The Dying Dream of Ronaldinho: Brazil's Childlike Genius Who Never Grew Up

Tim Vickery@@Tim_VickerySpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 12, 2015

Rory Martin

In July, a crowd of 41,764 made it to Rio's Maracana Stadium for a league match between Fluminense and Vasco da Gama.

A large part of the draw, of course, was the fact that this was a local derby with league points at stake, but there was an extra reason for the Fluminense supporters to turn up. Their new signing, Ronaldinho Gaucho, was being presented to the crowd.

The Fluminense fans could celebrate the acquisition of one of the most glamorous names in the game, twice chosen as FIFA World Player of the Year. And they could also gloat in front of their rivals.

Vasco had been in the hunt for Ronaldinho, and at one point their president, Eurico Miranda, declared the deal 90 per cent done. Vasco won the game 2-1, but Fluminense fans left thinking they would have the last laugh.

There were few smiles just over two months later. With the same venue now playing host to a crowd of under 10,000, Ronaldinho gave a dismal first-half performance against Goias. Wandering around like a long-retired player who had turned up for a charity match, he was unable to make any impact on proceedings.

The fans were losing patience with him, and he was withdrawn at the interval. It was his seventh game for his new club and it seems it was his last. A few days later, his contract was ripped up.

Ronaldinho in Fluminense colours

For those who had followed Ronaldinho's career over the last nine years, this was a sadly predictable turn of events.

A few days after Ronaldinho's debut for Fluminense, I was on a local TV show with sporting director Mario Bittencourt. At one point, Bittencourt referred to Ronaldinho as "an athlete." I had to interrupt. By this stage of his career, at the age of 35, Ronaldinho could be described as many things—a genius, certainly, in terms of his extraordinary natural talent. But "athlete" is one word that emphatically did not apply.

The signs were all there from the start. At that presentation at the Vasco game on July 19, Ronaldinho had declared himself anxious to get on the pitch, motivated by the sight of a sizeable crowd. The truth was somewhat different. He would not even begin training for over another week.

One of the conditions of the deal was that he had been granted a fortnight's holiday, although he had been inactive since being shown the door by Mexican club Queretaro at the end of May.

By late September, when it was clear to all that Ronaldinho was not in good enough physical shape to make an impression, Fluminense cut him loose. And they had the cheek to issue a statement claiming that his time with the club had been a success, based on the achievement of marketing objectives.

In essence, they were celebrating the fact that many supporters had been effectively gulled into buying shirts with Ronaldinho's name on the back.

Perhaps these fans should have been more careful with their money. But on the other hand, it is understandable they wanted to be part of the magic that is associated with the goofy star. Who can blame them for wanting to believe? Because in his short prime, Ronaldinho was extraordinarily good, hitting heights of joyful expression that few players have ever reached.

A decade ago, when he collected his second consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year award, there seemed no limits to what Ronaldinho could achieve in the game. He was 25 and, in theory, about to come into his sporting prime.

For his country, he had already won the World Cup when, as part of the "Three R's" attack in 2002—Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho—he confirmed the promise of the gawky youngster who had claimed the FIFA U-17 World Championship five years earlier.

With Barcelona, he had taken on and overcome the Real Madrid "Galacticos" project, even winning a standing ovation from the Bernabeu crowd when he dissected the local heroes in November 2005. He was six months away from helping the club to the Champions League title. The best was surely still to come.

FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, with Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o in 2005
FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, with Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o in 2005Getty

Going into the 2006 World Cup, the Brazilian media was full of claims that this would be the tournament in which Ronaldinho showed he was better than Pele.

In hindsight, such hype comes across as ludicrously funny or desperately sad. At the time, though, it all seemed justified and reasonable. Before the World Cup, rounding off the 2005/06 Spanish season, Sid Lowe, World Soccer magazine's witness to the Ronaldinho years, described him as "a fantasy player who reminds you why you fell in love with the game in the first place."

That 2006 World Cup, though, was the turning point in Ronaldinho's career. Brazil's failure in Germany was by no means entirely his fault. The team, in truth, was top heavy, but as events unfolded—and did not go to plan—he seemed to accept them with a worrying passivity.

As the ever-astute Tostao wrote in an article for O Tempo at the time: "Ronaldinho lacks an important characteristic of Maradona and Pele—aggression."

The illustrious pair, he continued, "transformed themselves in adversity. They became possessed, and furious."

