The Second Chance of Sports
In a basement pub not far from Trafalgar Square in London, an establishment that wouldn’t have looked out of place in downtown Rio de Janeiro, one packed with Brazilian tourists and supporters of the world’s most popular football team, watching Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima walk up to receive the World Cup winner’s medal with a trademark toothy grin, you could not but ponder, yet again, the caprices of life and sport.
It was a day when Ronaldo simply did not want to leave his field of surpassing glory at Yokohama in Japan, a day when the world was truly at his magic feet, a day when he looked much younger than his 25 years and feeling as proud and overwhelmed by emotion as any sportsman might have been on the greatest day of his career.
At the basement pub, watching revelers sing and dance and make merry, chanting the name of their hero―Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo―now and again on that unforgettable June Sunday, when Brazil outplayed Germany 2-0 in the World Cup final, I suddenly thought of July 1998 and the italicized words at the beginning of this piece which I wrote for The Sportstar four years ago.
And, even as the greatest footballer of all time, Pele, hugged Ronaldo and thousands of digital cameras clicked all at once to record the moment for posterity, a marvelous aspect of the ever-turning wheel of sport struck me like never before.
While I agonized four years ago over sport’s cruel twists and its fickle finger of fortune, on that marvelous June Sunday in London, it was time to celebrate one of sport’s greatest virtues: its generosity in offering its practitioners a Second Chance.
Who would have thought that Brazil would be beaten 3-0 by France four years ago and Ronaldo would look as inept and zombie-like as he did then? And who would have thought, on the eve of Asia’s first World Cup this year, that a seemingly half-fit Ronaldo would turn the event into his own classic Redemption Song?
Indeed, in the great theatre of sport, there is always the Second Chance, there is always the opportunity―after a disastrous performance when the lead actor forgets his lines and the greasepaint melts, so to say―to slip in back-stage and return to produce a breathtaking tour de force.
Then again, it is never quite as easy as all this sounds. ”Such are the capricious ways of sport that from Hero to Zero is not a long journey―the crash landing is complete in 90 minutes, sometimes even less. But it takes long months, even years, to clear the debris,” this writer noted in these columns on Ronaldo’s fall in the summer of 1998.
Indeed, it took the gifted Brazilian footballer a good part of four full years―years marred by a series of potentially career-threatening injuries―to haul himself back on to the big stage and make it his own on a memorable night in Yokohama―a remarkable turnaround that saw him become the first player ever to be named FIFA World Player of the Year for a third time.
And when the second chance came, the great marksman was there, in the right place and at the right time, to conjure up a one-two that decided the Cup final against a German team limited in skills but unlimited in spirit. The picture of irony, of course, was complete when the born again Ronaldo scored the first goal thanks to a rare error from the owner of the safest pair of hands in world football, the German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn!
Will Kahn himself get a Second Chance? Who knows? But during a year which witnessed its greatest sporting moment halfway through at the climax of the quadrennial football World Cup, one other legend did get a Second Chance and he grabbed it with the hunger of a gifted rookie snatching at his first slice of championship glory.
Pete Sampras, in my mind inarguably the greatest tennis player of all time, proved everyone―including this writer―wrong by reinventing himself as a Grand Slam champion at the U.S. Open after twice losing to young hotshots―Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt―in successive finals there.
“One has to pay dearly for immortality. One has to die several times while one is still alive,” wrote the incomparable philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Both Ronaldo, in the years between the disaster in Paris and his moment of surpassing glory in Yokohama, as well as Sampras, who had not won a single title after July 2000 when he won a record-breaking 13th Grand Slam at Wimbledon (until this year’s U.S.Open), both died a hundred deaths. These are men that paid the price and who can now say that they did not deserve what they got?