The master and the apprentice: Ronaldinho, Neymar and a nine-goal epic for the ages

The master and the apprentice: Ronaldinho, Neymar and a nine-goal epic for the ages

Out of the corner of your eye you notice something. Something glowing. As you walk towards it you see that across the road, emanating a brilliant blaze of white, it’s a phone booth that’s glowing; a phonebooth entirely unspectacular looking except for the light flooding out of every window on all four sides of the kiosk.

You approach it cautiously, looking around in search of somebody, anybody, who could affirm this obscure visage. As you confront the phonebooth, you attempt to peer in but you see nothing. It’s too bright. You crack the door open, just a touch, and suddenly the light is gone and, inside, it appears completely ordinary; a single ordinary wall-mounted phone, an ordinary metal shelf below, and not a thing more. You let the door close again and, in an instant, the light is back, even brighter than before. Confused, you step in and the door behind you immediately clicks shut.

You turn, push against it, hoping to open it again, but the door doesn’t budge. You spin back around and raise your hand, expecting to find the clunky handset within reach but, instead, before you stands a maelstrom of tangled wires, blinking buttons, flashing dials, and digits.

Three sets of twirling digits. You wonder what this contraption is, and why the hell you saw fit to step into it, but before you’ve time to curse or rub your eyes or pinch your arm, the digits begin to stop, each one clacking into place. The first row, clack, clack, clack: 21:49:59. The second row, clack, clack, clack: 27/07/2011. The third row, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack: -23.950886, -46.338252. What sounds like a tiny trumpet briefly emits a triumphant tune and a slip of striped paper is expelled out of a serrated slit at the centre the machine. On its reverse it simply reads: apreciar.

 

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On 27 July 2011, Santos welcomed Flamengo to Alvinegro territory, to the Estádio Urbano Caldeira, with the 2011 Campeonato Brasileiro Série A season just 11 games old. At the time, Santos were at risk of becoming mired in the wrong half of the table, sat in 13th place, while Flamengo were on the march, in third and rising.

Santos’ hopes of declogging themselves and orchestrating a mid-season revolution rested firmly upon the shoulders of a certain twinkle-toed, bleach-haired, nasal-strip-sporting 19-year-old by the name Neymar, who just so happened to be two years shy of being thrust into the world’s spotlight, courtesy of a spectacular €86m move to Barcelona.

Similarly, the scope of Flamengo’s title ambitions also lay at the whim of their own fleet-footed, mercurial Brazilian maverick, except the one representing the Rubro-Negro had already lived through his succession of career-defining transfers – moves to Barça and beyond – and was at the opposite end of his career. Flamengo’s spark came in the form of 31-year-old Ronaldinho. The two magicians lined up alongside their respective teammates and, a little before 10pm, referee André Luiz de Freitas Castro’s whistle brought the game to life.

Read  |  Ronaldinho and the eternal journey to joy

Just four minutes and 18 seconds had elapsed when the game’s first goal was struck from the right foot of Borges. As Elano – the former Manchester City man, then enjoying his second of three distinct Santos spells – swept the ball smartly up-field into the path of Borges, Santos’ number nine adroitly controlled the pass before sweeping it beyond the wrong-footed Felipe to give the hosts an early lead.

That lead was doubled as little as 11 minutes later. Ronaldinho had twice been denied a swift equaliser by the gloves of Rafael and Santos made their opponents missed opportunities pay when Neymar stole in behind the Flamengo defence. His first time dink was parried by the outstretched arm of the onrushing Felipe and Neymar’s attempted overhead rebound failed spectacularly as his boot found nothing but fresh air.

Evidently a personal friend of Lady Luck, however, Neymar’s second overhead effort, from the comfort of his seated position on the deck, might’ve skewed wide of the goal but was gratefully received by the unmarked Borges, who nabbed a second of the game with the easiest goal he’d score all season. Desperate Flamengo offside appeals were met by scornful head shakes and so Santos wheeled away in celebration again.

On 20 minutes, Flamengo forward Deivid spurned Flamengo’s best chance of the game in astoundingly comical fashion; meeting a rapid low cross that had been fired across the face of goal, the forward halted the ball’s path with his left foot and looked set to reduce the deficit, yet somehow contrived to stumble over the ball and squeeze it wide with his right, all the while no more than two yards from the goal line. On the sideline, his manager recoiled in horror and held his expletives in, quite literally, with a hand over the mouth.

