Long read: Ronaldinho – How the godfather of flair changed football forever
FourFourTwo is in Rio de Janeiro, a stone’s throw from the 2016 Olympic Park, and we’ve just received an offer we can’t refuse.
“Would you like some of my chocolate cake?” Ronaldinho asks, directing his trademark grin towards us rather than the camera, midway through his FFT photoshoot. Chocolate cake is appealing enough on any occasion. When it’s being offered to you by one of the greatest players of all time – well, don’t mind if we do, thanks Ronnie…
Soon we’re sitting alongside the fun-loving legend, feasting on bolo no pote, otherwise known as cake in a pot. It’s a product sold by his very own sister-in-law, and tasty it is, too. We're in Ronaldinho’s swish apartment on the outskirts of Brazil’s most famous city, almost 20 miles west of Copacabana. But if all this sounds like a quiet retreat, it isn’t – not when you consider the plethora of musical instruments dotted around his home, including a host of acoustic guitars and pretty much every kind of drum imaginable.
RONNIE'S FAN CLUB
- Ruud van Nistelrooy (2006): “He’s the greatest player in the world. I just can’t get enough of watching him play – he’s a delight for the eyes. His technique is incredible, he scores goals and he orchestrates everything. I know how hard it is for a forward playing at this level, but for him it’s easy. He does it every game and it’s unbelievable to watch. If I fear anyone at the World Cup, it’s Brazil and Ronaldinho.”
- Ronaldo (2014): “He'd destroy a player, then laugh and joke with them when the game was over. I’ve never seen anyone else do that.”
Ronaldinho has been dancing to the beat of his own drum since the very start of his football career – a career that has been just as much about joie de vivre as joga bonito. That perhaps is the biggest reason he’s adored the world over, not just in Barcelona and Brazil, and why he inspired a generation. He wasn’t just a truly great footballer – he looked like he enjoyed being a truly great footballer, too. If few players have been quite as much fun to watch, even fewer have had quite as much fun being watched.
“There was this guy from Athletic Bilbao, he was kicking me for the whole match,” Ronaldinho grins as he tells FFT about a game during his days at the Camp Nou. “So I flipped the ball over him three times!”
The grin quickly turns to laughter, as he thinks back to that moment in 2004 when Carlos Gurpegui was embarrassed by not just three flicks in 90 minutes, but three in five dizzying seconds. Unlucky mate, better luck next time, eh? Few would have been capable of such a trick. Even fewer would have actually dared to try it.
Ronaldinho’s skills dazzled in a way that no one had seen before. Not even Lionel Messi, his glorious successor at Barcelona, can snatch the Brazilian’s crown as the king of the showboat. Oh, and he also won the World Cup and the Champions League, too.
Ronaldinho wants to make one thing clear, though. He may be 36 now, and he may have spent the entirety of 2016 without a club, after leaving Fluminense in September 2015, but his career is not over just yet. At the time of FFT’s visit, the plan is to find a new club and play until the end of 2017. “I always have a lot of offers,” he explains.
Scoring in the small hours
When the clock reached 1.24am, midway through the second half, the club’s latest signing picked up the ball inside his own half and headed for goal
Ronaldinho spent five years at Barcelona, but there’s one moment he remembers better than any other. Naturally, it took place at 1.24am. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be wide awake at that time, rather than quietly tucked up in bed, but on this occasion his exploits in the early hours weren’t part of any raucous partying. Instead he was in the middle of the Camp Nou, in front of 80,000 spectators, making his home debut for the Catalan behemoths.
“The most memorable match was the first one,” he tells FFT of that moment in 2003, shortly after his move from Paris Saint-Germain. “It started at 0.01am. There was some fight with the federation and we had to play Sevilla in a full Camp Nou at that time on a weekday. It was the first and only time that I played at that time. But it was no problem – that’s my favourite time of day...”
The bizarre kick-off time had threatened to take all the headlines – Barcelona’s attempts to switch the game from Wednesday to Tuesday were refused; in a fit of pique, they decided to kick off at the earliest possible time on Wednesday to prove a point.
When the clock reached 1.24am, midway through the second half, the club’s latest signing picked up the ball inside his own half and headed for goal – drifting past one opponent, stepping inside another, before unleashing a hammer of a shot from 30 yards that crashed off the underside of the bar and into the net. A Barcelona legend was born.
“I scored a screamer and the stadium just went mad,” is how he succinctly sums it up, the memories flooding back. ‘Ronaldinho out scoring until the small hours,’ read one of the local newspaper headlines the following day.
By proving a success at Barcelona, he was following in the footsteps of one of his heroes. Ronaldo had wowed fans with 47 goals in his solitary season with the club six years earlier. In 2002, a year before Ronaldinho first set foot in Catalonia, the pair had lifted the World Cup together in Japan.
“I played for Brazil at such a fantastic time,” Ronaldinho says. “I was always playing with my heroes. It was a very short time until my heroes became my team-mates, my friends. Each time I was called to play with them, it was another dream come true.
