It’s impossible to look back at the career of Ronaldinho without a smile breaking out for a footballer who united fans of the beautiful game
Play the ball. Play with the ball.
His dad asked him to do so when he was a child. Dad left him early, so what Dad said to him mattered. The ball never left him.
He had the eternal smile. His movements were compositions, soothing to the eyes of the beholder. His football resembled dance. His football was music.
That was Ronaldinho. The ebony-hued gaucho from Porto Alegre whose joy of playing football was reflected whenever he took the field. He was unpredictable, but nothing seemed impossible.
Real Madrid were hosting El Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu. Their bitterest rivals, Barcelona, were leading 3-0. Ronaldinho scored a brace in that match. But numbers of goals could never define the dominance over a team that day that included Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos and Iker Casillas. Madrid supporters were spontaneous in showing respect to an opponent by giving him a standing ovation on that November 19th night in 2005.
Barcelona, under Frank Rijkaard, developed into a force to be reckoned with after the introduction of the Brazilian from Paris Saint Germain. The dream team of Pep Guardiola was in the future. Xavi Hernandes was not the midfield maestro back then. Neither had Andres Iniesta become the best passer in the world. Lionel Messi was still in his teens, looking to graduate to the starting XI of the Blaugrana.
Ronny – as he is fondly named by his fans – single-handedly made Barcelona one of the most feared and most beautiful football-playing teams. His runs from the left, cutbacks, inch-perfect passes for Samuel Eto’o and sublime goals made him the best footballer on earth, ahead of his contemporaries by miles.
He already had a World Cup medal in his bag from 2002. In the quarter-final against England, his wonder-strike from a 35-yard free-kick is part of football-folklore. The Brazilian did it again at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in the Champions League when his wonder-strike left the stadium silent. Surrounded by at least five Chelsea defenders just outside the box, a sudden twist of his right leg and shot using the toe, almost burst Petr Cech’s net.
What he did with the ball was pure magic. The dribbles, the control, the unexpectedness of an action that defies words. He was there to show what a mere mortal could do on the pitch. As he himself wrote, “Creativity will take you further than calculation”. An immortal genius.
Ronaldinho reached the 2006 World Cup in Germany dead-tired after a double for Barca, winning La Liga and the Champions League. Brazil had more issues in the team to settle rather than focusing on winning. Ronaldo was after the personal glory of becoming the top goal-scorer in the history of the World Cup. Seniors were out-of-form. Coach Carlos Alberto Perreira stuck to rigid plans and did not allow Ronaldinho the freedom he enjoyed at Barcelona.
Brazil lost 0-1 to Zinedine Zidane’s France in the quarter-final. When Thierry Henry scored the goal from a Zidane-assist, Roberto Carlos was standing beside with his hands on his waist.
Dinho was never recovered following that defeat. Everything was different. He was more into pubs than practice grounds. He gained weight. The speed and control was gone. His class could only be seen in flashes. Ultimately, he was sold to AC Milan by Pep Guardiola. Later, an illustrious career ended in Brazil.
With his infectious smile, Ronaldinho will always be in the all-time greats list of football. He won everything: World Cup…Champions League…La Liga…Serie A…Ballon d’Or.
But what he achieved off the field is of far more importance. Nobody hates him. He cannot be hated. He smiled even after a defeat. He accepted life as it came. He knew nobody could win every match. The charm was never missing. The genius of Ronaldinho was not being governed average parameters. He did what he felt was right. And Ronny with the ball at his feet was always right.