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When Ronaldo lay in the Salpiêtrière hospital in Paris in 1999, his career at risk from injury, he received
a visitor he barely knew: Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman wanted to wish the Brazilian well.

“And without cameras,” adds Ronaldo, in a story he often tells. The greats are each other’s brothers.

On Saturday the two Real Madrid team-mates will meet for the last time. If France lose, Zidane’s career is over. If Brazil go out, Ronaldo might retire from the national team. These old men are the two players most likely to decide this match, and Ronaldo looks in slightly better shape than Zidane to do so.

Ronaldo might be better if thinner, but even fat he is pretty good. This week France’s centre-back Lilian Thuram, after informing the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen: “Personally I am not black. I am French,” set his immense brain to the problem of Ronaldo. “If you look at his statistics for matches played and goals scored
you will see that there is nobody at his level. Nobody means nobody.”

Zidane meanwhile has been acting in the last days of his career like a man afflicted by profound ennui. Those who are near death become detached from life.

He has been playing as if from memory, wearing the beatific expression of a martyred saint. He mainly strides past the media as
if alone in a room. When
he picked up bookings,
seemingly through absent-mindedness, in France’s first two matches, it was as if
he had devised a painless way of ending a phase of
his life that had ceased to stimulate him a match early.

But without him France pulled off the shock of the competition by scoring twice in a single game (albeit against Togo) to stumble through their group. And so Zizou faced another match, against Luis Aragonés’s young Spain.

Finally he looked interested, combining better than before with Franck Ribéry, the young midfielder hired to be his legs. In the last 10 minutes Zidane still had the energy to create the decisive goals, curling in the free-kick from which Patrick Vieira eventually scored the second and notching the third himself.

When he trooped off arm in arm with Fabien Barthez, his smile was unending. He had reconnected with the beautiful game. He even spent 30 seconds talking to reporters.

On Saturday he may troop off arm in arm with Ronaldo, the man who persuaded him to join in charitable works for the United Nations. Ronaldo is not seeking revenge for the World Cup final of 1998, in which he played like a zombie while Zidane scored twice. That match has never seemed to bother him.

When he was made to testify about it before a Brazilian parliamentary commission, and one parliamentarian ludicrously asked him who should have marked Zidane, Ronaldo grinned and replied: “I don’t remember.
I also think that whoever should have marked him didn’t mark him very
well, right?”

The issue of marking Zidane is less pressing now that he is 34. Again Ronaldo probably has no idea whose job it is. He just scores goals.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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