No other player has captured the hearts and minds of the footballing public quite like the dazzling Brazilian. For two glorious years, he was footballing perfection, playing with a style no one else could match. It is of course, Ronaldinho.
In the mid-2000s, one man inspired more than anyone else. He was a buck-toothed bundle of energy, born in Porto Alegre, who dazzled and disarmed with each smile, each movement on the ball. He was a World Cup winner in 2002, part of a formidable forward line with Ronaldo and Rivaldo, two of his idols. For two glorious years, Ronaldinho was football. He was joga bonito. He was The Beautiful Game.
Ronaldinho began his career at Gremio, in Brazil. As a young player, he had already begun to develop his expressive, eye-catching style. He shone at the Under-17 World Championship in 1997, and made his senior debut in 1998 in the Copa Libertadores. In 1999, he burst into the wider world’s consciousness, scoring 23 goals in 48 games. Most impressively of all, he made a mockery of Dunga, the captain of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning side. The veteran, playing for Internacional, was left flat-footed again and again by his younger counterpart, as the ball was flipped over his head, around him, and through his legs. When Dunga managed Brazil, and did not select Ronaldinho for the 2010 World Cup, rumours circulated that he was still bitter about his embarrassment eleven years prior; such was the extent of his humiliation.
News of the latest Brazilian wonderkid spread across the Atlantic. Arsenal were reportedly interested, but in 2001 Ronaldinho took his talents to Paris, signing with PSG. His time in the French capital was mixed. Manager Luis Fernandez thought that the Brazilian enjoyed the Paris nightlife a little too much, but his effortless talent and charisma on the ball offset the off-pitch behaviour.
In between his two seasons in Paris, Ronaldinho went to the World Cup and returned a hero, part of the revered three R’s forward line. No game bore his mark more than the quarter-final against England. Trailing to an early Michael Owen goal, Ronaldinho truly announced himself to the world. With the clock ticking down to halftime, he picked up the ball just past the halfway line. Suddenly, the languid, loping movements became more driven, more menacing. He began to run at the heart of England’s defence with venomous intent. An elegant step-over sent Ashley Cole staggering away like a drunken patron getting kicked out of a bar. As three more defenders closed in on him, he played the ball to an unmarked Rivaldo, who equalised.
The second half got even better. Brazil won a free kick 40 yards from goal, on the right wing, a good crossing position. England’s goalkeeper, David Seaman, set himself up three yards off his line, ready to come out and claim any wayward pass. Seaman could only watch as Ronaldinho did the unthinkable. The ball arced in the Shizuoka sky, hanging at its zenith for what felt like an age. Then it began to dip. Surely, it would land in Seaman’s hands. Then it began to drift. Surely it would drift past the far post. Then the penny dropped. It was curving, floating and drifting into the top corner.
Seaman, ponytail aflutter, began to back-pedal, and raised his hand in despair, reaching, desperate to avoid humiliation. There was no saving him, and no saving England, from Ronaldinho. After the game, the man of the hour was asked if he meant it. He flashed a toothy grin, and insisted that he did. If anyone had the self-belief, audacity and sense of adventure to pull it off, it was Ronaldinho.
After another season at PSG, came the move that defined the Brazilian superstar. Following in Rivaldo and Ronaldo’s footsteps, Ronaldinho was destined for Barcelona. La Blaugrana won La Liga in 1999, during their centenary year, but had endured a barren period since. Their talisman, Luis Figo, had deserted them for their nemesis, Real Madrid, which coincided with substandard performances in the league. Managers came and went with alarming frequency. They were a legendary club in a funk, with no discernible playing style. Madrid had Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Raul, and Figo. The Galacticos were in the ascendency.
In the summer of 2003, Barca took their first major step towards reinventing themselves, post-Figo, and outbid Manchester United to sign Ronaldinho. He missed a large chunk of his first season through injury, though managed to net 15 goals. This included a stunner against Sevilla, where he started in his own half, and danced through two challenges, before unleashing a thunderbolt of a shot that crashed in off the underside of the bar from 30 yards. He managed to aid a late push up the table for Barca, who finished second.
The 2004-05 season saw the rebirth of Barcelona as a force in La Liga, and in Europe. This was an abundantly talented team, with players like Samuel Eto’o, Deco, Carles Puyol, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta. But when teams lined up against them, there was one player they feared above all others. Ronaldinho played with a smile on his face and venom in his feet. He brought the flicks and tricks of a street footballer from Porto Alegre to the masses assembled at Camp Nou. Those who dared to take him on were mesmerised, bewitched and brought to their knees by the Brazilian. La Liga once again belonged to Barcelona, and Ronaldinho was named the 2004 FIFA Player of the Year.