As the half-hour mark made its approach, Santos made it 3-0 and this time it was Neymar’s turn to join the scoresheet – in some style.

Receiving the ball out on the left, some 25 yards or so inside the opponents’ half, Neymar kept the firm pass from rolling out of play with his instep, quickly placed his foot on the ball and dragged it back behind his standing heel in order to evade the challenge in front of him, before shifting the ball forward again and in-field with his left to deny the Flamengo player behind him a similar chance at retrieving possession.

All the while holding his aggressor off, he darted inside and swapped a swift one-two with Borges. Bearing down on the area, Neymar’s increasingly desperate marker attempted to get at him from the other side, but a firm forearm gave him the necessary hint as he engaged the final act of what would come to be viewed as his early career’s defining moment.

Order  |  Brazil

With the studs of his right boot, Neymar rolled the ball over to his left foot and with it knocked the ball past the bamboozled defender’s right before mirroring the ball’s arc, around the defender’s opposite side, leaving him clueless as to whether to follow ball or man. He succeeded in following neither. Collecting his prized possession on the other side of the defender, Neymar, despite being a second away from a last-ditch sandwiching of defenders, simply caressed the ball past the goalkeeper with the outside of his right foot before being felled.

He picked himself up and set off running, basking in the roar, as the Santos fans lavished their latest superstar with all the air in their lungs. You’d have forgiven the Alvinegro for thinking it seemed to be turning into quite the night to remember. Lest they forget.

That very goal would, six months later, win Neymar the FIFA Puskás Award for the “most aesthetically significant goal” scored in 2011 – beating a moment of delectable Lionel Messi magic against Arsenal, an acrobatic Manchester derby-deciding bicycle kick from Wayne Rooney, and an outrageous half-way line volley from Dejan Stanković in the process – yet, remarkably, in the context of game in which it was scored, it seemed only to signal the beginning of the end for Santos and spark the unlikeliest of first-half comebacks for Flamengo.

 

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On 28 minutes, Flamengo landed their first punch. Luiz Antônio sped down the Santos left and, upon reaching the byline, tossed a hopeful low cross toward the penalty spot. Though slow to leave his line, Santos’ custodian appeared to have matters under his control. Yet, despite his dive, the ball suddenly appeared at the feet of Ronaldinho, six yards from an open goal.

The replays showed the ball had simply slipped between Rafael’s hands, and squirmed between Santos captain Léo’s legs, before gifting Ronaldinho the simplest of tap-ins. A rare sight; the absence of a smile on the goalscorer’s face as he collected the ball from the net and made quickly for the half-way line to hurry the restart. Even he appeared to believe the goal was little more than a consolation. But a second soon followed.

Just four minutes later, another attack blossomed down the Santos left. Given all the time in the world in which to contemplate his options from the box’s edge, Flamengo captain Léo Moura curled the ball into the area at pace and found the jump of Thiago Neves who thumped his header into the ground and crashing past Rafael. He too wasted no time in grabbing the ball back and returning it to the centre-spot. Three-two. Game on.

Into the 41st minute, Neymar galloped down Flamengo’s right, looking for a way into the area. Upon finding it, he also found a reason to go to ground; pressure from defensive-midfielder Willians a little too heavy for his liking. The referee agreed with the player in white. From the resulting penalty, Elano elected to attempt a Panenka; ‘attempt’ being the operative word.

Read  |  Dejan Petković: the unlikely hero of both the Marakana and the Maracanã

As he came to the end of a slow, casual jog toward the ball, he delivered a delicate chip. Felipe took a step to his left but quickly righted himself, recognising the impudent nature of Elano’s shot. He blocked the ball simply with two outstretched hands and let it bounce in front of him, before adding a couple of keepy-uppies with his thighs for good measure. The boos rained down on Elano from the fans adorned in white.

Santos boss Muricy Ramalho, justifiably apoplectic on the touchline, longed to simply get in at half-time with his team’s ailing lead still intact. They’d let a three-goal lead slip and allowed a chance to wrestle back the initiative to go up in smoke. From the safety of the dressing rooms, with a lead however slender, Ramalho could at least attempt to stop the rot. His opposite number, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, meanwhile, beckoned a third Flamengo goal, willing the ball towards the Santos end. It was Luxemburgo who got his wish.

