'My boots are my everything': Meet Ronaldinho's true love

Life. Family. Joy. They define Ronaldinho, who has grown iconic in a way that rivals only Michael Jordan.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- For the first time, we didn’t need the translator. The room knew what he said. Ronaldinho, speaking Portuguese, was a language removed for nearly 40 minutes. When the crossbar video comes up, all barriers dissolve.

“It was the first YouTube video to get one million [views],” he quickly reminds us, the staff, media, agents and friends gathered around a collection of boots. They’re Tiempos, the line he wore for the most famous commercial in soccer history -- a video some still hope is real.

I was just an explosion of joy,” he explains, using a word he brings up often when discussing his career: alegria. “Everybody used to ask me all the time [if it was real]. Even until today, they still do.”

And until today, the ad remains a major part of his image.

“The video didn’t stay in the past. It is still here, now, with us ... It’s still part of everything.”

That “everything” is about identity, something of a Nike speciality long before its partnership with Ronaldinho. Years prior to signing the Brazilian legend, Nike made its mark with stars like Michael Jordan, whose branding gained independence of his college (North Carolina), pro team (Chicago Bulls) and league (the NBA) with one of sports’ most successful campaigns.

For Ronaldinho, the crossbar ad brought the same independence the Mars Blackmon videos brought Jordan. As much as Barcelona and Brazil were part of this life, another part of his identity needed to come through. There was something more basic at the crossbar ad’s core.

“I was always the ambassador of freestyle,” he says, “so I was really happy to see how kids on the streets were excited to try [to recreate the video]. Is it possible? Is it not possible? In the streets, everybody was trying … It didn’t really matter if you could do it or not. It was just about trying; that energy of people just being free and trying.”

Though World Cup and Champions League glories helped brand Ronaldinho, so did images like juggling off a crossbar with a new pair of Tiempos. Yet because of that connection, it can be difficult to tell where the branding starts and a player’s soul remains. We know what we think of when we’re reminded of Ronaldinho, the savant, a player whose creativity remains unparalleled in soccer lore. How much of that, though, is portrait, and how much of it is person?

Throughout my life, there’s never been a better gift than boots and balls. For me, not cars. Not other toys. This is all I wanted to do, the whole time. This is what made me happy.

As a teen in the early 1990s, he was already a phenom in Brazil, but he wouldn’t claim the world’s spotlight until 1997, when he broke out at the Under-17 World Cup. In between, at 15, he signed his first shoe deal -- the first sign a teenager’s local fame could translate into global stardom.

“That was a long time ago,” he says, wistfully, remembering when he was still Ronaldo de Assis Moreira. He’d soon become Ronaldinho Gaucho, as he’s known in Brazil, but even as he broke in with his national team, he was six years away from global stardom in Europe. Nike and Ronaldinho became partners before the world could even identify a Ronaldinho.

“There was a lot of joy throughout that process,” he explains. “A lot of my friends were very excited for me. The feeling was out of this world. It was amazing, and it still is.”

Now 37, Ronaldinho has been with the same company longer than he was any club; longer than he’s been with any girlfriend, as he put it. His appearances for Brazil, from the Under-17s to the Seleçao’s senior team, spanned 18 years. He’s been with Nike for 22.

“At this point, I’ve been with Nike my whole life,” he says. “It’s my home.”

Eddy Lemaistre/FEP/Panoramic-PanoramiC/USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to be cynical about the relationship between stars and their brands. Whenever athletes speak about their products, it’s often with a sense of detachment, one that reminds us of a numbing duality: the divide and connection between a business’ bottom line and a player’s greatness on the field.

With Ronaldinho, though, cynicism has always been difficult. On the field, he was a player who challenged our primacy of scoreboard, forcing the most pragmatic of souls to concede the game can transcend results. Even now, two years after leaving the field, it’s hard to see a man wearing a reverse Kangol hat, hoodie over t-shirt and shorts, and socks with slides as the endpoint of a corporate message. Nothing about Ronaldinho has ever been cynical.

