Football is packed with “what if” moments.
“What if” Steven Gerrard didn’t slip in 2013?
“What if” Ronaldo hadn’t suffered a series of serious knee injuries? How good would he have been?
“What if” Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi played in the same team?
That last one is something people like to debate the most. Imagine if two of the most lethal attackers of all time played in the same team. How many goals would they score? Who could possibly stop them?
Well, unfortunately, we’ll probably never know. But back in 1997, we had something similar, when FIFA put on an exhibition match packed with ridiculous talent.
It was December, seven months before the World Cup in France, and the day of the group stage draw for the upcoming tournament. FIFA had told each of the 32 participating countries to send one player to represent their nation; 16 to form a ‘Europe XI’ and the other half to form a ‘Rest of World XI’.
Everyone got involved. England sent Paul Ince (who would miss a penalty in last-16 defeat to Argentina during the tournament). France sent none other than Zinedine Zidane. Japan sent Hidetoshi Nakata, while Nigeria nominated Nwankwo Kanu (who wore his traditional number 4 shirt).
Future Watford and Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic was also called up, while presumably Gordon Durie won the argument/fight in the Scottish camp over who they were sending.
It looked like it would be a very well balanced match, until the Rest of the World team revealed who they would have as a strike partnership. Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta and Brazil’s Ronaldo. Holy shit.
Remember, this was Ronaldo of Inter Milan, before serious knee injuries took their toll and stopped him from being an absolute freak of nature for longer. Gabriel Batistuta was arguably the second best striker in the world at the time (behind Ronaldo), so pairing them was borderline unfair.
There probably wasn’t a defence in the world that would have fancied their chances against those two, but Europe’s was about as good as you could get. They paired Alessandro Costacurta and Fernando Hierro at the back to try and contain the South American pair.
Hierro was Spain’s captain and played almost 500 times for Real Madrid. Costacurta was a partner of Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi at AC Milan and one of Italy’s finest ever defenders. Ronaldo and Batistuta had their work cut out.
The match started, and Europe were the first ones to strike. A mistake at the back allowed Romania’s Marius Lacatus to pounce and put Europe 1-0 up.
But then it became the R9 and Gabigol show.
First, Ronaldo picked the ball up deep and spotted the run of Colombia’s Antony De Avila, before sliding him in. That made it 1-1.
Five minutes later, De Avila returned the favour, giving it to Ronaldo and allowing him to have a go at Hierro one on one. The future Bolton Wanderers defender didn’t stand a chance, as the Brazilian dropped a shoulder to go inside, pushed it onto his left foot and smacked it into the far corner beyond the reach of Germany’s Andreas Kopke. 2-1.
Ronaldo was having fun, and it was time for Batistuta to join the party. The Argentine hung back for a layoff on the edge of the box as Ronaldo advanced down the right, before smashing a first-time finish past Kopke to make it 3-1. Only 30 minutes had passed.
Three soon became four, and it was the best of the lot. Surrounded by three players after receiving a pass from Batistuta from close range, Ronaldo flicked a pass back to the Fiorentina striker and he slammed in a fourth. 4-1 with 36 minutes gone.
They weren’t done there. Ronaldo then added his second goal six minutes later after a ridiculous pass from Batistuta convinced Kopke he could become a sweeper keeper and beat Ronaldo to the bouncing ball. He didn’t, and Ronaldo nodded it around him before passing into an empty net for 5-1.
The only reason the Rest of the World XI stopped scoring was because at half-time their manager, Carlos Alberto Parreira, substituted Ronaldo. He’d clearly decided that two goals and three assists in 45 minutes was enough.
Derby County’s Deon Burton was the man to replace him, which is 100% the highlight of his career. Burton was Jamaica’s representative at the match – yes that’s right, Jamaica were at the 1998 World Cup! They didn’t disgrace themselves either, finishing third in a group containing Argentina, Japan and Croatia, although Batistuta did plunder a hat-trick against them in a 5-0 win. Must have been something Burton said to him.
With the score at 5-1, Europe got stronger in the second half and managed to reduce the deficit to 5-2, thanks to Zidane taking the mick out of Paraguayan goalkeeper Ruben Martin Ruiz Diaz before scoring.
The match was actually cut slightly short so the draw could start on time, but everyone got what they wanted. They got to see 45 minutes of two of the best strikers in the world partnering each other, and boy did they deliver. The instant understanding despite being from rival South American countries (and Italian clubs) was telepathic, and left fans wondering just how good a club could have been if they’d had those two as a regular strikeforce.
It’s hard to imagine something similar happening these days with players protected by clubs, agents and all the rest, but imagine how good it would be to see a European XI take on a World XI purely for the fun of it.
De Bruyne, Mbappe and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Europe XI vs a ROW team who could include the reforming of Barcelona’s dreaded MSN trio – Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
We’re salivating at the thought of it. Get it done FIFA, it might just make up for the years of highly questionable decisions that have come from your leadership.
Check out the highlights here: