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   June 28, 2000 | 1845 IST
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Ronaldo faces third Cup final at 25

Reuters
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Ronaldo will take part in his third World Cup final on Sunday -- and he is still only 25.

Eight years ago, he was a reserve on the Brazil bench and did not get to kick a ball, though he had the privilege of holding the trophy aloft after the penalty shootout win over Italy.

In 1998, he famously played, dazed and lethargic, after a suffering a fit in the team hotel only hours before the game.

What will be in store for him on Sunday against Germany?

Before this tournament, there were doubts about Ronaldo's fitness following his 2- years of injury misery.

Many wondered whether he would ever be able to stand the pace, but he has exceeded expectations with his six goals and has been one of the players of the tournament.

After the suffering and frustration caused by two knee operations, Ronaldo says this time he is happy just to play.

"Winning or losing, my big victory is to play again," he said after scoring the only goal of Wednesday's semi-final win over Turkey. "After all the suffering, I feel extremely happy to be able to score goals, to run, to play football. The nightmare is over."

Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari says Ronaldo has entered the tournament with a more positive frame of mind than at the last World Cup.

"The group needs Ronaldo. He is part of the group, his attitude is much more positive than it was four years ago," he said.

MYSTERIOUS PROBLEM

In the 1998 World Cup in France, Ronaldo, acclaimed as the world's best player, was expected to set the tournament alight in the same way Pele had done in 1970 and Diego Maradona in 1986. But he was overshadowed by Zinedine Zidane who scored two goals in France's 3-0 win in the final.

Even before Ronaldo's mysterious problem on the day of that game, Brazilians were concerned he was becoming distracted from his game.

The twice World Player of the Year had turned into a globe-trotting publicity machine, having taken on a host of publicity contracts.

Barely a day went by without photographs and television reports of Ronaldo opening his bar, driving his latest car, making a commercial or some other venture.

At one stage after his first injury, Ronaldo tried to go upmarket by sponsoring a play in Rio de Janeiro, but the effort fell flat when he said he had not seen the production and could not remember the last time he had gone to the theatre.

All the showbiz glitter was a far cry from his childhood.

BUS FARE

Ronaldo grew up in the working class Rio de Janeiro suburb of Bento Ribeiro. He was taken on as a junior by Flamengo but had to abandon the club because he could not afford the train and bus fare to the training ground.

He tried the more modest Sao Cristovao instead, where he was spotted by Brazil's 1970 World Cup striker Jairzinho who now works as a talent scout.

With Jairzinho's help, Ronaldo was taken on by Cruzeiro, based in Belo Horizonte, and made his professional debut at 16.

He scored 58 times in 60 matches -- including a spectacular individual goal against Argentina's Boca Juniors -- and quickly aroused international interest.

The 17-year-old Ronaldo made his Brazil debut in a friendly in 1994 and scored his first goal a month later against Iceland. He was included in the World Cup squad, but did not kick a ball in anger.

In 1995, he was snapped up by Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, but it was in his only season at Barcelona -- 1996/97 -- that he really made his name, scoring a host of spectacular goals.

BIG STAGE

"I put Ronaldo on the big stage," said Bobby Robson, the Barcelona coach at the time. He was at PSV, hidden, there for anybody.

"Barcelona's president said $20 million is a lot of money, are you sure?'. Buy him,' I said. Suddenly, after three months he is a world player."

Since his move to Inter Milan Ronaldo has suffered a series of misfortunes that still haunt him.

When he complained of muscular fatigue during the World Cup quarter-final against England, some questioned whether it was a psychological problem connected with his previous injuries -- much to Ronaldo's displeasure.

"They said it was muscular fatigue and that's how I see it. People talked a lot of rubbish, saying that it was psychological. But there was nothing psychological about it, I played and I scored another goal," he said.

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