On paper, the 2002 World Cup had a rather obvious ending. Brazil met Germany in the final, providing a clash between two traditional international powers. The former won, with Ronaldo’s incredible character arc continuing. Having spent much of the four years prior out through injury, he returned to play a key role for his country, scoring both goals in a 2-0 victory. It all made a great deal of sense.
And yet the 2002 final was also highly unusual in many ways. Neither of the two finalists had looked anything like potential champions in the build-up to the tournament, and the eventual winners had a particularly unfamiliar feel about them. Ultimately, however, this Brazilian side were celebrated for fielding one of the most iconic attacking tridents ever to bless the game.
Brazil’s qualification for the finals was shambolic. Having lost just one match in their previous 16 campaigns, they lost six times en route to South Korea and Japan. Along the way they used 62 players and went through four managers, with Luiz Felipe Scolari the man responsible for steering the team over the finish line, winning three of his five qualifying games in charge.
Scolari settled on a rather unconventional system ahead of the World Cup, opting for a rough 3-4-2-1 shape. There was a great deal of risk involved in this decision, as the national team was not used to a back three. In an interview with FourFourTwo nearly a decade later, he justified his approach. “I was criticised for playing with three at the back. Only one coach had used this tactic in Selecao history, Sebastiao Lazaroni in 1990, and the results were not so good,” he said. “But I knew I had players with great technique who could perform this function accordingly.”
Perhaps the greatest motivation behind Scolari’s decision was that it allowed him to fit all three of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho into the same team. The trio would form what was at the time an atypical front three – they operated in close proximity to one another and were highly fluid, with the striker often rotating positions with the two inside forwards alongside him. There were no wingers here; rather, two mobile wing-backs – Cafu and Roberto Carlos – guaranteed the width.
The setup was far from perfect going into the tournament. Ronaldo’s aforementioned injury torment had reduced him to just 24 appearances in three years at club level, and there were genuine concerns over the exact level of his fitness leading up to the finals. Rivaldo, at 30 years of age, had undoubtedly peaked, something confirmed by underwhelming club performances for AC Milan post-World Cup. As for Ronaldinho, his debut season in European football with Paris Saint-Germain had been anything but plain sailing.
Brazil’s first four games showcased elements of dysfunction, and they relied on the improvisational brilliance of their individual attackers to win. They went 1-0 down to Turkey in their opener before a beautifully curled Rivaldo cross found Ronaldo to equalise. And, despite making it through their group without dropping a point, they lost fans for the playacting of Rivaldo in that opening game. Their second round win over Belgium was a struggle, too, evidencing a serious lack of cohesion before an outside-of-the-boot Ronaldinho cross found Rivaldo, who controlled with his chest, turned and hammered home to open the scoring.
But Scolari remained faithful to his system, only making one slight tweak – introducing Kleberson for Juninho in central midfield – for his side’s quarter-final match against England. In that game, his faith was finally rewarded.
Up until the last eight, Brazil’s attacking had been staid. They went long or wide to their wing-backs too quickly and relied too much on their individual talent to open up defences. The only real bright spark in their possession game was Edmilson, a centre-back who relished his role as the free man within the back three, stepping calmly out of defence to bring the ball forward through dribbles and passes. Then, against England, everything seemed to fall into place.
Facing a flat 4-4-2, Brazil’s front three caused problems with their movement between England’s lines of defence and midfield. Rivaldo and Ronaldinho continuously looked to get on the ball in this area, with the intention of drawing out English defenders and freeing up space behind for Ronaldo to exploit. Ronaldo himself was active in seeking out the ball, regularly peeling off the frontline to combine with his fellow forwards. The simultaneous vertical movements of the trio, along with their staggered positioning and the spaces they tended to occupy, made them almost impossible to mark.
Another valuable aspect of having a front three of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo was that they were virtually unstoppable on the counter-attack. England found this out in the worst imaginable way. With seconds to go before half-time, they led 1-0 thanks to a Michael Owen goal. However, a couple of missed tackles was all it took for Brazil to break into space with Ronaldinho. The buck-toothed playmaker shimmied his way past Ashley Cole while Rivaldo, intelligently, pulled to the right to make room centrally for his younger teammate to drive into. Ronaldinho obliged before slipping Rivaldo in to equalise.
Years later, Scolari would highlight the selfless running and tactical awareness of Rivaldo, which was on show for his goal against England. “I always say that Rivaldo, in that team, was the player that most helped me,” the manager told Fox Sports. “People sometimes forget the tactical side of that team. They only see what happened in the final, the goals…but Rivaldo was the best team player.”
While the front three finally clicked, they remained potent on an individual level. Ronaldinho demonstrated this to seal the win over England, lobbing David Seaman from a long range free kick. Improvised, yes. Lucky, maybe. But there was no doubting the future star’s winning goal was intended – there was simply no way such a gifted footballer could hit such a misplaced free kick. The player confirmed as much in an interview with The Independent one year on, saying: “It was definitely a shot. Although, if I’m being totally honest, I was aiming for the other side of the net.”
Ronaldinho’s match-winning performance ended acrimoniously, as he received a red card having gone in high for a 50/50 with Danny Mills. He would sit out the semi-final win over Turkey, but the iconic front three was back in action for the final against Germany.
Just as fans had gotten used to seeing Brazil play a back three, they were presented with yet another aesthetic shock: Ronaldo appeared for the final with what resembled half a haircut. This was no branding effort, but a psychological manoeuvre. With much of the talk surrounding his fitness, the striker used his hair to quell speculation and remove pressure. “I had an injury in my leg and everybody was talking about that,” Ronaldo later admitted. “I decided to cut my hair and leave the small thing there. I come to training and everybody saw me with bad hair. Everybody was talking about the hair and forgot about the injury. It was a good way to change the subject.”
The change of hairstyle worked. Ronaldo fluffed his lines early on, though he was getting into the right places. Brazil’s front three, once again, were working well together, creating space for one another and combining tidily. Oliver Kahn was an excellent last line of defence for Germany, but even he couldn’t deny the trident for 90 minutes. After spilling a long-range Rivaldo drive, Ronaldo sneaked in to make it 1-0 Brazil. Then, late in the second half, Rivaldo stepped over a pass inside for Ronaldo to score his second and seal the win.
Following their 2002 World Cup success, Brazil consistently failed to find harmony between their individual talent and an effective system. Four years on, they would exit at the quarter-final stage despite possessing an abundance of fine forwards. These struggles only underlined the accomplishments of Scolari and his front three. Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho’s coalition may have been short, but it was unquestionably sweet.
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Also published on Medium.