It is hard to fawn over people who are stuck somewhere between your near and far memory. Your first crush – Sure. Everyone fondly remembers it. Your last relationship which was also a minor disaster – Yup. No on forgets that either. But what about the girl in between with whom you went on three dates and never saw again. The one that probably got away but also didn’t because your life moved on without any fuss – you worked hard, got through college, then landed a job and most things fell in place.
Ronaldinho, like that girl, comes up these days ever so rarely. His career at its peak was short but blistering. At 28, when he joined Milan (2008), he was already a spent force. Named FIFA World Player of the Year in consecutive seasons, he had already proved his ability to play the game to his fans and most importantly to himself.
We are talking about a time pre Ronaldo v Messi (or Messi v Ronaldo). About a time when the best Brazilian footballers in the world were purely nimble footed attacking players with flair, guile, technique and copious amounts of audacity. Names that roll of the tongue include Ronaldinho, Kaka, Robinho, Adriano, and if you go back a bit further – Ronaldo and Rivaldo. This was before Brazil changed its philosophy to incorporate more strength and stamina in their sides that led to flourishing careers for the likes of Felipe Melo, Julio Baptista, Ramires, Paulinho and Luis Gustavo to name a few. For those obsessed about dates – the era in discussion is essentially between the 2002 Fifa World Cup and the summer of 2008 – the time between near and far memory – the one that got away.
The temptation to start with ‘that Free kick’ is irresistible and that is exactly why we must start there. It is unlikely David Seaman will ever read this article but if he ever did, this is probably where he leaves us. Brazil were trailing England 23 minutes into the 2002 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final tie at Shizuoka. Ronaldinho was instrumental in setting up Rivaldo for the equaliser before curling a wicked free kick against the wind into Seaman’s far right corner (far left to a television viewer). The goal at first sight seemed to defy the parabola in which any airborne object moves. It was simply shocking. For a right footed player to take an out swinging free kick from a dead ball position to the right of the near post and landing the ball well within the boundaries of the goal is simply a ridiculous thing to even imagine. To in fact accomplish such a challenge in the biggest game of his life should tell us a lot about the man himself and yet it is only half the story. Seven minutes later, having overrun the ball he stopped and turned to recover it only to lunge and stamp on present day pseudo football pundit Danny Mills’ foot. It was a straight red for Ronaldinho and later Rivaldo picked up the Man of the Match Award, one that was truly deserved by only one player on that pitch during that balmy evening in Shizuoka.
Those seven minutes tell us all three things we need to know, to understand the phenomenon that is, that was Ronaldinho and his legacy.
It is difficult to find an alternative word to legacy number one apart from ‘Genius’. In the footballing world, we tend to either go around in circles trying to explain something – like racism, sexism, corruption, diving, cheating etc. or go the whole nine yards in the same breath and call any talented young 16 year old the next ‘Messi’ or the next striker of African-American heritage coming out of France or Belgium the next ‘Drogba’. Fortunately, the subject of this piece requires no moderation and we must do justice by calling him out for what he was – genius.
There was a time, early in the last decade, when Barcelona were essentially a team built around one man, Ronaldinho. Sounds much like today? Not Quite. The Barca of 2003 were much different from the Barca of today. There was no Pep, no concrete Philosophy, no World Domination, no idolatry and most importantly-no business in coming remotely close to winning their next Champions League. In hindsight, signing him (in 2003) was as much a coup for the Catalans as much as it was the dawn of a new era under newly elected club president Joan Laporta. It is a fact that their first choice was David Beckham, who turned them down for the white of Madrid. Given the remarkable career that the Brazilian ended up having with them, the blaugrana probably look back at the chain of events more fondly now than they did at the time.
Ronaldinho, over the next three seasons dazzled Spanish audiences and aficionados of full-fledged Brazilian street soccer. He may as well be credited with bringing Futsal to the mainstream, albeit only temporarily. Highlights include a flip flap past Nesta followed by a left footed bullet into the net against Milan in 2004, displaying his prowess with his weaker foot, a feint and a dink, with no back lift, over Petr Cech in the Champions League Round of 16 in 2005, a mazy solo run , the same year, past a younger Sergio Ramos at the Bernebau that led to a standing ovation from the home fans, a staggering chest controlled lob proceeded with a reverse poke over the keep’s head against Osasuna in 2006, and an overhead bicycle kick against Atletico in 2008.
The list is long but watch any highlight reel of the man and you take home one thing. He is unmissable on the pitch and like so many great players before him, Ronaldinho had the effect of lighting up any stadium. His style of play transcended the tactic board and consumed his team mates with it. The player itself became the strategy, the tactic, the plan, the path to goal. You may be forgiven for using the words player and artist interchangeably for what he created on the pitch was performance artistry, something that is timeless and revered forever.
Unfortunately, legacy number two coupled with the age of footballing half gods in Cristiano, Messi, Zlatan and the likes – has meant that history has somehow misplaced his memory. His final two seasons at Barcelona saw him increasingly take to the finer pleasures of life and ‘genius’ now craved the good times more than he craved the theatre of the pitch. By his late twenties, Ronaldinho had won it all and while most expected him to carry on, to seal his destiny for the ages, he probably wanted to live his life differently. Having been separated from his father at the tender age of eight in a swimming accident, the finality of life and death was not lost on him. By the end of his time in Barcelona, it is fair to say ‘Little Ronaldo’ had lost his love for the game. He would still go on to make meaningful contributions at Milan, Flamengo, and even lift the Copa Libertadores at Atletico Mineiro in 2013 but the spark had left the body.
The boy ‘genius’ from Porto Allegre let the free-spirited Brazilian in him run free and the media couldn’t get enough of his wild parties and infinite transgressions. Club bosses ran out of fines to impose and managers preferred he remained at the club instead of the dressing room. As the newer age of disciplined, corporate friendly, media savvy, clean and well-groomed generation of footballing megastars moved in the likes of the imperfect Ronaldinho have moved out to the badlands of fan discussion and opinion. Parents desire their kids to follow role models today that have eight packs, are good family men and score more than 50 goals a season for ten seasons in a row. The freedom to love and cherish gifted but flawed individuals nowadays is in short supply. Even in football we are moving towards a two-dimensional world and that is much to the detriment of the game. Most discussions around the water cooler start and end with Messi v Ronaldo, Barca v Madrid, United v the rest.
The lasting legacy of Ronaldinho is very likely going to be his smile. Not a grin, not a smirk not a laugh either, but the wide mouthed, wide eyed eye ear to ear smile. The smile that speaks to his heart and tells him “It’s alright. Everything will be fine.” The same smile that he had after he was shown that red card against England all those years back. The smile when he did his impromptu TV interviews, the smile that he carried with him to the corner after scoring a goal, it spoke to us about happiness, being free and being in love with what you do. Earlier this year, in an unusual letter penned to his eight-year-old self, he talks about what football means for the Brazilian people, the happiness that it brings them and the power of sport itself. He goes on to say
“Stay Free and You’ll win a World Cup for Brazil.”
“Stay Free and You’ll win the the Champions League, Serie A and La liga”
“Stay Free and You’ll win the Balon d’or”
It appears that we are not the only ones looking to hold on to Ronaldinho in our memories, he is trying to hold on it as well.