Even though it’s been disappointing to watch the legendary Ronaldinho’s career frustratingly peter out, it’s important to remember what a special player he was during his prime.
Although his golden years barely spanned half a decade, those years consisted of some of the most scintillating football in the history of the sport.
It’s remarkable to look back and recall that Ronaldinho’s transfer to Barcelona in 2003 only eventuated due to the club missing out on the coveted signature of David Beckham, who famously choose Real Madrid instead. What a blessing in disguise this turned out to be for then president, Joan Laporta, though, as the Brazilian went onto play an integral role in rejuvenating the iconic club and in instigating their period of tremendous dominance.
When he signed from PSG for a whopping €30 million, amid heavy interest from Manchester United, the 2002 World Cup winner joined a club very much in turnoil. With Louis van Gaal in the managerial hot seat the season before Ronnie joined, Barca’s 2002/2003 campaign was a real shocker by their standards, as the club failed to qualify for the Champions League by virtue of their inadequate sixth place league finish.
As a result of their particularly shocking first half of the season, van Gaal’s contract was mutually terminated in January with the club tetering near the relegation zone. Incumbent manager, Radomir Antic, deserves plenty of credit for the way he propelled the team back up the table in the second half of the season to salvage some respectability.
Massive debt and turbulence in the the boardroom compounded their issues, but to the Catalan giants’ credit, they miraculously managed to secure Ronaldinho’s signature despite their perilous circumstances. Moreover, the fact Barca hadn’t even qualified for the Champions League made the capture all the more remarkable.
“Ronaldinho is the one who changed this negative spiral,” said former Barcelona president Sandro Rosell. “He turned it round into something positive, and we still have that momentum today.”
At the time, however, their move to sign Ronaldinho wasn’t entirely without risk, for while he’d produce some scintillating football and moments of sheer genius, spells of inconsistency still plagued him at the Parisien club. The small matter of fighting off Manchester United to secure his services was definitely their most pressing issue, but a crucial phone call from Rosell, who was then Laporta’s presidential running mate, put the wheels into motion on the deal.
“I was almost on my way to Manchester United and only the details needed to be put onto that deal,” the Brazilian explained. “But in the last minute Rosell called me to tell me they would win the election. That made everything happen fast.”
Laporta was obviously elected and, as they say, the rest is history.
Scoring on his debut, in a friendly against AC Milan staged in Washington, served as a taste of things to come. The then 23-year-old didn’t wait long before notching his first La Liga goal too. This moment, of course, arrived in Barcelona’s clash with Sevilla on the 3rd of September, 2013. And what a spectacular moment it was.
After dropping deep to pick up possession inside his own half, he then embarked on a surge forward with great pace and intent. Once inside his attacking half, he slickly cut inside to beat Marti, before slicing inside again to beat Sevilla’s other holding midfielder Casquero. As if that wasn’t enough, he then proceeded to rifle an absolute screamer into the back of the net from all of 30 yards, which was made all the more dramatic with the ball cannoning of the underside of the crossbar and in.
This monumental individual effort illustrated all of Dinho’s superlative gifts in what was arguably his greatest ever goal with Barcelona, and one that was all the more special due to it being his first in La Liga.
Despite injury interrupting the first half of his season within Frank Rijkaard’s squad, Ronaldinho still produced some exquisite displays. His barely believeble dribbling ability, incredible vision, cunning capacity to find space and his innate knack of thread seemingly impossible passes combined to ensure he was always a dangerous, unpredictable opponent. In the second half of the campaign, the fully fit maestro really kicked into gear, however, as he played an instrumental role in propelling Barcelona from 12th in December to second come season’s end.
By the numbers, his 24 goals and 15 assists in all competitions gave a glowing depiction of what an integral component he was for the Catalans. It must be said, though, that playing alongside the likes of Xavi, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Carles Puyol and a young Andres Iniesta was also a key factor in what was the best season of his career at the time.
“We did a great job. Everyone was in it, everybody had to build character and that is what Barcelona is about now,” insisted Davids.
“Back in that day, we didn’t have a Lionel Messi, we didn’t have a Neymar and also Ronaldinho was not the Ronaldinho of after. So we needed to do it another way but then you build character and I think there in those years, we built character.”
In hindsight, this campaign can indeed be traced back as forming the foundation for the spectacular success that Barcelona has enjoyed thereafter.
The smiling assassin’s form only got better for the 2004/2005 term, in a season where his sensational, nigh on superhuman efforts saw him become FIFA World Player of the Year and win his first ever league title. Ronnie parlayed production, trickery and creativity superbly, running riot on defences all over the country and the continent. His eventual tally of 13 goals and 10 assists accentuated his importance, but those figures alone didn”t entirely do him justice. As their chief attacking protagonist, his ability to dictate and take control of games, combined with his capacity to coalesce so smoothly with his colleagues, provided the club with a utterly magical attacking platform.