“Even now, I am always star-struck. Each time I kiss Ronaldo on the cheek, each time I hug Romario, each time I see Rivaldo, each time that I’m in the same place with Roberto Carlos or Cafu, it is always very emotional for me. They will always be heroes.”
World Cup glory
While Ronaldo and Rivaldo dominated the headlines in the early games, with Ronaldinho scoring a solitary penalty against China, few will forget how he stole the show iagainst England
If Ronaldo was known for having a few tricks and flicks himself, then Ronaldinho never attempted to outdo one of his idols for skills on the training field.
“I never even dared to do that,” he says solemnly. “I have the utmost respect for him – Ronaldo is now our national team president. To be friends with him is one of the greatest honours for me. It was always very natural between us both.”
Ronaldinho was only a year into his senior career at Gremio when he joined Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu on the field in his first competitive match for Brazil, as a substitute against Venezuela at the 1999 Copa America. Within four minutes he had received a pass from Cafu and flicked the ball over the head of a defender (just once was enough this time) before firing home a brilliantly impudent goal. Weeks later, he was the player of the tournament at the Confederations Cup in Mexico.
He was a PSG player by the time the 2002 World Cup came around. While Ronaldo and Rivaldo dominated the headlines in the early games, with Ronaldinho scoring a solitary penalty against China, few will forget how he stole the show in the quarter-final against England. First the dribble from halfway, the stepover to bamboozle Ashley Cole and the pass to Rivaldo for Brazil’s first goal. Then the 40-yard free-kick to flummox David Seaman.
“It looked like it was going to be a cross, but it was totally intentional,” Roberto Carlos told FFT years later. “We’d seen that Seaman always took a little step forward and that he might be a bit vulnerable to being chipped. Ronaldinho had told us all exactly what he wanted to do during half-time.”
Ronaldinho got sent off in that game, too, but it hardly mattered by then. He was back when Brazil were crowned world champions.
Destination Camp Nou
Once Laporta had been elected, and with Beckham now bound for the Santiago Bernabeu, Rosell went all out to bring in Ronaldinho, and the forward opted for Barcelona
“I don’t want to be disrespectful,” began Roy Keane – a sure sign that he was about to be disrespectful. “But any player who does not want to sign for Manchester United needs to have their head examined.”
The player he was talking about at the time was Ronaldinho. The Brazilian had seemed destined for Old Trafford in the summer of 2003 – David Beckham was supposed to go to Barça, with Ronaldinho moving from PSG to replace him at United. But Beckham chose Real Madrid instead, and Barcelona needed to find themselves another star.
That summer, Joan Laporta was embroiled in a battle to become Barça’s new president. His running mate was a certain Sandro Rosell, who knew Ronaldinho from his days working as a Nike executive in his native Brazil. Once Laporta had been elected, and with Beckham now bound for the Santiago Bernabeu, Rosell went all out to bring in Ronaldinho, and the forward opted for Barcelona. Alex Ferguson’s excursion to Paris to meet the player and his agent – his elder brother, Roberto Assis – ultimately wasn’t enough to seal a deal. Weeks later, United brought in a young Cristiano Ronaldo instead.
RONNIE'S FAN CLUB
- Marc Overmars (2016): “Ronaldinho was without any doubt one of the best players that I’ve ever played with. When we were at Barcelona together, he could win games for us all on his own.”
- Daniel Sturridge (2016): “I used to watch Ronaldinho when I was younger, when he was at Barça, and think: ‘Oh my god, what am I seeing here?!’”
Ronaldinho has certainly never regretted his decision – it never particuarly bothered him that Beckham had been the Catalans’ first choice that summer, not him.
“I never even thought of that,” he says now. “Yes, I could have played for another club, but I went to Barcelona because of my friendship with Sandro Rosell. I could have played for Manchester United. My brother was already studying what I would do after PSG. I was a World Cup winner then, and that opened a lot of doors. But when Sandro was elected, I had the chance to see the club and the city, and the choice became easy.”
While United were champions of England, Barcelona had finished sixth in the previous season, behind Valencia, Celta Vigo, Deportivo La Coruna, Real Sociedad and champions Real Madrid. But with Joan Laporta now taking over, Ronaldinho was joining a club with a massive determination to improve.
“Everything changed at Barcelona,” he says. “It was in all our heads to make a different Barcelona, to mount the challenge to the Galacticos and do it with a very young team to change the story. I was never worried.”
Never worried, despite the fact that the Blaugrana won only six of their opening 18 league games in his debut season at the Camp Nou. Just after the turn of the year, they were down in 12th.
Even then, he never feared that he may have made the wrong choice. “No, it was never the case,” he explains. “Being in that team was a huge pleasure from the start to the end. Everyone had the same mindset. We were sure it was just a matter of time for things to come together. We felt that the project was going in the right direction. Not one player in that team had any doubts – we didn’t feel pressure. Seriously. Not a bit. I was too happy playing for the same team that my heroes had all played for.”