At 33, the mercurial Ronaldinho has proved his doubters wrong. The Atletico Mineiro star was key in leading the Belo Horizonte outfit to their first-ever Copa Libertadores title, and in doing so, showed the football world that he still has a lot to give.
The Galo's triumph could not have been more agonizing. In the semi-final, Atletico appeared to be heading out of the competition, 2-1 down to Newell's Old Boys before a power cut in the final stages gave them a chance to regroup. Guilherme hit the vital equalizer six minutes into added time, before Ronaldinho himself stepped up to hit the last penalty in a shoot-out victory.
Incredibly, the final against Olimpia unfolded in almost exactly the same fashion. Trailing 2-0 after the first leg, Jo had pulled one back for his team but it took Leandro Silva's looping header in the dying minutes to push the game to added time.
Ronaldinho this time was not needed in the shootout. Atletico converted all of their penalties to seal a 4-3 win over the Paraguayans, and the white and black half of Belo Horizonte celebrated long through the night to mark a historic triumph for a team that just six years ago were toiling in Serie B.
A lot of the Galo team had something to prove this year. Jo and Diego Tardelli had returned from Europe as failures and needed to get their careers back on track after extended periods of mediocrity. Bernard, meanwhile, the diminutive 20-year-old phenomenon, used the Libertadores as a launching pad for the Brazilian national team and to put himself in the eyes of top teams from across Europe.
Nobody though will be happier than R10, who now joins an exclusive club of players who have triumphed in both the Libertadores and Champions League.
After a supposed dream move to Flamengo ended in ignominy amid accusations of late nights in Rio's most exclusive nightclubs, missed training sessions and lawsuits, a move to the comparative provincial backwater of Belo Horizonte was a last throw of the dice. No one doubted his talent, but the laissez-faire mentality which saw him out of shape, reviled in Rio and kicked out of the national team led many to believe his career at the top was over.
Ronaldinho responded in the best way possible. Although he was not at his virtuoso best during the last two rounds, the No. 10 scored a total of four goals in the competition and, alongside Jo, Bernard and Tardelli, was part of an attacking quartet that yielded an exceptional 21 strikes across the Copa.
Particularly unforgettable was an away clash against Arsenal de Sarandi. Although he didn't make the scoresheet, the ex-Milan and Barcelona playmaker produced an incredible 90 minutes, driving his team to glory with a dazzling array of flicks, dribbles and impeccable passing.
Atletico were not even supposed to be in the running alongside such teams as Corinthians, Copa Sudamericana holders Sao Paulo and Argentine powerhouses Boca and Newell's, but although they rode their luck, the Galo were more than deserved winners in 2013. Their veteran star, speaking after the game to reporters, could not hide his glee, according to a second-hand report on goal.com:
This is the reason why I returned to Brazil. This is the one trophy that was still missing. Everyone said that I was finished and that my time was over. Let them talk now...
The chance to get one over on his many detractors was sweet for the star, but the future could be even brighter. Atletico and Ronaldinho now look ahead to the Club World Cup, and the promise of a tantalizing clash against Pep Guardiola, the man who cut him loose in Barcelona, and his Bayern Munich team.
Further into the future, the 2002 World Cup winner must now be considered for a place in Brazil's World Cup team one year on.
All that can wait for now. Ronaldinho can rest and bask in the adulation of a Mineiro support that has quickly adopted him as an idol. And surely, he will afford himself a wry smile thinking about how once more he has turned around a turbulent career and sits back at the top of South American football.
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