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Long read: Ronaldinho – How the godfather of flair changed football forever

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Rooney gets some Ronnie love

He has skill, shoots well and protects the ball. He is steady –never on the ground. I have always liked his style

- Ronaldinho on Rooney

Among the world game’s more established players, Ronnie is still keeping faith with the man who holds scoring records for England as well as Manchester United.

“There are many great players these days – Luis Suarez and Neymar, for example,” he says. “Among the English, I still like Wayne Rooney. He has skill, shoots well and protects the ball. He is steady – never on the ground. I have always liked his style.

“It was great to play with Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Milan, too. I have got a great deal of admiration for him, a nice friendship. He’s so confident in himself. I like it.”

Who was the most skilful player he played alongside or against? “There’s too many on both sides – the Galacticos alone...” he says. “But there are two pictures I’ve seen that kind of answer that. In one there is me, Andrea Pirlo and Beckham ready to take a free-kick at Milan in a friendly match – imagine the nightmare for the keeper! Then the other is of that wall of Galacticos I talked about earlier, waiting for my free-kick.

Real Madrid

Another star-studded Real Madrid wall attempts to block a free-kick against Milan

“I always loved seeing Zinedine Zidane play. I never had the pleasure to play with him, even in friendlies – I mean, not yet, there is still hope! But he made it look so simple. Things that everyone knows to be difficult were very easy for him.”

Asked who he prefers now, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho diplomatically evades choosing between them.

“Well I have played with Messi and that was a huge pleasure, even during his early days,” Ronaldinho says. “We always enjoyed each other’s company when we managed to be together – even if it’s a little harder to talk to Messi these days because he basically has no vacations. I would have loved to have played with Ronaldo too, he is just fantastic. They are among the best ever, for sure.”

The best ever?

The Brazilian was just the sort of player for whom 90 minutes somehow did not seem enough – you could have happily watched him play football all day

That is beyond argument, but some argue that at his peak, albeit over a much shorter time period, Ronaldinho surpassed them both. “In my honest opinion, at that time I think Ronaldinho was bigger than both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo,” Willian said a year ago.

Henrik Larsson played with both Messi and Ronaldo – the latter during a brief loan spell at Manchester United – but doesn’t hesitate when FFT asks him to choose the greatest player he ever played with.

Henrik Larsson, Ronaldinho

Larsson played alongside Ronaldinho for two years

“Ronaldinho! The way that he was playing during the time I was at Barcelona, it was like he was from another planet,” the former Celtic and Barça striker says.

“He’s been a wonderful player,” another former Blaugrana team-mate, Ludovic Giuly, admits to FFT. “He’s a very good person, too – a quality that’s not so common for players at his level. I can tell you that he was also a virtuoso of the PlayStation – he was able to play football on the games console like he did on the pitch! On the field, he’s been unique. He created a style of his own.”

RONNIE'S FAN CLUB

  • Dante (2017): “I will never forget how he welcomed me into the Brazil squad. He made me feel at home, and we got close during my initiation ceremony as I had to dance to a song that he also liked! It’s not difficult to understand why he is so admired as he is an exceptional dude. He is always carrying this different energy – he doesn’t treat anyone differently. He has a joy about doing what he does, and it is the kind of behaviour that benefits a dressing room.”

“He would just see your runs,” Larsson adds, detailing what really impressed him about the Brazilian. “I remember a game at Celta Vigo: he had the ball wide on the left, halfway into their half. I was on the right, I started a run and he spotted it, threading a pass in between everyone. Unfortunately I missed, but just to see the movement from that distance, with so many players around him, was something special.”

The Brazilian was just the sort of player for whom 90 minutes somehow did not seem enough – you could have happily watched him play football all day. Some did just that: Eden Hazard once told FFT that in his younger days, he spent hours watching clips of Ronnie on YouTube. Dele Alli told us that he’d also spend hours trying to mimic the Brazilian’s goals, having seen them online. And Wilfried Zaha explained he would study Ronaldinho’s skills, the flip-flap notably, and then spend day after day on the training ground trying to perfect the amazing trick.

“The flip-flap is by far the best,” Ronaldinho grins, when asked to choose his favourite skill. It was a skill that he would often use during his days at Barcelona – once deploying it to befuddle Alessandro Nesta and then blast home a stunning last-minute winner against Milan in the Champions League. “I always knew how to make it work,” he explains.

