Farewell, Ronaldinho, the magician whose skills and smile made football a happier place
Football says goodbye to a unique talent.
Sid Lowe tells a great story about Ronaldinho. The journalist, who literally wrote the book on Barcelona and Real Madrid's great rivalry, was in Dublin this week for a live recording of The Spanish Football Podcast at the Sugar Club. It made for a fine evening. There was beer, terrible Spanish jokes and a highly amusing chat with Freddie Strahan, Joe Wilson and Jackie Hennessy, three members of the Shelbourne side who played against Barcelona in 1963.
It seemed somewhat fitting, then, that on a night when Ronaldinho's career ended, The Spanish Football Podcast included the Brazilian in its 21st century La Liga legends side. It was some side, too. Iker Casillas was chosen as the goalkeeper, behind a back four of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and Roberto Carlos. The midfield was comprised of Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez with Zinedine Zidane and the incomparable Ronaldinho further up. Andres Iniesta was in the number 10 role supporting the lone striker, Samuel Eto'o.
Each inclusion came with a story. They were all great but Lowe's contribution on Ronaldinho was particularly enlightening. A lot of people know that Ronaldinho rejected Manchester United before signing for Barcelona in 2003. However, what's less known is that Real Madrid rejected Ronaldinho. The logic, as preposterous as it seems now, behind Real's decision to turn down the Brazilian was that he was 'too ugly' to fit the profile of the club's Galacticos.
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Madrid signed David Beckham that summer instead. The England midfielder, with statuses as both a global fashion icon and a fairly decent footballer, fit the bill for the higher-ups at the Santiago Bernabeu. Beckham was a brand as well as a footballer. Ronaldinho, Madrid believed, was not.
However, with Ronaldinho as Barca's driving creative force, the balance of power in La Liga shifted in the Catalan club's favour, winning the title in 2005 and 2006. But it was during the El Clasico at the Bernabeu, in November 2005, when Ronaldinho showed Madrid exactly what they had said no to.
That Barca side contained Eto'o and an exhilaratingly gifted 18-year-old by the name of Lionel Messi, but it was to be Ronaldinho's night. After Eto'o scored the opener, he sent a message to Madrid president, Florentino Perez by way of a gesture with his arm while celebrating. Ronaldinho preferred to do his talking with his feet. For the Brazilian's first goal, he flew past a 19-year-old Sergio Ramos making his Clasico debut. Gliding effortlessly past Ivan Helguera, Ronaldinho fired the ball past Casillas.
But he wasn't finished there. Receiving the ball on the left again 15 minutes later, Ronaldinho left Ramos in his wake once more before sliding the ball into the bottom corner. As Barca's players celebrated, pockets of Madrid supporters rose to their feet to applaud Ronaldinho in an extraordinary move. It was a startling expression of love for beautiful football, one that transcended the usual antipathy between Spain's two most illustrious clubs.
Ronaldinho may not have appeared on as many magazine covers as Beckham but he produced beautiful football for Barcelona time and time again. And he did it all with that unmistakable smile, that mischevious grin that seemed to get wider with every nutmeg, every elastico and every outrageous goal.
Because that's what Ronaldinho was ultimately about. He treated football like he was still a kid in Porto Alegre. He had a clear sense of how football should be played. To him, to play was to have fun and for the fans to have fun with it. His extraordinarily singular ability to come up with new ways of taking the ball past players stemmed from his playful imagination. He was, in many ways, the beating heart of Barcelona. He became the chief reason why so many tuned in to watch them play.
Messi will almost certainly be remembered as Barcelona's greatest player, but not even he can entertain and entrance in the way his predecessor could. With every dribble, shimmy, feint and dummy, football became more and more bewitched by toothy wizard's unerring ability to bring a smile to the face.
His career was far from one big laugh though. He left Barcelona in 2008 after his proclivity for a partying lifestyle took its toll on his physical condition. From there, his genius came via brief flickers at AC Milan before heading back to Brazil. His retirement is somewhat low-key given that he hasn't played competitively since leaving Fluminense in 2015.
But, make no mistake about it, football is much poorer now without him. It's doubtful that a player so outrageously gifted will grace the world of football again. Ronaldinho's skills rarely failed to make watching football more fun experience. For that, we can thank him.