There are stars who have shined brighter and for longer. The likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are celebrated as the best of the current generation, and possibly the best of all time, but my memories recall more fondly of the original, as his reign coincided with my formative years in football.
For four glorious years, Ronaldinho Gaúcho stood alone at the top of the world. That brilliant smile, the sideways look before a pass and the vast repertoire of tricks all captured the imaginations of football fans worldwide.
The samba star captured our hearts for a brief but vibrant few years at the core of Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona that boasted talents such as Deco, Samuel Eto’o and the emerging youngster Lionel Messi. For all of Messi’s dominance in today’s game, he owes much to the original. The man who danced carefree to the samba beat.
Ronaldo de Assis Moreira’s story isn’t well-known. For followers of European football, the Brazilian seemingly dropped off the radar in 2010 after quitting AC Milan only to suddenly reemerge in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Seleção against England. But the story continued in his homeland.
Despite his lacklustre performance against the Three Lions, attributed to a lack of fitness, Ronaldinho completed a remarkable comeback to be part of Felipão’s squad. From humble beginnings at Grêmio, to the dizzying heights of the Camp Nou via Paris Saint-Germain, Ronaldinho sunk to his lowest point of his career at Flamengo after struggles with the hierarchy over unpaid wages sapped his strength.
After a brief two-year spell at Serie A giants AC Milan, Ronaldinho signed a three-year deal with Brasileirão outfit Flamengo in January 2011. His spell in Rio de Janeiro lasted just one and a half seasons as the club spiraled into a financial crisis, with wages going unpaid for increasing lengths of time. Performances on the pitch were increasingly overshadowed by issues off the pitch.
Ronaldinho eventually sued the club for a reported £12m, equal to four months of unpaid wages, and left the club in May 2012 as a free agent, joining Brasileirão rivals Atlético Mineiro just a few days later. The player later said suing Flamengo was the last thing he wanted to do but had no other option.
“I waited as long as I could, but it got to a point that it was enough. I decided to contact my lawyers and end this cycle. I’m sad for the friends that I left there, for the fans who supported me.”
Ronaldinho on June 1, 2012.
The now Atlético Mineiro player eventually settled out of court for a reported £5m. The move to Belo Horizonte outfit Atlético Mineiro on a short-term contract in June proved to be a surprise for many but club president Alexandre Kalil, a noted eccentric, believed the opportunity to sign the star was too good to pass up.
“He is not just any player, he is Ronaldinho. I have a reputation as a madman but I am not mad enough to turn down the chance to sign Ronaldinho.”
Alexandre Kalil, president of Atlético Mineiro.
The madman was proved to be right as Ronaldinho was eventually rewarded for a series of excellent performances with a new one-year contract. But it was one defining moment that convinced fans and neutrals alike that Ronaldinho still had the magic.
The Brazilian had been in inconsistent form when tragedy intervened in October. His stepfather, Vanderlei, passed away after suffering a heart attack. Despite the bereavement, Ronaldinho still took to the field against Figueirense the next day.
What followed was a crushing 6-0 win, with Ronaldinho rolling the years back by scoring an hat-trick, including a sensational first which echoed his strike against England in the 2002 World Cup.
In the 12th minute, Ronaldinho played a quick one-two with a teammate, and curled in a cross/shot (you decide!) with his right that evaded the entire defence and nestled beyond the goalkeeper’s reach in the far top corner.
The 32-year-old was overcome with tears, dropping to his knees as teammates ran to celebrate with him. Ronaldinho then pointed up towards the sky, acknowledging his stepfather.
He went on to score another two goals to complete his hat-trick but neither were as emotional and as stunning as his first.
After the game, Ronaldinho took to Twitter to thank the Atlético Mineiro fans.
“Very sad about the loss of my stepfather Vanderlei. Still shaken that I played today. It wasn’t easy, but I wanted to honour him with a great performance.
“The goals from today, I dedicate it to my family and thank you for the messages of affection I received. The gap he leaves is irreparable.”
Ronaldinho paying tribute to Vanderlei on Twitter after Atlético’s 6-0 win over Figueirense.
The game seemed to spark a revival within the Atlético Mineiro playmaker, as he inspired his club to a second place finish in the Brasileirão, second only to a relentless Fluminense side featuring former Barcelona teammate Deco and ex-Lyon striker Fred.
Ronaldinho finished the season with nine goals and eleven assists. As recognition for his performances, he was named player of the year and awarded the Bola de Ouro at the 2012 Brasileirão awards ceremony.
At the same ceremony, there was a passing of the baton as he handed the title of Brazil’s most exciting player to the rapidly emerging Neymar as he declared the Santos youngster ‘hors concours’.
The award recognises players who are far beyond the current level of play in the Brasileirão and was last given to a certain Pelé in 1970. But it was his words to the Santos star that captured headlines in Brazil.
“You are indeed hors concours. In the language of football, the others are riding bicycles while you are on a motorcycle.”
Ronaldinho praises Neymar during the presentation.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that moment would bring about the beginning of the end for one of Brazil’s most exciting players. But you’d be wrong. Ronaldinho, it seems, could have yet another chapter to his story. One that would reunite him with his most celebrated mentor. Felipão.
After the departure of former Seleção boss Mano Menezes in November 2012, the CBF turned to their former employee, Luiz Felipe Scolari.
The 2002 World Cup winning coach has had a turbulent career since leaving the hot seat in his first spell in charge. A successful period as Portugal coach saw them finish runners-up at Euro 2004 and semi-finalists in the 2006 World Cup. A quarter-final finish at Euro 2008 proved to be his swan song as he joined Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea.
A disastrous seven-month period at Chelsea soon earned him the sack, and the Brazilian had similarly unsuccessful reigns at Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor and Palmeiras. As soon as the CBF came calling, he jumped at the chance to return to the Seleção hot seat and started making preparations for his first match in charge.
Menezes’ policy of youth went out of the window, and Ronaldinho was recalled to the Seleção for the first time since a series of friendlies in September 2011 as Scolari recalled his most trusted players from his time in charge.
His first game in charge of the Seleção ended in 2-1 defeat to Roy Hodgson’s England as Ronaldinho failed to fire alongside fellow veteran Luis Fabiano and rising star Neymar. But the Atlético Mineiro star’s international career isn’t over just yet.
In the press conference after their loss, Scolari suggested that Ronaldinho will have more opportunities with the squad as the Seleção prepare for the 2013 Confederations Cup in June.
“He played 90 minutes in the first game in Brazil. There is some work for him to do, but he played well and if he keeps working he will be selected again.”
Scolari on Ronaldinho.
The baton has been passed, but Brazil would dearly love him to inspire the Seleção to their sixth World Cup victory in 2014, as they yearn for their first win on home soil. In many ways, Ronaldinho is still their most celebrated current player. The presiding king with Neymar as the heir to his throne.
He may have won very few honours compared to his rivals, but his ability on the ball, his mind-boggling array of tricks and flicks, have entertained and delighted fans and neutrals alike throughout his career. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed watching a single player as much as I enjoyed watching Ronaldinho at his peak.
A return to the Seleção for a friendly is one thing but to lead a new generation into the 2014 World Cup under Scolari?
Watch this space…