Nilton Santos, who passed away on Wednesday aged 88, redefined the function of the fullback. “Fullbacks weren’t supposed to go past the halfway line before him,” explained the moustached marauder’s long-time Botafogo and Brazil team-mate Zagallo. “But Nilton did it to such great effect that everybody came to realise fullbacks could change a game.”
A headline, preceding the biggest fixture in club football in 1998, underlined this: Roberto Carlos or Felipe… who will come out on top?
Both were left-backs. Both were, despite the latter playing alongside Fernando Redondo, Predrag Mijatovic and Raul, and the former sharing a dressing room with Juninho Pernambucano, Ramon and Luizao, their respective team’s best hope of lifting the Intercontinental Cup according to Brazilian magazine Placar.
It was the man who finished second to Ronaldo in the most recent FIFA World Player of the Year running against the pretender to his crown as Brazil No6. It was also a meeting between the maiden champions of their respective continents. Vasco had pipped a River Plate regiment including Alfredo Di Stefano to become South America’s first kings in 1948, while the Saeta Rubia (Blond Arrow) had inspired Real to glory in the inaugural European Cup final eight years later.
Los Merengues had appeared in two previous Intercontinental Cups, winning one and losing the other, while A Gigante da Colina were debutants in the fixture and out to stop the trophy going to the Old Continent for a fourth successive year.
The opening exchanges, in front of over 50,000 in Tokyo, 15 years ago to this Sunday, certainly validated that pre-match headline. Felipe’s trickery twice caused panic among the men in white, while from a corner another of his darts won, Ramon’s stylishly improvised finished forced Bodo Illgner into a smart save.
Strike one nevertheless belonged to Roberto Carlos and Real. The 25-year-old former Palmeiras and Inter Milan player sublimely controlled a Clarence Seedorf pass on his chest, bombed down the left flank and unleashed one of his ferocious, swerving crosses, which cannoned off the head of Vasco midfielder Nasa and wrong-footed goalkeeper Carlos Germano en route to the net.
The Brazilians’ No1 then produced a fine stop to repel a vicious Roberto Carlos free-kick, before Fernando Hierro’s outstretched leg denied Donizete a tap-in an the other end.
The frenetic pace didn’t decelerate after the restart. Felipe continued to torment Guus Hiddink’s men, while Raul almost turned home a Mijatovic cross from close range.
Then Illgner, grounded on his goalline, miraculously stuck out his right leg to deny Donizete’s close-range effort. The rebound fell towards Juninho, who conned Monolo Sanchis with a exquisite feint and unleashed a marvellous looping volley to equalise on 56 minutes.
Roberto Carlos and Felipe dominated the next 25 mnutes. The man with the humungous 24-inch thighs whizzed past two opponents but was crowded out on the hour, before minutes later producing a pinpoint cross to the back post for Savio, whose downward header was superbly tipped round the post by Carlos Germano.
Felipe’s response was immediate. From one of his mesmerising dribbles, Donizete was just inches away from putting Vasco ahead, while after a breathtaking slalom past two Real defenders, the Carioca fired the ball just inches wide as Real hung on for dear life.
“They simply couldn’t get the ball off Felipe,” explained Ramon. “He was dribbling past them, all these huge stars, as if they didn’t exist. The longer it went on the more we were convinced that he would win the trophy for Vasco."
So it proved that a 21-year-old wizard would win settle the outcome. Unfortunately for the men in black, he was wearing white. On 84 minutes, Seedorf looped a long ball over the back of the Vasco defence, which Raul took in his stride with an immaculate touch. The Real No7 then executed back-to-back shimmies, which sent Vitor and Odvan sliding aimlessly across the turf and left Carlos Germano on his backside, before slotting the ball into the semi-unguarded net. Real Madrid were the champions of the world.
“What a game!” exclaimed Savio afterwards. “It’s a big relief. Vasco played really well in the second half. Felipe was outstanding. Our defenders played really well.
“A lot was made of [the Roberto Carlos-Felipe face-off] before the game. Felipe justified [his hype] and didn’t deserve to be on the losing side. Roberto Carlos once again showed why he is one of the best players in the world and that he can make the difference despite playing in that position.
"But Raul’s a genius you can’t forget about for a second. He turned what wasn’t even a chance into the deciding goal. Very few players in the world could have scored it.”