Ronaldinho’s role in helping a certain Lionel Messi integrate into Barcelona’s first-team that season also can’t be understated, for he took the teenage Argentine under his wing and went out of his way to help him settle in.
“Ronnie has been massively important for me. I was so young when I started to come into Barça’s dressing room, but he made a point of being first to step up to me and look after me” recalls a grateful Messi.
“I try to copy little things Ronaldinho does, but more fundamentally, I just try to play for the joy of it. Look at the way he always has a smile – that’s how I feel.
The 2005/2006 crusade saw Ronaldinho continued to show why he was the best player on the planet, as his scintillating form saw him pick up his second La Liga title, a coveted Champions League trophy and a host of personal accolades that included winning the FIFA World Player of the Year again and the prestigious Ballon D’or.
Although he put in a plethora of outstanding performances both domestically and in the Champions League, in a season where he astonishingly bagged 24 goals and 20 assists, his majestic showing against Real Madrid undoubtedly ranked as the standout. On this memorable occasion, Ronaldinho completely mesmerised Madrid in the Clasico, with his spellbinding skills and powers of creation proving far too much for them to handle. From the outset, the Brazilian was clearly the best player afield, but he had to wait until the second half to secure his dazzling, match winning double. Both were clinical finishes past a hapless Iker Casillas in goal, and they were the perfect way for him to cap off his stunning virtuoso display.
He was simply unstoppable that night, and after his second goal the Madrid fans even showed their appreciation by giving him a standing ovation. Incredibly, this was only the second time they’d ever paid homage to a player in this manner inside the Santiago Bernabeu, with the great Diego Maradona being the first.
“It was a perfect game,” Ronaldinho said in his post-match comments. “I will never forget this because it is very rare for any footballer to be applauded in this way by the opposition fans.”
Los Merengues defender, Ivan Helguera, had a very different opinion following the 3-0 rout, saying: “It is the most painful defeat I’ve experienced at Real.
“There are no excuses, but as a Madridista I’m sad and hurt by the fact that we gave such a poor display and that our fans ended up cheering the opposition. We showed no guts, no attitude.”
After accepting his Ballon D’or award, the unmistakable wizard summed things up beautifully. “God gives gifts to everyone,” he mused. “Some can write, some can dance. He gave me the skill to play soccer and I am making the most of it.”
Despite 2006/2007 being another wonderful period for him by the numbers, which his 23 goals and 11 assists suitably demonstrated, he disappointingly started to develop some unendearing habits that were ultimately the beginning of his demise at Barcelona.
Problems with his weight, a penchant for staying out late partying and most worryingly a refusal to turn up to training arrived as unsatisfactory warning signs. The latter showed a complete disregard and lack of respect to his teammates, as reports suggested he missed roughly 50% of his team’s training sessions. Subsequent tension ensued within the club’s hierarchy in relation to his wayward approach too.
Not winning the league and getting knocked out of the Champions League only amplified the situation, but with him still exhibiting many moments of magic, this somewhat papered over the widening cracks.
Things really began to go downhill in the 2007/2008 campaign for him, though. Due to a mixture of niggling injuries, poor form and his wavering attitude, he only mustered nine goal and six assists. With his influence waning and his, and the club’s, frustration growing, a sense of inevitably about his exit loomed.
Come the summer of 2008 and Ronaldinho, in desperate need of a change, opted to sign for AC Milan, thus ending his tremendous five year relationship with the club.
Pep Guardiola, who took over the managerial reigns in 2008 and controversially oversaw Ronnie’s departure, offered his brutally honest appraisal of the situation, stating: “If I felt that he [Ronaldinho] wanted to be the player he was again, he would be here. But the situation has deteriorated and the solution is to build a strong dressing-room.”
“It was easy – it was time to go,” Ronaldinho told FourFourTwo of his decision to leave. “I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Rijkaard, who was my coach and said great things about AC Milan.
“I had other options, but I wanted to play for AC Milan.”
It’s been sad to witness him never really get back to his Barca best since, but what he achieved and did for the club during his time there was vital in shaping their formidable period of success.
“No one can compare to Ronaldinho. I remember his plays, his dribbles. I remember him winning every title at the Camp Nou. He made history at Barca, he made history with Brazil and he’s still making history,” says current Barca star, Neymar.
His old mate, Messi, then touchingly added: “Ronaldinho was responsible for the change in Barca. It was a bad time and the change that came about with his arrival was amazing. In the first year, he didn’t win anything but people fell in love with him. Then the trophies started coming and he made all those people happy. Barça should always be grateful for everything he did.”
Although his time at the top didn’t last as long as it should’ve, his lasting legacy as one of the game’s greats is well and truly assured after what he did at Barcelona.
Barca fans all over will never forget their smiling assassin.
Check out our full list of Brazilian football legends