Written by Rhys Paul
The Golden Years
A €30 million transfer to Barcelona in the summer of 2003 was by no means a guarantee. Ironically, he was the man wanted by Real Madrid fans, but the club opted to sign David Beckham instead – the same man who the Barcelona board had looked to sign before Ronaldinho. It was a three-way transfer saga with Manchester United also in the bidding, but it was the Catalan side who prevailed and the rest as they say is history.
This was a Barcelona side who were a far cry from the one we all know today. Trophy-less since 1999 and living in an age dominated by Real Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’, Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona were in a dire way. He made an immediate impact in his debut against Sevilla, carrying the ball effortlessly past two defenders and hammering in a long-range effort off the underside of the crossbar into the net. It took a while for the team to gel and the first half of the season was very much one of transition. Ronaldinho was joined by Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Rafael Marquez and Edgar Davids, as well as newly promoted youth players, Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes as new faces in the first-team. With those players joining, the seeds for future success had been planted. This was shown in the second-half of the campaign where a fresh-from-injury Ronaldinho began to show his talents on the left as he combined his prolific exploits from Gremio with his play-making creativity from PSG (registering 22 goals and 14 assists). Barcelona lost only two of their last twenty matches in a run which saw the team climb from 12th to 2nd. Crucially, they finished above Real Madrid.
Barcelona comfortably won the 2004/05 La Liga title race in a season which saw Ronaldinho cement himself as the most exciting player in the world with an array of skills that became synonymous with the club’s success. Memorable moments included a superb curled effort in the Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea and a somewhat early ‘passing of the torch’ with an assist for a 16 year old Messi’s first senior goal. He was deservedly named FIFA World Player of the Year. It was an award that was to foreshadow his success the following season. Indeed, the 2005/06 season was arguably Ronaldinho’s greatest. 26 goals and 23 assists reveal just how important Ronaldinho was to the team that season. Barcelona retained their La Liga crown and defeated Arsenal 2-1 in the 2006 Champions League final to claim their first major European title since 1992. Individually, Ronaldinho claimed a second consecutive FIFA World Player of the year, European Footballer of the Year and the only Ballon d’Or in his career. Nobody else came close to matching Ronaldinho that season and that was embodied in the 3-0 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, where the Brazilian received a standing ovation from the home fans for a performance which had seen him net two sensational goals and run the Madrid defence inside-out.
The first cracks in his run as the best player in the world came that summer in the 2006 World Cup. Much was expected of a Brazil side boasting 2002 heroes, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and future World Player of the Year, Kaka. The team never looked capable of defending their World Cup crown and they were eliminated in the quarter-finals. Ronaldinho’s love of house parties cost him a statue as the Brazilian’s ill-planned party in the immediate aftermath of Brazil’s elimination angered the passionate Brazilian supporters. It was the first time where his off-field antics had negatively impacted his popularity.
He continued his good form from the previous season into the 2006/07 campaign, but – despite several more spectacular goals – he was unable to inspire Barcelona to a third successive league title as they narrowly lost out to Real Madrid. He entered a gradual decline – something that many have attributed to his lifestyle off the pitch – yet still managed to finish third in the World Player of the Year. The signs of his decline were already there; a serial under-performer for Brazil at the 2006 World Cup, a notable increase in weight and an injury-plagued final season. The quick rise of Messi hardly helped matters and a disappointing 2007/08 season saw him make only 26 appearances in all competitions as the Barcelona hierarchy, including new manager Pep Guardiola seemed eager to move on a player they believed had more interest off-the-field than on it.
Into the Wilderness
Ronaldinho’s self-proclaimed dream move was over. Manchester City’s newfound wealth couldn’t match AC Milan’s history as Ronaldinho opted to sign for the Serie A outfit in 2008. His time in Italy was mostly underwhelming with the player again struggling with his weight and form. He did score big goals in wins against Inter Milan and Juventus, but it was clear he was never going to reach his previous heights and he was essentially part of an ageing AC Milan team. A much improved second season saw him finish with the most assists in the league in 2009/10, but did little in his final six months at the club. His return to form saw him briefly mount a challenge for a place in the Brazil squad, but he ultimately failed to earn a place in the 2010 World Cup squad.
Ronaldinho’s name still carried huge weight and there was much speculation about his next destination in 2011. To the surprise of nobody, a move to Blackburn Rovers never materialised and Ronaldinho made the move back to Brazil with Flamengo. He made an encouraging start to life back in Brazil – making 52 appearances and scoring 21 goals – but a bitter falling out saw him depart for Atletico Mineiro in 2012. He again exerted his influence as he helped Mineiro win it’s first Copa Libertadores in 2013 and he was voted the best player in the league as he registered 18 goals and 11 assists in all competitions. In return for rediscovering his form, Ronaldinho was called back up to the national team, featuring in a 2-1 loss to England, but ultimately missed out on making the 2014 World Cup squad for the second time. He was awarded the 2013 Southern American Player of the Year title, comfortably beating Neymar to the award.
After cancelling his contract by mutual consent, Ronaldinho’s career has never quite been the same. Basingstoke Town launched an ambitious bid to sign the two time-World Player of the Year, but English football again missed out, this time to Mexican side, Queretaro. His time in Mexico was short-lived and largely forgettable – barring an eye-catching performance against America, which once again drew a standing ovation from the opposition. He returned to Brazil for the third time with Fluminense. This proved to be even more short-lived than his season in Mexico as his contract was mutually cancelled two months in following a difficult start to the season and a self-awareness that he was no longer capable of performing at the level he wanted to.
Ronaldinho’s career will predominately be remembered for his time at Barcelona. His time as the world’s best player might have lasted longer had he been more disciplined off the pitch. His lifestyle was a far cry from the one of Cristiano Ronaldo, but that perhaps makes his success even more remarkable. Nevertheless, few players have or will capture the imagination of supporters with such a vast array of skills, goals and flamboyancy. It is a shame we never got to see him perform in the Premier League, but that made his appearances against English sides all the more special and mesmerising. Amazingly he missed out on Barcelona’s ‘golden age’ under Guardiola, yet he had spearheaded the club’s revival and played his part in positioning the club for a sustained period of success with his impact on the emerging talent – notably Lionel Messi. Whether we get to see him perform one last time or not, he will deservedly be remembered as one of the best players of his generation.
What do you make of Ronaldinho’s career? Where does he rank in terms of being the best player of all time? Let us know in the comments below!
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