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Yuvraj Singh rekindles memories of the Ronaldo freeze in the 1998 FIFA World Cup final

Yuvraj Singh (left) and Ronaldo © Getty Images
Yuvraj Singh (left) is a forlorn figure after the ICC World T20 2014 final nightmare. Ronaldo, the Brazilian football legend, could empathize with what Yuvraj endured on April 6, having lived through a similar ordeal in the 1998 FIFA World Cup final © Getty Images

Ronaldo was the best football player in the world, yet on that fateful day of the 1998 FIFA World Cup final, he looked unbelievably pathetic. Fans around the world watched the final with a dropped-jaw as a great player was reduced to an astonishing non-entity — much like cricket fans did watching another champion, the great Yuvraj Singh, in the ICC World T20 2014 final on April 6. H Natarajan finds striking similarities between the two players in what was arguably their worst-ever days on the field.

The vicissitudes of the life have slammed Yuvraj Singh with repeated heartbreaks. As a child, he was forced to sacrifice the joys of roller-skating to comply with the demands of a dictatorial father. When still young, he then saw family upheavals tear apart his parents’ marriage while still a young boy. And in his grown-up years, he had to endure the loss of many of his lady loves.

Yuvraj was a tough bloke who manfully braved all that life kept throwing at him. The fighter in him ensured that he remained a class act on the field as one of the finest players in limited-overs history. Even at the highest point of his cricketing career, the ICC World Cup 2011, where he masterminded India’s hegemony by emerging as the player of the tournament, he knew something was terribly wrong with his body as he fought spells of vomiting during the quadrennial cricketing showpiece.

The nation then heard the numbing news that Yuvraj was diagnosed with cancer. Yuvraj traversed through a long, painful and uncertain journey through hell as the nation came together to pray for his life. The warrior beat cancer and the odds stacked up against him to make an emotional return into the Indian team.

Yet, on April 6, 2014, many of the people who prayed for his life during his traumatic battle with cancer were now baying for his blood. Little had gone right for him in the ICC World T20 2014 final against Sri Lanka as his bat would embarrassingly not make contact with the ball. Millions of his countrymen prayed that he got out, while in another part of the world, the Sri Lankan fans were probably hoping he batted longer!

Even before Yuvraj made his forlorn walk back to the pavilion after getting out, he knew that the nation would lynch him if India did not win the World T20. India did not. Fans showered abuses and poured vitriol against him on the social media, but what was most abominable was that stones were rained on his house in Chandigarh. In a few fleeting moments, a hero had turned into villain — his impressive volume of a life-time’s work was lost in the deep recesses of the mind of the so-called Indian cricket fan(atics). It’s almost as if the nation had gone into a collective amnesia.

What went wrong for Yuvraj?

Yuvraj’s plight took the mind back to the 1998 FIFA World Cup football final, where the great Ronaldo was reduced to a dud by pressure — much like Yuvraj was on that fateful Sunday. What one saw was unbelievable. It was almost as if someone had cast black magic on Ronaldo. How a champion could be reduced to such a pitiful state!

Yuvraj was under severe pressure, escalated by poor form, fitness and injury worries. Just a few days before the final, a report in the DNA newspaper said that “a worried Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri are among the many former players who have been messaging Yuvraj Singh reassurances. Even the taciturn Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who usually keeps to himself off the field has been spending long hours in Yuvraj’s room to bring him out of what we’re told is the blackest depression of his life. It’s more than just about a dropped catch or not being among the runs. He’s weathered the biggest challenges life could throw at him, including cancer, but it’s almost as if the constant pressure of living up to the often unreasonable expectations of his temperamental father — much more so than even his team and his fans — has finally pushed him over the edge.”

In the age of communication, speculations are the order of the day as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has built walls between the players and the media. The DNA story was important and interesting and needed intense follow-up by the media. But even if the media did, nothing much would have been revealed by the team in the mandatory pressers given the BCCI mindset.

Brazil striker Ronaldo played arguably his worst match in football during the 1998 FIFA World Cup final against France © Getty Images
Brazil striker Ronaldo played arguably his worst match in football during the 1998 FIFA World Cup final against France © Getty Images

What went wrong with Ronaldo?

Pressure at the highest level can be disastrous as one keeps hearing of an increasing number of cricketers falling prey to depression. It can get very lonely, very scary when things don’t go right for you and you are hounded by one and all round the clock. There is no private space in the glare of public life and it can mercilessly pound the greatest of champions.

Ronaldo, just 21 but the best player in the world, was one such victim. Brazil’s leading scorer of the World Cup had just returned back to his hotel room after the team lunch on July 12, 1998 — hours before on the day the Brazilian juggernaut was going to face hosts France in the World Cup final at Stade de France. Roberto Carlos, who was sharing a room with Ronaldo, suddenly found his room-mate breaking down, convulsing uncontrollably and foaming at the mouth. “Ronaldo was scared about what lay ahead. The pressure had got to him and he couldn’t stop crying,” Roberto Carlos later told the BBC. Edmundo, who was in an adjacent room, quickly came and put his hand in Ronaldo’s mouth to prevent him from swallowing his tongue.

Ronaldo’s name was not in the starting line-up for the final as he was rushed to a hospital. But when he returned from the hospital, the prognosis from the battery of medical tests revealed that nothing untoward was wrong with him. Brazilian coach Mario Zagallo submitted a revised line-up 30 minutes before the start of the final which saw the inclusion of Ronaldo in the starting XI.

Ronaldo was an unmitigated disaster in the final as Brazil lost 0-3. Zinedine Zidane stole the limelight with two headed goals for France. Several conspiracy theories floated freely, the most infamous among them being an unfit Ronaldo was forced to play because sponsors Nike had signed a $160-million contract with the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) in which a hidden part needed Ronaldo to play the final. A high-powered parliamentary committee that investigated the conspiracy theories could not find any truth in the rumours. It’s another matter that Brazilians still refuse to believe those findings.

Four years later Ronaldo roared back like a champion and dominated the 2002 FIFA World Cup slamming eight goals, including twice in the final, to win the Golden Boot as the top-scorer. Brazil had won their fifth World Cup title. And four years later, he occupied pole position as the most goals [15] in World Cup history.

Will Yuvraj be able to show a similar fortitude? He has shown copious guts and grit to weather many storms in his life. Few exemplify better than Yuvraj the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Yuvraj has a granite mind and indomitable will power to overcome odds. “Our greatest glory is not in ever falling, but in rising every time we fall,” said Confucious. Yuvraj knows that better than any other Indian cricketer. Don’t count him out — not yet.

(H Natarajanformerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/H.Natarajan and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/hnatarajan)

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