“I was always myself,” he explains. “That’s something where I was lucky, especially when it came to the style of play. I could just play how I wanted. I never acted. I was always what I was.”

Confronted about the dissonance -- the collision between corporate and creative -- he remains matter of fact. He’s not defensive. He doesn’t blink. Identity. Influence. When applied to him, it seems, the concepts are too obscure. There is a denial of a deeper philosophy in favour of something pure, as if the only thing that ever mattered was what he could do with a ball.

Even in retirement, the ideal is immutable, as evidenced by his display in a Barcelona-Manchester United legends game one day after visiting Portland.

Nearly two years removed from his last competitive game, Ronaldinho is still the popular showman, devoted to freestyle, reinforcing the hope that there’s something eternal about his talent.

That creativity, you imagine, hasn’t changed since his adolescence in Brazil, so to the extent the star has been influenced by the brand, it may only be in magnitude, not message. Insular, quiet if precocious, it’s hard to see how Ronaldinho’s image gets amplified without a partner in tow. It’s easy to see him content at home, happy being merely Ronaldinho Gaucho.

On the other hand, the uniqueness of its spokesperson undoubtedly forced Nike to go in new directions. Just as there was no Mars Blackmon-like ads after Jordan, there has never been another crossbar video. How would it even work without Ronaldinho?

His influence on the Tiempo -- the boot that was to him what Air Jordan was to Michael -- can be seen over time. The oversized tongue with an elastic strap on the line’s classic, black-and-white version? It was a feature Ronaldinho requested for his signature boots, one that helped with control. The three bands of stitching, different colours, sewn into the heel of subsequent signature shoes? They represented the player’s core values: life, family, and alegria -- joy.

“That was great to be part of -- to then be involved with the small details, and how they came to life,” he remembers. “I can see myself in some of these creations, as well …”

“Family, joy. I was really excited about it ... It made it feel like I was dating the boot. I just look at it and love it.”

The sentiment might ring hollow, but we always have to consider the source. The same immutability that makes Ronaldinho such a singular star makes it easier to believe a message from someone who, staring at his old boots, seems lost in his past. Entranced, speaking into rather than to the room, the connection with his boots feels less like partnership, more like a photo album.

[The boots are] a part of everything. My whole life, throughout my career, they’re the ones that are a part of everything, at all times. More than my family, girlfriends, whatever. They’re the biggest companions throughout my career.”

He’s still singling out the companions. His stare is unbroken. A Champions League win in those, he says, pointing at the white and golds. There’s a whole history in Tiempos now laying out in front of us -- a photo album, thrown open. From the tongue-heavy classics to the new, modernist Tiempo 7s, the line is so synonymous with Ronaldinho’s persona that the crossbar version was relaunched two years ago, on 10th anniversary of the video.

“It’s a very important boot because of the details of its creation but also the moments I lived in it,” he says. To this day, like Jordan with his, Ronaldinho remains one of the line’s chief spokespersons. “I did the crossbar ad in it … when kids ask for autographs, they bring the boot as a canvas.

“They’re sad that it’s not on the market anymore. They’re always talking about how amazing it was. “

As he gazes, it’s said he looks at his shoes the same way a child connects with a favourite toy.

“That’s a good comparison,” he concedes, breaking from his reverie long enough to connect with the translator. “Kids and toys. That’s exactly how I feel.”

In that feeling, we get our answer: where the branding and the man come apart. Ronaldinho, crossbar juggler, soccer savant, will always be linked with Nike and Tiempo -- linked the same way Jordan can’t exist without Blackmon and Air Jordans. But in those athletes’ memories, we see where the branding stops. And in that fog of a lost player’s stare, the child inspiring the toy comes out.

“Throughout my life, there’s never been a better gift than boots and balls. For me, not cars. Not other toys. This is all I wanted to do, the whole time. This is what made me happy. Even today, when I look at them, I go back in time. I go back to different places that were important to me in my career, in my life. It’s the best thing, ever.”

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