Rolling Back The Years: On two players inspired to great heights, one of the greatest Clasico performances of recent times and the confirmation of a changing of the guard in Spanish football...
It is not often that an opposition player strides into the Santiago Bernabeu, waltzes rings around the home side’s players and then receives a standing ovation as he wanders off, the departing conqueror lauded as a hero.
But on November 19, 2005, that is exactly what happened in one of the most memorable Clasicos of recent times.
Barcelona and Real Madrid’s rivalry is one of the longest and most-covered in world football, but at the turn of the millennium it was taking on a new dimension.
Inspired by the arrival of new superstars and the greater ease of televising games across differing territories, matches between the two sides had taken on greater global significance. As the star power on the pitch continued to grow, so did the interest from fans from many countries.
That November, the evening kick-off in Madrid attracted the eyes of the world.
At the time the two sides were just one point apart in the fledgling league standings, with Barcelona enjoying that slender advantage after amassing 22 points from their opening 11 games. Yet they were still not top—early surprise package Osasuna setting the pace.
Nevertheless, there was an awareness—or, more accurately, an acceptance, given the history of success involving both sides—that the title race would once again be between the country’s two most-storied sides (indeed, Osasuna would ultimately finish fourth).
The first Clasico meeting of the season would give an indication of where the balance of power lay.
Desire for Revenge
There was a both similarities and differences in the general makeup of the two starting lineups. Both sides had a backbone of home-grown players—Real Madrid had Iker Casillas, Ivan Helguera and Raul, while Barcelona had Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol and Xavi—with a deep-seated awareness of what this derby meant, but there were subtle differences elsewhere.
Madrid, still in the midst of the famous "Galacticos" era, called upon blockbuster names like Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Robinho and Ronaldo; star players and lauded talents who had not always gelled as a cohesive team.
Barcelona, meanwhile, perhaps had fewer worldwide stars (although the 18-year-old Lionel Messi was showing glimpses of his potential) but a number of respected team players, the likes of Giovanni van Bronkhorst and Edmilson springing to mind.
But ultimately they had just one talismanic star—the inimitable Ronaldinho.
Following in the footsteps of other famous Rs to play for the Blaugrana (Ronaldo, Rivaldo), Ronaldinho had been a revelation since joining from Paris St-Germain in 2003, proving concerns that his lifestyle—he was known to enjoy the Paris nightlife—would have a negative impact on his football to be (at this time at least) unfounded.
But Ronaldinho had extra incentive to impress in Spain, having been snubbed by Madrid when his departure from France looked inevitable—Los Blancos’ hierarchy opting for the greater commercial draw (but more prosaic footballing style) of Beckham.
Barcelona, too, had preferred Beckham over the Brazilian—but the Manchester United midfielder, football’s ultimate self-promoter, had unsurprisingly seen Real’s project as more suited to his style.
Ronaldinho had ended up as a rather public consolation prize.
The 25-year-old’s partner in crime in attack, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, had been similarly, perhaps even more brutally, snubbed by the team they were now set to face.
Eto’o had joined Real as an unsure 15-year-old but never got a chance in the first team, being sent out on a trio of loans before being sold permanently after the last of them, to Mallorca.
There he was a goalscoring revelation, eventually attracting the interest of Barcelona in 2004—although Real, spurred on by this, complicated matters by trying to buy back the striker’s rights, with the thinly veiled desire to then loan him out again to any side that was not Barcelona.
This seemed a clear attempt to block their arch-rivals’ ambitions rather than a genuine desire to have the player back, although it did not dissaude Barca from their pursuit.
"We see no problem in signing a player that does not have a place at Real Madrid," club president Joan Laporta told the BBC at the time. "We think Eto'o is a great player."
Eventually, Barcelona’s persistence told. But Eto’o was left with further desire to make Real pay for their disrespect of him.
The duo had already produced success with the club, bringing the Liga title to Camp Nou for the first time in six years in their first full season together.
But that season had also seen the club beaten 4-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu—this season a statement would be made on the enemy’s own turf.
It was clear from the opening whistle that Ronaldinho was on his game—bad news for Real’s right centre-back, the 20-year-old Sergio Ramos.
Ramos had joined from Sevilla for £18 million in the summer but, while undoubtedly prodigiously talented, remained a work in progress. Throughout the 90 minutes, Ronaldinho would highlight exactly where that work was needed.
The opening goal came from Eto’o, however, and with just 15 minutes on the clock.
He and Ronaldinho had already created decent openings even before that early breaking of the deadlock, as Real were immediately knocked onto the back foot.
It was a typical, rapier-like finish from the striker—a quick turn and prodded finish that roared past Casillas. The assist came from Messi, wearing the now-unfamiliar No. 30 shirt, who had cut in from the right and caused havoc in the Madrid defence before Eto’o took the ball on and lashed it home.
The celebration was as notable as the goal.
“Eto'o dashed across to the corner flag below the president's box, raised his arm in the air, pointed to the Barcelona crest on his shirt and then to the pitch to underline the mistake [Real president Florentino] Perez had made in letting him go,” The Independent recalled.
Barcelona continued to dominate proceedings (Real failing to even have a shot on goal), but at half-time it was still only 1-0.
After the break (which was extended, slightly, when a British man invaded the pitch), that discrepancy would be addressed, as the effervescent Ronaldinho simply took over.
The Brazilian had been the most dangerous player on the pitch all game, but that only translated into a goal just before the hour mark.
It was nevertheless a thing of beauty, that year’s Ballon d’Or winner at his absolute best. Receiving the ball on the halfway line out on the left, he dribbled seamlessly into the box, jinking around defenders (Ramos outside, Helguera inside) like they were not even there.
With only Casillas to beat, Ronaldinho wrong-footed the goalkeeper with a disguised shot that beat the custodian at his near post.
It was the unwavering conviction of the run and sheer authority of the finish that left everyone watching with the sense that there was nothing the defence could do to stop such a player in such form.
That assessment was only confirmed 20 minutes later, when Ronaldinho grabbed his second. It was similar in both style and swagger, as he again rounded the humbled Ramos before opening up his body and side-footing his shot around Casillas—who had begun berating his defence almost before the ball hit the back of the net.
It felt like the anguished cries of a helpless man, though; a goalkeeper who knew on this occasion his team were being outclassed, and there was little anyone could do about.
While Casillas was castigating and Ronaldinho was celebrating, something amazing was beginning inside the Bernabeu. Initially one by one, but soon in larger groups, fans rose to their feet and began applauding the man who was picking their side apart.
Only one previous Barcelona player, Diego Maradona, had ever received such an honour. Ronaldinho’s ovation was later perceived as largely a pointed criticism of the home side, but it was nevertheless a tribute to his performance that night all the same.
Real had been broken (they finally got a shot on target with 15 minutes remaining) as Barcelona had asserted their supremacy.
Real had the stars, but Barca had the results. The silverware, too, would come.
"It is the most painful defeat I've experienced at Real," defender Helguera told The Independent. "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."
Untouchable in that match, Barcelona proved to be untouchable for almost the entirety of the season—winning the league by 12 points and claiming the Champions League (after a late comeback against Arsenal) too.
Yet, that night at the Parc des Princes apart, it is that night at the Bernabeu that remains the lasting memory of that season and, indeed, Ronaldinho’s time in Catalonia.
"It was a perfect game," the player himself said that night. "I will never forget this because it is very rare for any footballer to be applauded in this way by the opposition fans."
Later, when collecting his Ballon d’Or, he added: “God gives gifts to everyone.
"Some can write, some can dance. He gave me the skill to play soccer and I am making the most of it."