NILTON SANTOS is the kind of man you would choose to take into battle. Even at 73, the massive upper arms still hint at a shoulder-charge that once changed the course of a World Cup final. Even at twice his best playing weight, the legs still go up and down the stairs of a noisy apartment block in Rio de Janeiro as if he were cantering up from defence for a corner at the Maracana, or Wembley, or San Siro.
Even now Mr Santos has the tongue that once gave the young Pele serious abuse-cum-advice, making Pele the boy prodigy into Pele the eternal superstar, they say. "You've come here looking for a conspiracy," he tells me loudly, his voice rising with an authority that marshalled victory in the World Cups of a bygone age. Sweden in 1958 and Chile of 1962. "Stop looking for a conspiracy. It's much simpler than that. All you have to do is ask yourself this: Why did they let the kid play?" He pauses, looking at me to see if I'm registering the message. "You know, Pele was kicked off the pitch in Chile in 1962 and he was then told to rest for weeks, he didn't even play in the final. Now a kid has a convulsion, and four hours later they send him out to play in a World Cup final."
With that Mr Santos pulls out the first contract he ever signed, with Botafogo in 1948. It was once just a blank sheet of paper with his signature at the bottom. "They filled in how much money I earned, and I never made more than $3,000 a year, even when we won the World Cups. But, in return, I had the right to honest medicine, and the right to a rest when I was injured."
It is 6pm on the Friday before the opening weekend of the season. Doctor Joaquia Da Mata is fretting. The star of Botafogo Football Club, the mercurial talent called Bebeto, is reporting an old leg injury, pulling up at the end of an otherwise peaceful training session at the club's antique stadium in Niteroi, the quiet town just across the Guanapara Bay from Rio. Dr Da Mata sends the player to the hospital, orders an MRI over the phone, and insists to the coach that Bebeto miss Saturday's work-out. "That way he should make the game on Sunday," he repeats over and over like a man who needs to convince himself. "Believe me, with a player like Bebeto you give him a day to rest. He should make it by Sunday. It's a big game, you know, so early in the season. We need to win. "He stops, to take a call from the hospital confirming Bebeto's scan. "Everybody's worried about how small the crowd might be on Sunday."
It is almost a month now since Brazil's debacle in the World Cup final, and still there are no answers to the mystery played out that night in Paris: a mystery far more intriguing than a game that was never a contest once it became clear that Ronaldo simply should not have been on the field, and that Brazil represented a pale imitation of champions with him sick.
Almost daily, the Brazilian football confederation, the CBF, offers placebos, summarily firing the coaching staff one week, the doctors the next, hinting darkly that the coach, Mario Zagallo, was to blame for the humiliation in the Stade de France.
Ronaldo himself, depressed according to his family, angry according to his friends, has fled to the United States in secret, apparently to play the casinos of Las Vegas, before belatedly returning to Internazionale of Milan later this month.
His one public statement? "Nao amareleii... [I'm not yellow, I'm no coward]" he tells Globo television in a brief interview which suggests a 21-year- old superstar has aged 10 years in the month of July. Nevertheless, Rio radio stations seem to delight in playing the jingle made famous by Ronaldo's TV commercial for Nike, with the new words: "El amarelou... he's yellow... he did chicken out."
So the knives are out and, inevitably, some close to events are beginning to talk. The picture they paint? A fairly shocking one of the global game's Superman playing through pain, of the multi-million dollar talent being subjected routinely to pain-killing treatment, of Big Business dictating the decision-making in Paris that Sunday afternoon in July.
We hear it from Dr Da Mata, physician to the team in Paris, who declares, with astonishing clarity, that allowing Ronaldo to play in the final represents "the worst decision of my life". We hear it from Ronaldo's best friend on the Brazil squad, who asked: "Can you believe now he still played? It was crazy, the whole episode." And we hear it from a veteran on the team, who wonders aloud: "Medicine and big business go together now, they work hand in hand... It's all about a product, not the people who play it."
Listening to these voices you glimpse the new world of football: the vortex of money, power and commercial interest that could not countenance the World Cup final without the brightest star, the player who had become the ultimate crowd-puller of the beautiful game in 1998.
"In my time it was the army generals running Brazil who tried to pick the team," says Tostao, the man who played in Brazil's No 9 shirt in the final of 1970, the splendid foil to Pele's rapier, today an eye doctor in Belo Horizonte. "Today it's the sponsors, the businessman, the media moguls. The World Cup final is the world's biggest TV show"
First, we go after the evidence: the medicine. If anyone has the answers, it is Dr Da Mata, a veteran of 20 years in the game. He says his heart still races as he recalls the nightmare of 12 July. The call to Ronaldo's hotel room, the discovery of a player snoozing post-seizure, the frantic rush to the clinic, the emergency tests. "Never, in all these years, have I seen before, a player with a convulsion... I see young Ronaldo that day, and I'm thinking tragedy."
What Dr Da Mata proceeds to tell us is, quietly, stunning. According to him, Ronaldo had been on serious pain-killers since aggravating a long- standing knee injury in the second game of the tournament, against Morocco. He prescribed Volaren, he says, a common pain-killer: it was taken orally. "Never, never, we make infiltrations on his knee," says the doctor, his English failing him.
"No injections? Is that what you mean?" I ask.
"No injections, never... Injections, infiltrations, very dangerous."
How could his doctors have him play through pain? He insists Ronaldo never played in pain. "You see, we look after him. He has pain in between matches, we give him tablets," he counters. "Never he is in pain when he is playing. We make sure of that."
Could not the pain-killers have triggered the seizure? "No, no," comes the reply, with a wagging finger. "The medicine we use is not so strong, to cause convulsion."