Since then, with not a sign of fury, it has been downhill for Ronaldinho most of the way. As befitting someone of his ability, he has come up with the odd breathtaking moment—a magical piece of control, a superbly struck set piece or a pass supplied at an angle that wrong-foots an entire defence. But even before 2006 was out, Lowe had noted that, back at Barcelona, Ronaldinho was looking "slow, unhappy and overweight."

In 2008, one of Pep Guardiola's first moves as Barcelona boss was to get rid of Ronaldinho. He had been hugely important to the club, initiating an era of success with style, and he had helped the growth of Lionel Messi. But his wayward lifestyle had made him a dangerous influence. The club had tried the carrot, and it had tried the stick. But nothing seemed to get through to him.

Guardiola's decision was controversial at the time, but in hindsight it looks like a masterstroke. And so Ronaldinho was on his way.

Ronaldinho at Milan in 2010
Ronaldinho at Milan in 2010Getty

He had some good times with Milan, and also with Atletico Mineiro in 2012 and in the early months of 2013 when, surrounded by the pace of Bernard and Diego Tardelli and the back-to-goal proficiency of centre-forward Jo, Ronaldinho sparkled for a while.

But ever since 2006, he has usually been content to be a peripheral figure, restricting his zone of operation to the left flank, occasionally ornamenting proceedings with a moment of inspiration but never grabbing the course of a game and bending it to his will. The joyful, exuberant mix of skill, athleticism and imagination that carried him through the Real Madrid defence back in 2005 has not been seen since.

How can such an early decline be explained in a player who has suffered no serious injuries?

I well recall interviewing Ronaldinho in the middle of 2000. He was bright and enthusiastic. The press officer (he was then with Gremio in his native Porto Alegre) told me that Ronaldinho was obsessed with making a good impression. In recent years, he has cut a dull-eyed figure, shifty and evasive, finding it hard even to admit that he has let himself slip.

It all points to a simple conclusion: The player who made so many fall in love with football fell out of love with the game at an early age, or at least fell out of love with the sacrifices necessary to play it at a high level.

There is clearly more to Ronaldinho than meets the eye. In that, he perhaps stands as a symbol of his nation. Brazil sells an image of shallow happiness, which sometimes masks an inner melancholy. The very point of Carnival, after all, is to provide temporary relief from the pressures and restrictions of everyday life. And in the case of Ronaldinho, behind the goofy grin lies an enigmatic man-child.

Toward the end of 2003, when Ronaldinho had begun to get into his stride at Barcelona, Lowe wrote in World Soccer that he "took the breath away with his contagious enjoyment and awesome, child-like talent." Later that season, he was described as "the most lovable, wonderful footballer to watch, with a childlike joy about everything he does."

There is much in the comparison between Ronaldinho and a child. The truly great players, in the midst of professional and commercial pressures, retain a child's spirit of play when they take the field. But with Ronaldinho, it perhaps goes deeper.

Ronaldinho was a child born into football. His father worked for Gremio, one of Porto Alegre's two big clubs, as a matchday doorman. When Ronaldinho's brother Assis, 10 years his senior, showed some talent, it was only natural that he ended up there.

Stocky and skilful, Assis quickly made a name for himself. But right from his earliest interviews, he was keen to stress that his young brother was the one to watch.

Assis was soon taking on extra responsibility for his kid brother. The money he made at Gremio enabled his once-poor family to move into a wealthy neighbourhood, into a house with a swimming pool. But that symbol of upward mobility turned into a scene of tragedy.

Their father hit his head in the swimming pool and drowned. From that day on, Assis became a de facto father to Ronaldinho, handling all his business deals and issuing statements. But there is a difference: A son should eventually outgrow and replace his father. What appears to have happened with Ronaldinho is that the younger brother may always be the junior partner.

2002 World Cup winner
2002 World Cup winnerGetty

Losing his father in such a tragic way may also have had wider consequences. The detached, logical view of his footballing career would be that after denying himself some pleasures until his late 30s, Ronaldinho could spend the rest of his days partying to his heart's content. This, though, did not seem to be an option. Life is short and can end unexpectedly—so enjoy it while you can. But how much more might we all have enjoyed it had Ronaldinho been determined to let the good times on the field roll for a few more years?

Certainly there is nothing particularly new about his night-time excesses. Even before he had joined Barcelona, while he was still at Paris Saint-Germain, Ronaldinho's indiscipline put him on the cover of World Soccer.

