Sliding Doors: What if Brazil’s Emerson hadn’t got injured before the 2002 World Cup?

The afternoon before Brazil were due to kick off their 2002 World Cup campaign against Turkey, the squad were mucking around in training. It was a non-session, designed for photographers to get some action shots of the squad, and Emerson, the team’s captain and elegant midfield dynamo, wanted to go in goal. When Rivaldo took aim from distance five minutes later, Emerson sailed across his goalmouth, landed in a crumpled heap and didn’t get up. His shoulder had popped out of its socket, and his tournament was over before it had begun.

The Brazil team that stormed their way to victory that summer were a deliriously fun side, made all the more so by the fact  they should have been a senseless shambles. Their qualifying campaign had been an embarrassment, by a distance the worst in their history. It encompassed six defeats, a first-ever loss to Ecuador and a rotating cast of journeyman strikers: in the absence of the perennially injured Ronaldo, Elber, Jardel, Romario, Edmundo, Franca, Marques Batista, Guilherme, Ewerthon, Marcio Amoroso, Luizão, Edilson and Euller were all given a go. None convinced. When Luis Felipe Scolari was brought in as Brazil’s coach with five games to play and Brazil on the brink of the unthinkable, he was the third man to occupy that post in less than a year. He promptly lost his first game. Brazil’s great entertainers had become a circus act.

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In the event the Selecao limped through the laughably liberal South American qualification system, a win over Paraguay clinching it, but the team was a mess. The only constant at the back was the feckless Roque Junior. In the engine room alongside Emerson was Vampeta, who had turned out for five clubs in the past two years. Up front, Ronaldo had missed the entire  campaign with his second knee-ligament rupture and whispers were growing that his career may be hanging in the balance. He had appeared in a grand total of 24 games over the previous three seasons.

Rivaldo had put in a nondescript season by his standards, his 14 goals a steep slump on the 36 of the year before, and was about to have his Barcelona contract cancelled a year early by an unimpressed Louis van Gaal. So to bolster the attack, Scolari gambled on the mercurial Ronaldinho, who had endured a nightmare start to his first season at Paris Saint-Germain but found some form at the back end of the campaign.

Emerson’s accident added another layer of chaos. Atletico Mineiro’s unfashionable midfielder Gilberto Silva, a left-field pick for the squad let alone the team, was bundled into the starting XI; Brazil’s game against Turkey was his first competitive start for his country. Juninho, who by his own admission had been “training with the reserves” until Emerson’s Superman act and whose Flamengo side had just finished 18th in Brazil, made up the other half of a hastily confected pairing. This was not the preparation of champions.

And for a short while things proceeded precisely as expected. By half time-in their first game, Brazil were 1-0 down and being treated to a barrel of their own medicine, Ilhan Mansiz at one point humiliating Roberto Carlos with an absurd rainbow kick.

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A Ronaldo equaliser and a hilariously generous late penalty, dispatched by Rivaldo, gave Scolari’s side a barely deserved win. But not content with robbing Turkey’s underdogs of a result, Brazil then rubbed their noses in it too: Rivaldo got Hakan Unsal sent off with some ludicrous play-acting in stoppage time. The world was united in contempt. “There is an injustice in the result, I have to say that, an injustice,” huffed Turkey coach Senol Gunes. The team that would end the tournament as happy-go-lucky heroes began it as pantomime villains.

From then on, though, Brazil tightened their focus, loosened their limbs, and laid on the most joyous tournament performance of the modern age. China were trounced 4-0 before another five goals were dispatched Costa Rica, the gangly centre-back Edmilson at one stage sauntering upfield, firing off a couple of one-twos and planting a bicycle kick into the roof of the net.

By the time Germany had been swept aside in the final, the world was won over, not least by a freewheeling front three who revelled, ravished and regaled. That trio helped themselves to 15 goals in total and, in hindsight, it was a moment when the stars aligned. Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were all Brazilian greats who, in the time-honoured style, peaked only briefly. For that month in Japan and Korea, their pinnacles coincided gloriously.

No sooner had Cafu lifted the trophy – doing so, in faintly bizarre fashion, having been forced to clamber atop a wobbling, glass-topped plinth clearly not built for the purpose – than the legacy of Brazil’s victory began to play out. Gilberto, drafted in at the last second, had not missed a single minute throughout the tournament. His cool-headed passing caught the beady eye of Arsene Wenger and two years later he was celebrating the Premier League title as a stalwart of Arsenal’s epochal Invincibles side. Juninho, thrust back in the public eye, returned to Middlesbrough for £6m and led them to League Cup victory, cementing his status as the club’s best ever player and all-round Premier League icon.

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Having convinced the world, and Florentino Perez, that his knees did still work after all, Ronaldo was promptly lured to Real Madrid – much to the disgust of Inter fans who, having spent the past three years waiting like wartime wives for their striker to return, didn’t take kindly to his defection. He capped his first season with the only league title of the galacticos era and a barnstorming hat-trick at Old Trafford. Gazing on vacantly from the executive suites, Roman Abramovich decided that this football lark could be a hobby worth his time, and rerouted his helicopter to west London.

And Ronaldinho, the tournament having launched him into bona fide a-lister status – replete with a barstool-argument moment for the ages in the did he/didn’t he mean the lob against England – was suddenly on every major club’s shopping list. The next summer, after a few weeks of playing hard to get with Alex Ferguson, he touched down in Barcelona, the club in the lurches of a genuine crisis following finishes of fourth, fourth and sixth. He marked his debut by beating three men and walloping one in off the bar, and things went upwards from there: within three seasons he’d won two league titles, a European Cup and a Ballon d’Or. Barcelona’s imperial phase had begun; it’s still going strong.

As for Emerson, he went on to enjoy a gilded career, moving from Roma to Juventus, Real Madrid and then Milan, but the pain still lingers: he looks back on that summer as “the biggest regret in my professional life”. It’s safe to presume he never touched a pair of goalie gloves again.

Sliding Doors: What if Brazil’s Emerson hadn’t got injured before the 2002 World Cup?
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