From a 44th-minute corner, Deivid atoned for his earlier error, flicking Ronaldinho’s inswinging cross on at the near-post straight past the impotent dive of Rafael. It wasn’t the prettiest or most intricately conceived goal of the night – Deivid barely even had to move to escape the attention of the Santos markers – but what it lacked in style it more than made up for in substance. The half-time whistle sounded: Santos 3-3 Flamengo.

Having endured a rotten end to what had originally begun as the ideal opening half, Santos reclaimed the initiative with another slick finish. Flamengo centre-back David Braz had entered the fray in place of teammate Welinton and the fresh face’s rude introduction to the game came in the form of being left flat on his stomach, watching on in anguish, as Neymar left him behind, sized up Felipe and curved the ball sweetly round his dive; the teenager’s brace making it 4-3 to Santos just six minutes into the second half.

Flamengo, though, were in the comeback mood and, to little surprise, their latest equaliser was bequeathed to them by the right boot of Ronaldinho. As the grinning Brazilian swayed and sashayed through Santos players left, right and centre, it was left to midfielder Arouca to take one for the team and scythe him down as he neared the penalty area. If the skill that earned the free-kick wasn’t proof enough of his enduring genius – a drag-back and behind-the-heel to evade a sliding challenge that preceded a swift left-to-right to circumnavigate the stray leg that eventually felled him – the free-kick itself certainly was.

With the free-kick just a touch back from the area’s edge, the wall positioned itself slap bang in the centre of Ronaldinho’s view to goal, with the Santos goalkeeper stationed a little way to the right. The thinking was that, of course, Ronaldinho would look to find his spot to the goalkeeper’s left. And he did. Only, when he completed his three-step approach to the ball and the wall leapt up in anticipation of a wicked, swirling shot, the Brazilian master simply rolled the ball underneath them and into the goal’s gaping maw behind them. Rafael, in the Santos goal, didn’t even move, except to momentarily throw up his hands in frustration.

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The game’s impetus continued to swing wildly, like a pendulum, one way then the other. Neymar rifled determinedly through his box of tricks, and out came stepovers and fake shots and darting runs in desperate hope of completing his hat-trick and stealing the game away from Flamengo once and for all. But, try as the apprentice might, it was the old master who would have the game’s final telling contribution.

In the 81st minute, Flamengo broke away, streaming down the Santos right. As Thiago Neves reached his opponents’ box, he fed the ball to his left, to Ronaldinho, who killed the ball with the outside of his right foot, setting himself for an early attempt at goal. Recognising that no defender held hope of preventing the shot, midfielder Arouca charged into the area and raised a hopeful boot.

Sadly, his attempted block succeeded only in deflecting the ball off the underside of his foot and into the far corner of the goal. Ronaldinho had set his bending shot out wide, perhaps too wide, but the ball’s original trajectory meant nothing. Its new home, nestled neatly in the corner of Santos net, meant everything. Santos 4-5 Flamengo.

After being mobbed by his joyous teammates, Ronaldinho took a brief moment to celebrate alone. Before the match was to be brought underway for the last time, the legend, the hat-trick hero, the most incredible game’s deciding judge and jury, stood alone by the touchline. He crossed one leg over the other and completed a simple half-spin, before raising a single arm into the air, as though to say “ta-da!” His magic act was complete.

Later, Thiago Neves dragged a shot wide, passing up on the opportunity to put the game beyond all doubt, but it mattered little. After 94 minutes of action – inimitable, end-to-end, exhausting, pulsating action – the referee blew his whistle and the result was cast in stone.

Despite an electric start, hitting Flamengo for one, two, three, so early on, Flamengo had completed a historic comeback to take all three points and ensure they departed an unforgettable encounter as the victors. As for Santos, they cursed their misfortune. And Neymar, the young apprentice, though he had exhibited his astonishing brilliance in abundance, he had nevertheless been upstaged by Ronaldinho. Ronaldinho, the master.

 

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Of course, time machines aren’t a thing, irrespective of how many thousand-watt flashlights you can cram into a single phonebooth. But, if time machines did exist and, in command of one, your sole aim was to have it escort you through the recent past in search of a classic football game you’d irresponsibly let pass you by, you could do far worse than turning up at the Estádio Urbano Caldeira, on 27 July 2011, a second or two before 9:50pm to watch Santos vs Flamengo. It was truly an epic for the ages.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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