Applause ringing around the cauldron that is the Santiago Bernabéu; all you could hear was a generous din of applause from the grateful home fans, littered with adoring whistles.
The date was 19 November 2005, nearly a decade ago and perhaps the grandest and most anticipated of all grudge matches, El Clásico, had taken centre stage once more. With 78 minutes having elapsed on the clock and the illuminated scoreboard showing 3-0 to Barcelona, the match as a contest was all but over. But exactly how could Madrid’s Galácticos have imploded so spectacularly on home soil? And who had been the ruination of their reputation in front of 78,000 spectators that particular Saturday evening? A young and precocious Lionel Messi? Xavi Hernández, perhaps? No. The architect of their downfall that day was Ronaldinho Gaúcho, and he had done so with expert ease.
Having scored a brace following an opening goal by Cameroon legend Samuel Eto’o in the 15th minute, the former Grêmio star, lapping up a heavy patter of acclamation from the thousands of Madridistas, surrounded by his wild-eyed teammates inside the arena, had more than proven his worth yet again. Even by his standards, the ongoing standing ovation was a truly special moment, and it was all happening just two years since he had come on board. In short, his meteoric rise past the likes of Zinedine Zidane and even David Beckham, who the Catalans had originally wanted to sign instead of him, became perfectly complete at that moment. He was on the rise, and they were crashing out of orbit.
After all, to be highly regarded enough, visibly and audibly by supporters of Barça’s bitterest of rivals in their own backyard, is a rarity indeed. Notoriously difficult to please even when things are going well, the fact that the Brazilian had forced them to acknowledge him, an opponent, and his special talent made it all the more astonishing. The adulation he received that day is something that has yet to be bestowed upon even today’s La Masia superstar product and all-time La Liga goalscorer, Lionel Messi.
Indeed, the last player to earn the honour in a Barcelona shirt before him was football god Diego Maradona who received the very same adulation back in 1983 when he completed a mazy dribble half the length of the field to score in the Copa de la Liga. A simple act, it expounded on his talents immensely, and it spoke volumes about just how special a player ‘Dinho’ truly was in his prime.
The moment that sparked the unexpected standing ovation was a near carbon-copy of his first that night and it arrived just after he had collected the ball on the left flank, moved swiftly towards Iker Casillas’s goal and proceeded to bear down on a young, 19-year-old Sergio Ramos. Outstripping him and beating him for pace, he glided gracefully past Madrid’s number 4 before rifling a shot across the face of goal and into the back of the net to stun and humble the home side all at once.
Sharing the pitch, laughing and joking together before kick-off, two of Brazil’s most famous sons enjoyed a moment or two in each other’s presence near the centre-circle: Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. Interestingly, that snapshot summed up just how far Barcelona’s number 10 had come by that stage in his career, because before his free transfer from Grêmio to Paris Saint-Germain, he had been forced to change his name so as to avoid confusion with ‘El Phenomenon’ who was busy tearing up European defences at the time. Flipping the tables in a way only he could, in hindsight it was a really revealing vignette.
Of course, those two weren’t the only Brazil-born footballers there. Roberto Carlos and a still developing Robinho, lining up for the hosts, had also brought their game faces. Squaring up to each other, two of world football’s behemoths were getting ready to do battle in El Clásico, but proceedings were delayed a few minutes by the speedy arrival of a notorious pitch invader that the struggling stewards took a while to chase after and catch.
For Los Blancos, it foreshadowed exactly how they’d feel later in the match as Ronaldinho proceeded to give their clueless defence the run around for the rest of the game. It really was a master class in how to unravel your opponents.
Today, of course, he is widely regarded as one of the best footballers of all time, and perhaps the best player of his generation. An icon of the game that not only received the respect he deserved, he was one who had to graft hard for it, too. Nevertheless, at his peak he was a lavish performer in all aspects of the word. He took his moment in the sun and won pretty much all there is to win.
His story is a quintessential rags-to-riches one, but the likeable star took time to get to the very top. Having risen, like many of his fellow successful countrymen, from poverty in the Portuguese-speaking favelas, the ever-smiling star was forced to work hard to make his first big break. A child growing up in the small village of Vilanova in Porto Alegre, his brother – now his manager – and father enjoyed a great deal of success in the Brazilian domestic leagues before he had, so it’s little wonder that it quickly became an integral strand of his life. Add to this the fact his brother had suffered a career-ending injury when Ronaldinho was young and it’s easy to see why he had continually driven himself on to make the best of his talents.
With an astonishing record of 110 goals in 250 appearances for Barcelona, a Ballon d’Or, two La Liga titles, a Champions League medal and many other accolades besides, his five years at the club were awash with goals and excitement. So where did it all go wrong for the now faded genius?
Everyone now knows his time with the Blaugrana was flecked with downsides. After a hugely successful first two or three years, things began to take a spiral when then manager Frank Rijkaard began to have difficulties getting the best out of his star man, mirroring just how Luis Fernández had toiled to cajole him into life in Paris. Injuries plagued his final season in 2007-08, but it was clear that he had long been struggling before then, unable to reach the same peaks and hitting one too many nadirs along the way.
A mere five years following his magical moment at the Bernabéu, a jaded hero returned to Brazilian shores, this time opting to sign with Flamengo in 2010. A few seasons in Serie A with giants AC Milan, where he had a reasonable time, preceded his move home. Because despite all the success he had tasted in Europe with one of the biggest clubs in the world, there were a few more titles he seemed desperate to get his hands on – the Campeonato Carioca (which turned out to be their 26th of the professional era), the Taça Guanabara and the Taça Rio. But questions about his motives remained and eyebrows were soon raised.
Proving somewhat of a point as he helped guide his new side to a plethora of titles, the 21 goals he netted in his first season underlined that his talents were still there, still having a noticeable impact on games, the way they so often had. It was clear, however, that by moving back home, Ronaldinho had decided to take an easier option.
Faced with criticism in Europe for an unwillingness to battle his weight issues properly as well as a penchant for the nightlife that had taken too long to be assuaged, his exit was a long time coming – and it was a sad day for football because many knew right there and then that we would never see him reach those same pinnacles, even if he had gone past the age of 30. There was to be no reinvention in an unfamiliar league, no rise from the ashes to challenge himself more. Simply a steady phasing out of his personal epoch.
Simply put, it just didn’t seem as if he was doing all he could to remain at the top of the tree. Uninterested in redefining his talents or attempting to instigate a personal renaissance, the man who had hewn his own way out from impossibly difficult beginnings to make it to the big time had simply come up against his most stubborn and immovable of obstacles one too many times – himself.
Floating around from club to club in South America, he’s now found himself a temporary home in the Liga MX under the tutelage of Ignacio Ambríz at Querétaro. And, sadly, not even hopeful talk of a move away to MLS, has the capacity for the great man to find redemption now.
Reflecting on his move to Milan, many people considered it as one last roll of the dice for a player who was, back then, still in the prime of his career – age-wise at least. The general consensus from fellow players and coaches who had experience of Ronaldinho at the time was that he still had it in him to play career-defining football for another few years. While his genius had faded, talent was still there, and it is still permeating through to this day.
The player that wowed audiences with majestic touches and genius moments of audacity stretching far beyond skill may well have now passed through evanescence into a semi-state of obscurity plying his trade in Mexico, but his fingerprints are all over the beautiful game today, and his ideas are continuing to echo down the through the ages.
Perhaps no-one could have put that very sentiment better than the man himself when he said: “Football is about joy. It’s about dribbling. I favour every idea that makes the game beautiful. Every good idea has to last.” Ronaldinho had a few and I’m sure many a defender that faced him in La Liga will agree.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90