“Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi make a lot of goals, but what Ronaldinho used to do was unbelievable. He used to be amazing on the field… I don’t know what happened, but if he wanted to continue that way, he would certainly be five times in a row the best in the world.” And so opined Chelsea and Brazil midfielder Willian when asked about his legendary compatriot.
Strange that when we think of Ronaldinho we think of what could have been. The two time FIFA Player of the Year and winner of 17 senior trophies including La Liga, Serie A, the Copa Libertadores, the Champions League and the 2002 World Cup has achieved more than most, yet we always ponder the level he could have reached.
As the 36-year-old announces his appearance in a December friendly for Mexican third-division outfit Cinco Estrellas, we ask: how will history remember the 2004 and 2005 World Player of the Year?
A prodigious talent, Ronaldinho Gaucho – as he is known in his homeland – first reached the media gaze at the tender age of 13, scoring all 23 goals in a 23-0 drubbing against a local rival. He first moved to Paris Saint-Germain before his move to Barcelona made him a living legend.
Barcelona were not the team of today. They’d seen some lean years, not having won a trophy in five years since their 98/99 La Liga triumph, and club president Jean Laporte was spending big to secure silverware. Laporte had promised the good looks and glamour of David Beckham to restore Barcelona’s fading image, but failure to sign him saw the club opt for the goofy and awkward-looking Ronaldinho, and what a decision that proved to be. With Ronaldinho as the €30million piece de resistance, Laporte was making a statement to the rest of the footballing world, but even the most optimistic of Barcelona fans wouldn’t have expected the difference he made.
Winning the La Liga in his second season, he picked up the world player of the year award for the first time after scoring 13 goals. It was 2005 when he really came into his own though, gaining a standing ovation from Real Madrid fans in his team’s 3-0 demolition of their fierce rivals, picking up the Champions league trophy and winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award for the second year running. He was on top of the world. “He is the man that makes the difference between a team that plays well and another that is really memorable. He alone can decide a game,” exclaimed manager Frank Rijkaard.
With success came the inevitable fortune. In 2006, Ronaldinho earned a reported $19million from endorsements, was on the front cover five FIFA football video games – to David Beckham’s one – and was the star of Nike’s first viral video to reach one million views.
2006/07 saw the beginning of the end of Ronaldinho. He had a poor season with a trophy-less Barcelona, blaming a lack of match fitness due to a long pre-season tour of the US. He failed to score in the 2006 World Cup, crashing out to France in the quarter-finals with angry fans destroying his 7.5 metre statue erected to celebrate his winning the 2004 World player of the Year award.
2007/08 saw an even worse season for Ronaldinho Gaucho. His partying lifestyle and a distinct lack of interest in training saw his fitness drop, while he also picked up injuries he could no longer shake off. His disappointing season ended early in April and proved to be the last time he played for Barcelona.
The energetic, happy, toothy-grin that had turned Barcelona’s fortunes around was now on its way out, and the sorry and dejected Ronaldinho soon found himself at AC Milan. Unable to do the same to his own image that he had Barcelona’s, his partying and lack of dedication to training followed him. With his career hanging over the edge of the precipice, he was ultimately unable to turn it around. “”The decline of Ronaldinho hasn’t surprised me. His physical condition has always been very precarious. His talent though has never been in question,” said AC Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti in 2011 when looking back on his time spent with Ronaldinho.
Since then, the Brazilian has shown glimpses of the Ronaldinho of old, winning the 2012 Bola de Ouro, selected as the best player in the Brazilian league, and going on to win the 2013 Copa Libertadores with Atletico Mineiro and the South American footballer of the year award as well. For the Hollywood script, this is where the movie would end. The Brazilian footballer that played beautifully, became a Barcelona club legend before partying saw his form drop, but, a move back home saw him grab his career by the scruff of the neck and reach the top yet again.
That, though, is not quite how Ronaldinho will be remembered. He’s continued since, with failed spells in Mexico and another club in Brazil – Fluminense – where his contract was terminated after just nine games after poor performances and being heavily criticised by fans and pundits alike. He’s never retired, choosing instead to be wheeled out for highly paid appearances in friendlies across the world. He’s apparently holding out for an offer from the MLS, but only time will tell if this materialises.
Let’s just remember the Ronaldinho who entertained the world at Barcelona and not begrudge him his excesses and vanity projects.
“When I say goodbye to football I will cry for life, so when I die do not bury me in a cemetery or elsewhere. Make me a temple next to a football stadium and bury me with a ball, because the ball is my life” – Ronaldinho.