As Spain rewrite the history books and win their third major tournament in a row, they cement their dominance in international football. For many decades, this was always a nation which underachieved and which always possessed good players yet was never able to perform with consistency or with the mental strength required to win a major tournament. Then in 2008 something changed, success occurred and from that point on, winning has become a habit.
Could it be that one player was the catalyst for Spanish football's current dominance?
Since 2008, Spain have won the Euros twice and the World Cup once. Their young sides are winning tournaments too; the under-21s were successful last summer in the Euro Championships and the U-19s won the Euro Championship this season, to name a few.
They have been a remarkable achievements for Spanish football.
Dominance from Catalonia
In this same period, the world has been blessed with the performances of Barcelona. This is a side who have dominated club football with their possession-based style. They are a team which possesses some of the best technically gifted players to have graced the footballing world.
There have been many reasons that explain why Spain and Barcelona have dominated world football these past several years; whether it is the improvement in coaching quality laid down twenty years ago, the impact of Cruyff at Barcelona and his ability to transform the club into the Dutch model in terms of style and youth development, or even perhaps it is due to the removal of Raul from the Spanish national side. All are plausible reasons why Spanish football has become so successful.
Despite how the development of players is one part of the development of successful teams, for me there is something else which is required: the will to win and most importantly, the knowledge of how to win. Could the key to the success, which has glittered Spain, be down to one man, a Brasilian, who arrived at Camp Nou in the summer of 2003?
The Second Choice
As the 2002/03 season was coming to an end, there was much talk that Man Utd were willing to sell David Beckham, as he was becoming “too big for the club,” and Ferguson was of the opinion that a change was needed. The media was awash with reports of a player from PSG who was been sought as Beckham’s replacement. His name was Ronaldinho, and he was reportedly the next big thing out of Brasil.
The events which transpired after would affect the future of the clubs involved dramatically.
Barcelona had gone through a terrible period during the Joan Gaspart era. They had not won anything since the 98/99 season, and in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, Barca had finished fourth. In 2003, Barca finished sixth!
The club was in serious need of a change, and with the new presidential elections ongoing, one man, Joan Laporta, was promising to bring David Beckham to Camp Nou. Beckham was Laporta’s golden ticket to attaining the presidency of FC Barcelona. However, he was out muscled by their rival Real Madrid (the connection with Adidas was a big factor I am sure). With his main target gone Laporta had to produce a big name to appease the fans who voted him in, and Barcelona decided to snatch Ronaldinho from under United's nose for a fee of £25m.
With the arrival of a new president, a new young manager in Frank Rijkaard and a marquee signing in Ronaldinho, the club appeared set on a new course, one which laid the foundations for the dominance of Barcelona today.
A New Period at Camp Nou
The first season under Rijkaard saw the side finish second behind Rafa Benitez’s Valencia, yet the signs were promising. Ronaldinho was impressing the Camp Nou with his skill, speed and flair, and his talent was recognized across the world. He was rewarded for his performances by winning the World Player of the Year award in 2005.
More was to follow, and in the 2004/05 season, Ronaldinho put Barcelona back on top of Spanish football. Major changes happened that season; out went Luis Enrique, Marc Overmars, Kluivert, Davids and Cocu and in came Samuel Eto’o, Deco and Giuly for a combined total of £55m. The changes brought the La Liga title and thus ended their six-year wait for a title.
The performances of Ronaldinho and Eto’o earned them places in FIFA’s World XI. The following season would see Barcelona win the league again and overcome Arsenal in Paris to win the Champions League. The side which three years ago had finished sixth in La Liga was a now European champion, played the best football in the world and possessed the best player in the world.
The Champions League success would be Rijkaard’s and Ronaldinho's pinnacle at Camp Nou, as during the following season, Barcelona lost out to Capello’s Madrid by a head-to-head record and struggled in the Champions League. In 07/08, Barcelona did not meet the standards that they had set. Reports of a lack of discipline from Rijkaard meant that players like Ronaldinho did not perform to their best and that this Barcelona side had lost its way and needed a new change.
We all know what happened in 2008 when Pep Guardiola arrived and Ronaldinho and Deco moved on. Eto’o was also deemed a surplus until he impressed Guardiola. The decision to retain him was vindicated by the treble success.
In the summer of 2008, Spain played some excellent attacking football and tasted success in a major tournament for the first time since 1964. The team, which had always underachieved, had finally overcome their mental deficiencies and impressed the world with their technical brilliance, with Xavi in particular showing his quality and deservedly winning player of the tournament.
Is it possible that Spain's success arrived on the back of Barcelona's triumph since Ronaldinho's arrival (particularly achieving success in the Champions League in 2006)? Players like Valdes, Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta were experiencing success and playing with some of the world's best players in Ronaldinho and Eto'o.
For these Spanish players, the era of Ronaldinho developed their games and importantly instilled the will to win leagues and tournaments. With players coming through the youth ranks in Pique and Messi (Fabregas left when Ronaldinho arrived), they experienced the majestic abilities of the Brasilian which would have enhanced their skills, talents and desires.
Could it be that Ronaldinho was the catalyst for all the work Cruyff had done? Was he the ignition which lit the flames in these players and the club and enhanced their belief that their philosophy and style of play could be successful? Before Ronaldinho arrived, between 2000-2003, Barcelona must have been the midst of an existential crisis, yet his arrival brought back the belief and brought success.
Although Guardiola removed Ronaldinho from the club when he arrived, he had inherited a group of players who knew what success was and who were hungry to win more. Remember, too, that Spain had just won the Euros that summer, meaning that players like Valdes, Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol had experienced success once again.
Their knowledge of how to win was enhanced, and therefore Guardiola was fortunate to inherit such a beautiful mix of talent and hunger, with players like Iniesta, Messi and Bojan ready to step into the shoes of Ronaldinho and Deco.
Although Ronaldinho’s career at Barcelona dwindled, his influence on the fans of Barcelona and of fans all over the world, has been arguably the biggest influence on modern football. He single handily put Barcelona back on the map after so many years of them being just an average European side. His arrival signified the start of a new era full of style, flair, and most importantly, success for the club.
What if Beckham had arrived?
Ronaldinho represented the future of the game and the return of the dribbler. Ronaldinho was the type of player which the 90s had seemingly left behind and who opened the footballing world's eyes to a new era of football. His majestic performances for Barcelona reignited the club as a dominant force and set in place the players and mentality seen at Camp Nou and in Spain today.
Imagine if Barcelona had snapped up Beckham and that United had got Ronaldinho, would the landscape of football be different now? How ironic that Ronaldinho was the second choice option after Beckham, a player who represented the old school style of play of the 90s.
The game we see today has much to owe to Ronaldinho; players with skill, speed and flair are more common in the game today. Yet, it has hard for many to match his pure brilliance. His performances for three years were some of the greatest seen. One must wonder also that, if it was not for his presence at Barcelona, would Leo Messi be the player he is. Ronaldinho was clearly a huge influence on him, both on and off the pitch.
Ronaldinho is not given enough credit. He gave the world wonder and awe in a time when football needed a player like him.
Barcelona and Spanish football have much to thank the Brasilian for, because although the talent in Spain was evident, the ability to win things had been the obstacle that they needed to overcome. Ronaldinho gave the nation the will to win, and this is a special achievement.
Ronaldinho unlocked the box that held the dominance of Spanish football today, a dominance which appears unlikely to go away for quite a while.
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