“It’s not just a beautiful dribble, it’s a skill that opens up gaps. Of course, you can use other dribbles to win some time, too, to cool down a match. And you could also use it to make a defender go easier on you. But the flip-flap is the very best – it’s the most artistic and the most productive. When I got it right, someone would take the fall!”

Ronnie knows a good samba

Music has never been far from his heart, as the various instruments around his apartment prove

Soon, Ronnie’s flip-flap days will be over, his playing days too. What then?

A career in politics maybe, like Romario and Bebeto? “No politics for me at all...” he smiles, ruling out following in the footsteps of some of his fellow former Brazilian stars. Probably a wise decision, as there are not that many congress sessions at 1.24am.

Will he stay in football? Some years ago he said he’d consider becoming a coach at the end of his playing days, but now he doesn’t sound so sure. “I’ve not even thought about it much,” says the 36-year-old, who recently became a club ambassador for Barcelona. “I might be an aide to my brother [and his agency] at some point, and watch DVDs! But I don’t like the meetings.

Bebeto

Ronaldinho is unlikely to follow Bebeto into poltiics

RONNIE'S FAN CLUB

  • Sheyi Ojo (2016): “As a young player growing up, my main idol was Ronaldinho, as he always plays the game with a smile on his face."
  • Ruud Gullit (2007): “He is a flexible player who can do things that are just simply unbelievable.”

“I also want to do some more for footvolley, to make it an Olympic sport. It’s growing and it’s a show. There’s a world league set up now and I want to practise to be at the level of the players that are also there.”

A mixture of football and beach volleyball, it sounds like it was made for a retired Ronnie. Next stop, the Copacabana. And once football is out of the way, will he have more time to dedicate to partying? Well, sort of. He intends to have a good time, that’s for sure, albeit via a slightly different medium. “I want to work with music,” he says. “Each day I love it more and more.”

Music has never been far from his heart, as the various instruments around his apartment prove. There was the time, for instance, when the Brazil squad were on the plane back home from Japan after lifting the 2002 World Cup and Ronaldinho whipped out a drum from the overhead locker and started entertaining the squad with a spot of pagode, a musical style that is derived from samba.

It’s the sort of thing he liked to do pretty often. “He would just be hitting the drums with everything he had in his hand to try to create a rhythm,” says ex-Barça team-mate Giuly. “Music is in his soul.”

Ludovig Giuly

Giuly (left) has first-hand experience of Ronaldinho's love of music

“When I got on the bus to go to a match and Ronaldinho was there playing the drums, I knew what the game would be like,” adds defender Juan, one of Ronnie’s former Brazil team-mates. “If he was smiling and singing, then I knew we were set to win. He is from the south, a region that isn’t that great with samba. But he is different – he has the voice, the ways of Rio de Janeiro.”

That voice was put on show in 2014 when he sung on the track Vai Na Fe, a ditty that he composed himself in collaboration with rapper and friend Edcity.

“He has a got a good voice, he knows how to play and he can tell a good samba from a bad one,” says famous samba artist Jorge Aragao. “Ronaldinho calls me his godfather but the truth is samba was already in him. I’m sure he’ll do great if he wants to work with music in some form.”

Putting the time in

A lot of musicians come to my house to perform because they know how much I love what they do

- Ronaldinho

And Ronaldinho is very serious about it.

“I want to study, to learn sound engineering and producing,” he says. “I’m very curious about it. I want to have a studio built at my home. I like all genres, a bit of everything. I’m composing – one of my recent songs was used as a theme for the Paralympics in Rio, which made me even more excited to watch all of the Paralympics.

“A lot of musicians come to my house to perform because they know how much I love what they do. There are so many good people that play here and have no opportunity to do more. I want the world to see their talents.”

Ronaldinho

Ronaldinho can envisage a future in music, but he insists he isn't finished in football just yet

For almost 20 years, the world has seen and loved Ronaldinho’s talents out on the football field. The chance to relive it all with the man himself has been a privilege.

“Thanks for coming,” he cheerily says to FourFourTwo as our interview comes to an end. “Now excuse me,” he adds, “as in two hours I’ll be going to China for a sponsorship deal!” With a parting grin, he bids farewell.

Soon he will bid farewell to the game that has made him a hero to millions upon millions of football fans – in China, in Brazil, in Europe, in fact pretty much everywhere. His career may be almost at an end, but in those who worshipped him, in those who felt compelled to follow in his footsteps, in those he inspired to greatness, his impact will continue to last for many more years to come.

This feature originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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