A typically cold October afternoon in northern Italy is not the ideal stage, but as his AC Milan side prepared to take on Atalanta, Ronaldinho decided the fans who had packed into the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia deserved to be entertained.
Warming up for the match, the smiling Brazilian began smashing long-range shots off the crossbar for no other reason than the fact he could. Greeting the referees with handshakes and ruffling the mascot's hair, Gaucho was clearly in the mood to showcase his immense talent to the full.
He danced past defenders with ease in the early going, displaying what appeared to be his entire repertoire of tricks, with the Atalanta players powerless to end the torment he was inflicting. They were 1-0 up on the scoreboard, but there was little doubt who the best player on the pitch was. The Rossoneri No. 80 repeatedly embarrassing would-be markers with feints, shimmies and no-look passes.
Then, with time running out, Alessandro Nesta lofted a pass deep into the opposition box. In a flash, Ronaldinho was there, controlling it with his chest before dispatching a perfectly timed volley into the back of the net beyond goalkeeper Andrea Consigli.
A share of the points and a smiling goalscorer, the former Ballon d'Or winner looked superb throughout, and it was almost impossible to imagine he had been heavily fined by Milan for his conduct in the build up to the game.
The reason? Days earlier, the Serie A giants had been preparing for a UEFA Champions League clash with FC Zurich, only to discover that the forward had been at a Milanese nightclub until 2:30 a.m. just 48 hours before the game.
According to the Corriere dello Sport (h/t Vince Masiello of Goal), he still arrived on time for training the following day but was relegated to the bench for the match and punished by club vice president Adriano Galliani. The Swiss side ran out 1-0 winners at the San Siro, with Ronaldinho not involved but forced to look on as his side were shockingly overturned.
His response would be that star turn against Atalanta, but rather than ensure he was ready for the next fixture, Ronaldinho immediately flew to Paris. Another late night—this time at the L'Ermitage club in the French capital (see video above)—followed, with the criticism of his lifestyle seemingly even less concerning to him than a scything tackle from an overly physical opponent.
"That was always his approach," Paolo, a season-ticket holder at San Siro told Bleacher Report. "Win, lose, play well, play badly—Ronaldinho didn’t care. He would still find a party and enjoy himself long into the night. We loved him at Milan, but he hurt himself and his career, never worried who saw him."
Carlo Ancelotti's final season as manager at the club was the former Barca man's first, but even then, he saw the self-inflicted harm take its toll. "The decline of Ronaldinho hasn't surprised me," the coach remarked later, per Mark Meadows of Reuters. "His physical condition has always been very precarious. His talent, though, has never been in question."
With Kaka and Ancelotti both gone ahead of the 2009/10 campaign, Milan were clearly expecting more from Ronaldinho, with La Gazzetta dello Sport reporting that then-owner Silvio Berlusconi made the player promise his team-mates he would do his best to help them (h/t Anthony Sormani of Goal).
However, just days later, he was spotted in another club, enjoying a Latin American music festival with goalkeeper and compatriot Dida. Midnight came and went, yet the two remained, signing autographs and taking pictures before some Milan supporters decided they had seen enough.
They began yelling at the pair and insisted they went home to be ready for training later that day. "It was ridiculous," Paolo continued. "I wasn't there that night, but a friend was, and he says Ronaldinho just laughed about it and told them not to worry, but eventually he was convinced it was time to leave."
AC Forza Milan/News @ACForzaMilano
Ronaldinho & Dida! #MilanFamily http://t.co/ulrYaqxF9F2015-5-15 00:13:33
From there, he seemed to avoid such public confrontations for a while and began to deliver on the pitch, with new boss Leonardo bringing the best from him. Ronaldinho finished that season as Serie A's leading assist provider, with 14, while netting a further 12 times himself.
Yet concerns continued over the impact his lifestyle was having, and when Massimiliano Allegri replaced Leonardo in the summer of 2010, the Italian simply refused to tolerate the partying and late nights.
Ronaldinho made just 16 appearances in all competitions during the following campaign, with five of those coming from the bench. By January 2011, he was heading back to Brazil, signing for Flamengo as his European adventure came to an end.
"I am a player that always wants to play, but many times Allegri left me out," the Brazilian told reporters at an event back in 2012. "This left me very upset. I was in good shape when I was at Milan, but he didn't play me to give me the opportunity to express myself, so that is why I left."
Others have a different recollections of events. Irreparable self-inflicted damage was done to the player-coach relationship in November 2010, when Ronaldinho was caught leaving a bar in the city at 2 a.m. days before a derby clash with Inter Milan.
"It's the not the hour for an athlete to still be awake," Allegri told reporters at his pre-match press conference. He dropped the Brazilian to the bench and left him there as Zlatan Ibrahimovic secured a 1-0 win for the Rossoneri.
The coach always had the upper hand as he continually delivered results that season, winning the Serie A title in his first year with the club while Ronaldinho was sent back to his homeland in disgrace.
Watching the video above is to appreciate the scale of his decline over the two-and-a-half seasons he was a Milan player. Approximately 30,000 fans travelled to the San Siro to witness his arrival, with the supporters scarcely able to believe they had signed such an iconic figure.