In August 2003, Nick Bidwell wrote of "The Two Ronnies: Player by day, playboy by night"—and related the battles that PSG manager Luis Fernandez had fought over the lifestyle of the Brazilian import. And, of course, as the body gets older, the excesses take a heavier toll.

When Ronaldinho returned to Brazilian football in 2011, a former team-mate was asked for an opinion on his prospects. The answer? It depended on how much sleep the star would get because if it was down to one hour a night, there was little chance of consistent success on the field.

Ascribing Ronaldinho's behaviour to the death of his father is rank amateur psychology, but it seems plausible.

Ronaldinho took the role of junior partner to Ronaldo and Rivaldo in the 2002 World Cup. After the disappointment of 2006, perhaps the story would have taken a different course if he had been given the chance to play in another World Cup. Had he knuckled down for a few short months and risen to meet the demands of such a showpiece occasion, his career would not carry the rust of so much wasted talent, and his wilderness years would be easier to overlook.

Ronaldinho was missed in South Africa in 2010. Brazil lacked a Plan B, and his appearance off the bench may have made a difference when things went awry in the second half of the World Cup quarter-final against Holland. But he only has himself to blame for his absence.

There is a school of thought that Dunga, then in his first spell as Brazil's manager, was against Ronaldinho for an incident that happened back in 1999. In Ronaldinho's first high-profile moment of professional genius, playing for Gremio against local rivals Internacional, he came up with an inspired dribble round Dunga.

But this suggestion is sports journalism at its worst. Dunga would have loved Ronaldinho to dish out similar humiliation to opposition defenders—and he gave him plenty of chances. He featured in eight of the 2010 qualifiers and also went to the 2008 Olympics. But the fire had gone out.

In 2011, doing well for Flamengo in the less demanding environment of domestic Brazilian football, Ronaldinho won an international recall. The truth, though, was instantly apparent. His first game was a friendly in London against Ghana, and although the opponents had a man sent off in the first half, Ronaldinho was unable to assert much influence.

Ronaldinho in action against Ghana in 2011
Ronaldinho in action against Ghana in 2011Getty

Questioned at a press conference afterward about the failure of Ronaldinho to reproduce his club form, then-manager Mano Menezes told the gathered media that the rhythm of international football, even in friendlies, was considerably more intense than that of the game back home.

Menezes persevered for a few more months before deciding that the once-great player was no longer fit enough to be useful. And after a brief experiment, Luiz Felipe Scolari came to the same conclusion in the run-up to 2014. Not even the chance of crowning his career with World Cup glory on home soil proved sufficient incentive for Ronaldinho to get himself in shape.

There was to be one last hurrah. Less than two years ago, Ronaldinho played in the World Cup at club level. As 2013 Libertadores winners, Atletico Mineiro were in Morocco representing South America. Things did not go well.

After an interesting group phase, Ronaldinho made little impact in the first knockout round of the Copa Libertadores—and he was even worse at the Club World Cup. Atletico travelled to the tournament expecting to decide the title with Bayern Munich. Instead, they fell 3-1 in the semi-final to Raja Casablanca, with little help from their star player, though he did score from a free-kick.

Like a place-kicker or punter in the NFL, Ronaldinho was only seen when he took free-kicks. The rest of the time, the game simply passed him by. But when the final whistle blew, he was the main attraction. The Raja team rushed to him and stripped him practically naked in search of souvenirs. As far as they were concerned, he was their childhood idol.

The strange career of Ronaldinho Gaucho poses a stark question. Should we be grateful for what he gave us or angry that it ended so soon? Delighted to have shared a pitch with him for 90 minutes, there is no doubt which way the Raja Casablanca players would cast their votes.

And what now? There has been no mention of retirement. But did Ronaldinho really need the humiliation of those two months at Fluminense? And now, even if he did care enough to work on his fitness, is it too late for him to be able to tip the balance at any meaningful level of the game?

Perhaps Ronaldinho still has it in him to surprise us. Like one of those characteristic passes when he looks one way and slides the ball the other, maybe he can still cause a stir by making a brief comeback, fit and motivated.

It seems like a very slim chance. But like those Fluminense fans who bought shirts with his name on them, we can hardly be blamed for wanting to believe.

Tim Vickery is a South American football expert based in Rio who regularly contributes to the BBC and Sambafoot. Parts of this story are based on research Tim conducted for articles for ESPN.com and World Soccer.


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