Year Zero: The making of Ronaldinho (PSG, 2001/02)

A troubled exit from Brazil left the brilliant 21-year-old benched and fed up in France, yet the season ended with him in magical form and heading to the World Cup

Alone and unwanted in the heart of France's wine region, Ronaldinho could have been forgiven for craving a stiff drink. It was the end of September 2001 and as Paris Saint-Germain slumped to a 1-0 defeat at Bordeaux, their star attacker was slumped on the bench, an unused substitute for a side that needed a goal.

He had chosen Paris for first-team football but so far he had made just two starts

For two years, he had illuminated Brazilian football to a drumbeat of deafening hype, but six months after leaving his homeland, the 21-year-old boy wonder looked like a busted flush. He had chosen Paris for first-team football but so far he had made just two starts. Now he couldn't even get off the bench.

With the 2002 World Cup on the horizon, he hadn't kicked a ball for his country in six months. Things were not going to plan.

The talk of Brazil

Ronaldinho was already a star when he touched down at Charles de Gaulle Airport in July 2001 to become a PSG player. Back in Brazil, he’d been the talk of a nation since bursting onto the scene as a gangly teenager for his boyhood club Gremio.

His first invasion of the national consciousness had come in the final of the state championship in 1999 when, playing against local rivals Internacional, the 18-year-old managed to humiliate the country’s World Cup-winning captain Dunga with outrageous skill on two separate occasions, the first in particular a moment of absurdist, elastic-limbed wizardry.

Ronaldinho was promptly whisked off to the Copa America, and summoned from the bench in Brazil’s opener against Venezuela. He took precisely four minutes to score a sumptuous individual goal, flicking the ball over his marker’s head before boisterously blamming it home.

It was his Michael Owen in Saint-Etienne moment. A nation sat up and took note – as did a small army of scouts from across Europe.

The events of the next 24 months could fill a Russian novel. As Ronaldinho continued to sparkle on the pitch, whispers of interest from Real Madrid and Barcelona were constant from the Spanish press, while in Italy, Massimo Moratti's Inter – spearheaded by a peak-era Ronaldo – were desperate to unite the two compatriots at club level.

Borussia Dortmund wanted him, and Arsene Wenger was keen too, but any move to Arsenal fell through due to work-permit issues. In one delightful ‘sign of the times’ moment, Gremio even claimed to have received a £42m offer from a shady group of agents representing Leeds United (the world record fee at the time was £37m).

During Ronaldinho’s final season at Gremio, in which he scored 41 times in 49 games, press speculation eventually became too much for club president Jose Guerreiro, who simply hung a giant banner across the entrance to the training ground that read: ‘We don’t sell our best players’.

In the end, Ronaldinho sprang a surprise, shunning his army of aristocratic admirers for the Parc des Princes. The choice was both strategic and personal. He figured his move to Europe might be best served in the long term by a comparatively low-key first step, and with a World Cup looming he couldn't risk languishing in the reserves of a super-club.

Ronaldinho

Ronaldinho was already starring for Brazil at 20

The fact that his brother, a middling footballer himself, was able to wangle a move to Montpellier that summer meant the whole family could move to France together: smiles all round.

Except at Gremio. Taking advantage of a newly passed legislation, effectively a Brazilian version of the Bosman ruling, Ronaldinho signed a pre-contract agreement with PSG in December 2000 that would see him move in the summer. The hitch? There’d be no fee. (One popular theory is that the move was an act of vengeance on part of his brother – later to become his agent – who was forced out of Gremio in the early 90s, the club having declined to renew his contract after a bad injury.)

Matters were not smoothed by the fact that the first Gremio heard of the arrangement was once it was all done and dusted. "I've just read the news on PSG's website,” said Guerreiro. “We are in the middle of negotiations to renew Ronaldinho's contract and PSG have never contacted us."

The fans were similarly bitter. “Ronaldinho left Gremio with nothing and they have suffered from it since,” said a senior ultra some years later. “For us he is a liar and a traitor.”

In limbo

As Gremio and PSG took their warfare to the courts, FIFA ruled that Ronaldinho could not play again until the matter was settled, and so the ties to his boyhood club were abruptly severed. He spent his days living in Rio, 1,500 miles from home, training alone and taking French lessons in his spare time.

Ronaldinho was rusting away in the stands, his agent trying in vain to engineer a short-term loan to St Mirren to get him fit

By the time he arrived in Paris in April, he hadn’t kicked a ball competitively for four months, and worse still the ongoing legal battle meant his ban had no end in sight. “It was a tough moment,” he later recalled. While his new team-mates limbered up for the new season with an Intertoto Cup win, Ronaldinho was rusting away in the stands, his agent trying in vain to engineer a short-term loan to St Mirren to get him fit. FIFA were having none of it.

Ronaldinho would never play for a British club, but his new squad was dotted with former and future Premier League stars. Their captain was a stern-faced Argentine by the name of Mauricio Pochettino (then replete with flowing, shoulder-length locks), who manned a defence containing a young Gabriel Heinze and screened by a tidy 19-year-old midfielder on loan from Barcelona, Mikel Arteta.

Mauricio Pochettino

Who are you calling stern-faced?

Up top, Ronaldinho would be tasked with working his magic alongside Jay-Jay Okocha, who, sensing a like-minded entertainer in the ranks, took the new man under his wing. (“He was like my kid brother. I realised he was just so talented and he just needed someone to guide him,” he’s since said). Their task was to feed Nicolas Anelka, who had returned home the previous summer after a grim year at Real Madrid. 

Despite all their latent talent, though, PSG were stuck in a rut. The previous season had seen them drop from runners-up to ninth. And to make room for the Brazilian, PSG had dispatched the previous season’s top scorer, the granite-thighed winger Laurent Robert, to Newcastle for a club-record £9.5m. Ronaldinho’s new employers needed him to hit the ground running.

Finally, in mid-August, in time for the second league game of the season, FIFA lifted Ronaldinho's ban. “Once I was able to play, everything changed,” he later recalled. Except it didn't. His debut, from the bench at Auxerre, was greeted by a guttural roar from the travelling fans but his performance was unremarkable. As was the result, a 1-1 draw that heralded a run of two wins in 10 for the limp Parisians.

As autumn faded, Ronaldinho’s misery did not. PSG were down in eighth and the new boy, limited largely to cameos off the bench, was struggling badly. Laboured, lightweight and with a maddening tendency to over-elaborate even the simplest tasks, it wasn’t obvious how the Brazilian would ever represent an upgrade on the proven pedigree of Robert.

PSG

Over-elaborate? Surely not...

Anelka, perma-scowl plastered across his brow, was yet to rid himself of the bleak form that had blighted him since moving to Madrid. The press weren’t shy of laying into an ostensibly thrilling forward line that was serving up mediocrity. 

It got worse. Back in Brazil, whispers were growing about a cherubic 19-year-old called Kaka, a free-roaming attacker who played in exactly Ronaldinho's position and who couldn’t stop scoring for Sao Paolo. Suddenly it was Kaka who the smart money was on to start alongside Ronaldo and Rivaldo at the World Cup.