senegalese, with their ecstatic conga-line celebrations after their unexpected goals. And the Turks, whose relentless perseverance eventually paid off when they secured a 3-2 victory over the indefatigable Koreans in the battle for third place. Who could forget the end of that match; Korean and Turkish players with their arms around one another's shoulders, saluting the Korean fans. Next time, at World Cup 2006, perhaps one of the Davids will take things a step further, capitalize on lessons learned in Japan and Korea, and put up a genuine challenge for the crown. But it will not be easy. They will not only likely have to take on the Brazilian defending champions, who in the next four years seem certain to mature, settle and become even stronger. They will have to do it in the most traditional of footballing nations. Germany.