Even when they lost, Ronaldinho could not be stopped. Barcelona were knocked out of the Champions League by Chelsea, and even then, the Brazilian stole the show. As his side fell to a 4-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge, Ronaldinho produced a moment of utter footballing perfection. A ball into the Chelsea box was headed out to Iniesta, who laid it off to Ronaldinho. Just inside the ‘D’, he stopped the ball dead. In that moment, he was surrounded. Blue shirts swarmed around him, ready to rob him off the ball. It was an impossible situation in which to hold on to possession. So he decided to shoot. There was no time to generate any kind of back-lift, so Ronaldinho did something only Ronaldinho could do. With the toe of his right boot planted, he feinted one way, then the other, his hips swivelling to the sound of a silent samba beat. Ricardo Carvalho, one of the world’s best central defenders, was drawn in, bewitched, and leant almost imperceptibly, every so slightly, to one side. To Ronaldinho, it was like a chasm opening up in front of him. With an ruthlessly quick swing of his right boot, with almost no backlift, with defenders swarming in from all sides, Ronaldinho placed the ball into the far corner of the goal. Few players in the history of the game could have imagined scoring a goal of such outrageous quality. Only one could have pulled it off with such effortless grace.
The next season, Ronaldinho inspired Barca to even greater heights. Ronaldinho won both the FIFA Player of the Year, and the Ballon d’Or, cementing his spot as the greatest footballer in the world. Barca won the league again, and this time, Ronaldinho made sure they did not falter in Europe. A rematch against Chelsea beckoned in the second round of the Champions League, and Ronaldinho exacted his revenge, scoring after a trademark, weaving run in the second leg. He grabbed another goal against Benfica in the quarter-finals, and the decisive assist in the semi-finals against Milan. Barca fought from behind to win the Champions League final against Arsenal, 2-1, to seal their second ever European title.
However, Ronaldinho saved his greatest game that season, perhaps ever, for the Santiago Bernabeu, in a clash against the Galacticos of Madrid. Barca humiliated them, eviscerated them, mauled them. Madrid were not just played out of the park, they were played out of their own city. Their defenders were chasing shadows, and the one that eluded them more than anyone else, did it with a grin and a shift of his hips.
Ronaldinho scored twice that day. The first was a thing of beauty. Picking up the ball near the halfway line, as he so often seemed to do, he began to accelerate. Sergio Ramos closed him down, sized him up, and flew in for what seemed like a sure tackle. Ronaldinho merely shifted his hips, and sent the Spanish centre-back on his way, turning a well-timed challenge into a flailing, desperate dive. The Brazilian bore down on the box, faked outside, and then cut inside, leaving Ivan Helguera teetering like a punch-drunk boxer. Roberto Carlos was given just enough hope that he could get there in time, but the decision to slide in and block the shot had barely entered his mind when the ball crashed into the back of the net. Not satisfied with the one goal, Ronaldinho decided to turn the screws, bursting past Ramos, who at this point more resembled a training cone than a defender to the Brazilian, before nutmegging Iker Casillas for his second of the night. Then the Madrid fans did the unthinkable. One by one, they rose, and applauded. The only Barca player to be applauded by the Bernabeu crowd before this had been Diego Maradona. Such was the genius of Ronaldinho.
The 2006 World Cup marked the start of Ronaldinho’s fall from the top. No goals, no trophies, too many late nights on the town. Injuries, a loss of form, and the rise of Lionel Messi led to the end of his career at Barcelona. In 2008, he moved on to Milan, but the same problems persisted. It was clear that the Ronaldinho of old was no more. The great Brazilian would wind down his career in his home country, with a short jaunt to Mexico thrown in, before finally hanging up his boots in 2015.
In his prime, Ronaldinho inspired the development of the modern Barcelona. He was the prototype for players like Messi and Neymar, fast incisive wide players, capable of cutting in and shooting at will. At his best, he would glide along the field, daring others to try and get the ball off him. No one looked happier playing the game, and for those two years, no one played the game better.
Ronaldinho was every aspect of Brazilian football at its most extreme. He was a flawed genius, who eventually let the trappings of fame and fortune get the better of him, but no one thought less of him for it. He played with a smile on his face, and brought joy to others in the process. In the modern footballing world, Lionel Messi is synonymous with technical perfection. Cristiano Ronaldo is physical perfection. For those two, glorious, unforgettable years, Ronaldinho was footballing perfection.