Tom Clarke writes about Ronaldinho, and why we might have witnessed his fall from grace so early on in his career.
Spraying off no-look passes and flip-flaps without a care in the world, every child wanted to be like Ronaldinho. There was even a 23-foot fibreglass and resin statue erected of him in Chapecó in 2004 to celebrate El Gaucho becoming FIFA World Player of the Year for the first time. “He transmits a lot of joy and pleasure playing the game,” said then Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard about Ronaldinho during the 2005-06 season, “and he has individual skills that are of such a high level that everybody in the world adores him”.
One of those admirers was aiming to break into Barcelona’s first team at the time, whilst the Brazilian terrorized top-class defenders. He looked up to Ronaldinho and watched closely the way he trained and lived his life, as this young Argentine was to become arguably the best player in football history; going by the name of Lionel Messi. “Ronnie has been massively important for me,” Messi said later on in his sparkling career, “I was so young when I started to come into Barça’s dressing room, but he made a point of being first to step up to me and look after me. I try to copy little things Ronaldinho does, but more fundamentally, I just try to play for the joy of it. Look at the way he always has a smile – that’s how I feel”. That buck-toothed smile became almost trademark, and his love of the game made others smile too. Ronaldinho was a role model to many.
One morning in 2008, on taking the reigns as manager of Barcelona, Pep Guardiola was wandering the buildings of his new training ground when he found Ronaldinho lying fast asleep on a massage bed, nursing a hangover. Guardiola, not afraid of dropping key players, decided he had to let Ronaldinho go if he were to obtain the correct mentality for his dressing room at the Nou Camp. He questioned Ronaldinho’s commitment to the game, saying in one of his first press conferences in the job: “If I felt that he wanted to be the player he was again, he would be here. But the situation has deteriorated and the solution is to build a strong dressing room”. Essentially, Pep sold Ronaldinho because he was proving a poor role model for young players like Messi and because his party lifestyle did not adhere to the hard-working, dedicated ethic which Pep was trying to create amongst a dressing room of many players who liked to enjoy themselves off the pitch perhaps a little too much sometimes, such as Deco and Samuel Eto’o (despite the latter promising to work harder for Guardiola). A current FC Barcelona club ambassador having signed a contract in September 2016 to take on the role, and a club legend, Ronaldinho was being thrown out by the scruff of his collar like a drunk from a nightclub due to his partying antics.
“Ronaldinho joined Barcelona as a toothy-grinned wizard who had the club under his spell for three glorious seasons. He will leave a rather forlorn figure. Whether his magic has been exhausted or he just needs a new challenge remains to be seen.” – Simon Baskett, Reuters, July 2008
El Gaucho went on to experience a turbulent time at AC Milan after turning down a £25.5 million offer from Manchester City, with a frustrating first season seeing Ronaldinho appear mainly from the bench due to flaccid performances and ‘fitness issues’. Eleven goals and eight assists in 43 appearances was the worst statistical return of his career to that point. However he enjoyed a much better second season in a different role for the club, finishing on top of the Serie A assists chart in 2009/10, reportedly feeling ‘happy and complete, loved and respected’.
Turbulent also was his return to Brazil for the swansong of his playing career, with moments of brilliance overshadowed by off-the-field issues such as financial disputes and family bereavements.
For a player who left the world star struck with his tricks and skills, such a brief prime evoked disappointment among many fans, with an overwhelming sense of ‘what could have been’. So what really happened to the man behind the tricks to cause his sudden decline?
“There came a day when Ronaldinho, he of the eternal smile, allowed himself to be consumed by long nights of partying, with the corresponding hangovers that were slept off on a massage bed in the gym changing-room. It was free fall without return… he lost his love of the sport” – Guillem Balague, Messi: The Biography, 2013
The problem can be traced back to Brazil’s failure at the 2006 World Cup. After winning the tournament in 2002 alongside Ronaldo and Rivaldo, Ronaldinho this time round was part of an offensive quartet with Kaka, Adriano and Ronaldo. The ‘magic quartet’ were hyped up by many in the media including Nike’s Joga Bonito advertising campaign leading up to the tournament, as expectations grew higher and higher.
Brazil were knocked out of the World Cup by France in the quarter-finals, and the aforementioned 23-foot statue of Ronaldinho in Chapecó was destroyed by Brazilian vandals. Cue a publicised party at Ronaldinho’s house in Barcelona that same night, aggravating the fans of the national side. In October of 2007, following omission from Brazil’s squad for the Copa América after reportedly asking to be excused from the squad due to fatigue, Ronaldinho returned to winning ways with his country with a 5-0 friendly win over Ecuador. This was followed by a night out in Rio De Janeiro, with the player allegedly leaving at 11am the following morning hiding from media attention in the back of a car. He was then benched by Barcelona after returning late to the squad.
“And that is where Ronaldinho’s love of the game died. The pressure had been excessive. He appeared to lose enthusiasm for a sport he had enjoyed playing for personal enjoyment. Friends who really loved Ronaldinho saw him sad and depressed from that summer onwards.” – Guillem Balague on Ronaldinho after the 2006 World Cup, Messi: The Biography, 2013
Perhaps Ronaldinho was trained so hard at a young age by coaches who wished to maximise his great potential that when he saw the enjoyment of the adult life he could be living, he simply could not resist. A young Ronaldinho would stay behind at training with Gremio’s youth teams for extra work, and trained with their first team to make his debut at a young age.
Ronaldinho has been described as a ‘big child, extremely innocent and an eternal pleasure seeker’. It seems he enjoyed life as a professional footballer just a tad too much. Players with so much talent should be protected like a young child to the poor choices of the world, but at the end of the day it is up to an individual how they choose to live their life. We are lucky to have witnessed such a magical, inspiring talent in his prime, however short that period was. Fallen star or simply just a sociable character, there is no doubting the glory and iconic status of Ronaldinho.
“When you play with him and see what he does with a ball, nothing surprises me anymore. One of these days, he will make the ball talk.” – Barcelona teammate Eidur Gudjohnsen on Ronaldinho, December 2006.
Written by Tom Clarke