In the Brazilian papers the conspiracy theorists are having a field day. O Globo newspaper ran the anonymous account of a team official, who claimed Ronaldo was given pain-killing injections, one as late as the early morning of the final. The drug used, according to this, was Xilocaine, a cortisone with anaesthetic. "Everyone knows how dangerous an injection it is," the quote goes on. "But stakes were just so huge."
What is so striking, talking with members of the squad, is that pain- killing treatment is routine, systematic. Goncalves, a veteran defender who sat on the bench in Paris, unlucky to lose his place to Junior Baiano, puts it all in perspective. "It's normal to play through pain," he confides as he finishes training with his team, Botafogo. "Absolutely normal. Think about it. There you are, you've worked years to get to the World Cup, you have made this huge investment, and you're not going to blow it because of pain you can play with."
He stops, digressing to recall how he was almost sold to Nottingham Forest, in a package totalling pounds 6m, before Forest were relegated two years ago. "Many of the biggest stars in this game play with pain because they have so much to lose if they don't. You are, always, an injury away from losing the business deal of your life."
On the field, Goncalves is as canny a player as Brazil has ever produced, an astute reader of the game: how can he be so short-sighted off it? "Look, what I'm telling you is the reality of the game now. Sports medicine and big business are evil twins," he declares. I'm about to apologise for my naivety, when he adds: "I can't stop thinking about this moment, a moment when we were all shocked, confused, dismayed. I now realise we lost the final the moment Ronaldo came into the dressing-room, and told us he wanted to play. In that moment, Brazil lost the World Cup."
Now it is time to go after the conspiracy. Did anyone order Ronaldo to play? Who pulled the strings? And who created this cynical syndrome of players performing on the world's biggest stage, despite the pain, despite a convulsion, or whatever?
Ricardo Texeira is the head of the Brazilian football confederation and we've heard enough already to know that, the patrician in everything he wears, says and does, Dom Ricardo was the Boss in the dressing-room that night, coming down from the stands of Stade de France an hour before kick- off when the infamous team-sheet was changed, to replace Edmundo with Ronaldo.
Dom Ricardo is the same fixer who negotiated an unprecedented $125m (pounds 80m) deal with Nike for the Brazilian national team. When Nike says let's play Japan, or America, or Australia, or whatever other emerging market springs to mind, now Taffarel, Cafu, Dunga and friends do just that.
Unfortunately, Dom Ricardo does not talk to inquisitive foreigners: or at least not to foreigners who won't pay. An official in the Confederation press office suggests we talk to a sports writer at O Povo, a Brazilian tabloid newspaper, and pay him "cash money," then an interview with Dom Ricardo could be arranged. Politely, we decline, concluding we learned more from that exchange about the inner workings of the Brazilian federation than we did watching Dom Ricardo talk on national television the night before.
Instead, persistence has paid off on another front. We spend a relaxed, peaceful afternoon with the thinker of the Brazilian team - the Socrates of the 90s, they call him - Ronaldo's best friend and room-mate in France: Leonardo.
"What do you think? That the boss of Nike calls up on his mobile phone from New York and says: 'Play Ronaldo, that's an order'!" Leonardo has a smile that disarms you, and he knows how to use it. He's leading me through all the twists and turns of the plot that hatched that night in Paris in the minds of most of the football-watching world.
"So you think there's a hot line between Nike and our dressing-room? Or Texeira calls up Nike for instructions? Or maybe I pick up my mobile and call Nike for my orders?" He dares me to answer him.
Funny you should mention that, Leonardo, I'm thinking. Aren't you wearing a Nike sweatshirt as you meet us at the private training ground you use in Niteroi? Don't you think about whether to do our television interview with or without your Nike shirt on, in front of the camera? I keep my thoughts to myself. The silence speaks for itself. Finally, he fills the void. "Look, my friend, it's so much simpler than you think."
This is one smart player because he understands the big picture, the game in the modern age, and he can rationalise it. Of course the leaders of the Brazilian confederation were in the dressing-room, having their say. Of course Ronaldo wanted to play and declared himself fit. Of course, the doctors did not step in on medical grounds, they had scans and MRIs and neurologists saying one convulsion does not an epileptic make. Of course, no bigwig from the Nike Corporation dialled the dressing-room in Paris. There was no need. The "fix" was already in, long ago, when the beautiful game of Brazil sold its poetry, and soul, to vested interest.
In Leonardo's world, there is no conspiracy, just the shop-floor reality of being a worker in a factory more glamorous than most. "It's a job," he concludes when I push him on the cynicism of all this. "Sure, Nike wanted Ronaldo to play, and the Football federation, and everyone else. It's the system, it's the economics, it's the pressure of the game today, and it's hard on the people who play." Then that smile creases that face again, and he talks wistfully of a career that has taken him from Rio to Paris to Milan. "Not that hard." He chuckles.
It's an education, all this, even if you allow for the fact that the key figures are talking in the sad aftermath of humiliation in Paris, and each individual has a personal, vested interest in asking us to see them in a certain light.
What no one should doubt is the transparent nature of this crisis of the beautiful game, visible so starkly here because these people have a long, proud history of baring soul, not burying it.
"The conspiracy is staring all of us in the face," said Nilton Santos, the Venerable Bede of the grand old game in Brazil, as he sends me on my way to find out for myself. "All you have to do is read the writing on the wall, and see it for what it is. A player today is an investment, the property of others. He doesn't own himself."
Mr Santos stopped playing at age 40. He doubts Ronaldo will make it to 30.
Just out of instinct, and curiosity, I speak again to Dr Da Mata at Botafogo Football Club. Will Bebeto make opening day? "I'm sure he will," the doctor says. "The MRI shows everything OK."
For the record, Bebeto did play, disappointingly. And Botafogo, the heavy favourites, lost.
David Smith is Washington Correspondent for Channel Four News.
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