Greeting them with his trademark grin, Ronaldinho was the consummate showman, and arguably nobody was as happy to see him pull on the famous red-and-black shirt more than Berlusconi.
"He's my dad," Ronaldinho told L'Equipe during his time at the club (h/t Adam Scime of Goal). "Like a big brother, like a father. I know I can count on him. We have a wonderful relationship. I have full confidence in him and I have his confidence. If I need something, I can call him."
The adulation was reciprocated, with the former Italian Prime Minister saying at a 2010 press conference that Ronaldinho was "not transferable," largely because Berlusconi's view was to "consider him the best player of all time!"
The Milan owner was not alone, with many fans sharing his view that there was simply nothing the Brazilian showman could not do on the pitch.
"This is a guy who played with the best in the world yet could fit in any team with zero ego," Gino, a match-going Milan fan told Bleacher Report. "His winner in the Milan derby, his double nutmeg against Chievo—he was just classy, even when he wasn't at his best.
"The iconic shots of Andrea Pirlo, Ronaldinho and David Beckham stood to take free-kicks spring to mind. He was the greatest when he was in the mood, and the other two would leave the ball to him, which speaks volumes."
Diego Espinoza ⚽️ @DiegoCR1810
TRES MAESTROS DEL TIRO LIBRE. CRACKS. #Pirlo #Beckham #Ronaldinho https://t.co/4R8yv9uVDh2017-6-16 01:04:05
There is also an understanding, perhaps even admiration, for the way he approached life too. "Of course he was even better out there at night, in the clubs," Gino continued. "Play a game. Blow it all on women. As if we all wouldn't love to do the same!"
However, while Ronaldinho's approach was lauded by some fans, others simply wonder just how good he could have been for the Rossoneri had he not chosen to spend his evenings out partying.
"Milan have had some of the greatest players ever to play the game," a former club employee who wished to remain anonymous explained to Bleacher Report. "But Ronaldinho could have been the most gifted of them all...except he couldn't apply himself the way the coaches demanded. Leonardo let him party, but Ancelotti and Allegri challenged him to be professional, and he simply couldn't do it."
Ronaldinho fait le show au Camp Nou https://t.co/Fq4LeXxPy0 #PSG #TeamPSG https://t.co/lM5fvqSmRf2017-7-1 12:01:09
That did not start at Milan, with tales of his excesses retold throughout a career that saw him move to Europe with Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2001. There, he played alongside Jerome Leroy, and in September 2016 the Frenchman told told SFR Sport (h/t Jonathan Johnson of ESPN FC):
"Ronaldinho did not train on any day of the week. He just turned up on Friday ready to play on the Saturday. That was Ronaldinho. I think he was trying to emulate Romario, but he did not have the same success.
"He'd come in with sunglasses on, go and get changed and then go straight to the massage table to sleep. Players with great talent like him are a bit crazy."
There are countless similar stories, with Deutsche Presse-Agentur journalist Daniel Garcia Marco describing how the Brazilian spent the night before the second leg of a Champions League semi-final against Manchester United.
B/R Football @brfootball
Ronaldinho with a couple of lucky fans at the Barcelona training ground 🙌 [📷: IG/ronaldinho) https://t.co/4DoV6CVCXC2017-5-24 12:05:44
"At 4 a.m. the samba came to a stop and paved the way for more reggaeton," he wrote, per Goal. "At this point, Ronaldinho allegedly took off his shirt, and while surrounded by beautiful women, continued to show off all his dancing skills. No one would have thought he is recovering from an injury."
If it began before Milan, it certainly continued afterward. Flamengo celebrated his return in January 2011, but one month later, carnival season hit Rio de Janeiro and the player's partying ways returned.
Losses began to pile up, and club patron Patricia Amorim—pictured in the tweet below—decided to take drastic action. Calling on the help of supporters, she urged Flamengo fans to call a special telephone hotline called Disque-Dentuco if they spotted their club captain on a night out, per Tim Sturtridge and Alejandro Perez of The Independent.
It appeared to work, as Ronaldinho netted three times in his next two games. But eventually, his time with Flamengo would flame out, and he lived out a nomadic existence as his career wound down.
Próximo é o Obama "@ocleyson_show: Bem Vinda ! Patricia Amorim , ex presidenta do Flamengo ao meu grupo de whatsapp http://t.co/I2PmsJ2IjN"2014-12-22 13:57:05
There was always great joy in watching Ronaldinho play. He was capable of incredible magic and performed as football's most accomplished showman for years, as his skill and athleticism stunned everyone who watched him play.
He was blessed with more technical ability than almost any player before or since and had the adoration of millions, whether in Brazil, Barcelona or even Milan. Simply put, Ronaldinho had it all, as he won individual accolades and team trophies with consummate ease, yet it was seemingly never enough.
He wanted to play his way and live his way. Doing both was never an option in Italy. Perhaps it was always an ill-advised move because the rigid tactical reputation of Serie A is one the league and its coaches have fought hard to earn over decades of dedication, effort and intelligence.
They could always tolerate a maverick like Ronaldinho on the pitch, but when his off-field excesses began to take their toll on his performances, it was only going to end one way. Like Pep Guardiola before him, Allegri opted to cut his losses, much to the dismay of those who love to be entertained. There may never be another Gaucho.