“He is the man that makes the difference between a team that plays well and another that is really memorable. He alone can decide one game”
Frank Rijkaard – Former FC Barcelona Manager.
He is Ronaldinho. And to be honest, Rijkaard didn’t exaggerate one bit. The man with the gawky yet innocent smile proved to be the most vital signings for FC Barcelona in the last decade. And the Catalan club surely owes a part of their renaissance to the enigmatic Brazilian. Ronaldinho’s acquisition by Barcelona is nothing short of a fairytale. Ex-President Joan Laporta had resolved on acquiring iconic English footballer David Beckham, to restore the club’s fading image. Fate however had other ideas and in zero hour Real Madrid hijacked the deal, like they had done previously with Alfredo Di Stéfano, and captured the Englishman. Laporta had no other option but to sign Ronaldinho and the rest as they say is history.
Unconfirmed sources also claim that Ronaldinho was supposed to sign for Manchester United, following the departure of David Beckham. However, Peter Kenyon apparently didn’t honour his words and an infuriated PSG administration decided to sell Ronaldinho to FC Barcelona for € 32.25 million, which is supposedly less than what United actually agreed to pay. This, however, is still a mystery and hasn’t been confirmed. What happened next is history. Ronaldinho won 5 trophies with Barcelona and Beckham just 1 with Real Madrid.
The Pre-Barcelona Years
After moving to Europe, Ronaldinho , manifested glimpses of his talent with Paris Saint Germain. And then came the World Cup 2002 and eventually the quarter final match against England. A free kick in the 50th minute of the match and Ronaldinho’s life was never the same. A stunning shot from 35 metres, nothing short of fabulous, took the perfect trajectory, immaculate elevation and eventually the perfect plunge to bamboozle David Seaman – a goal par excellence, gave Brazil the win against England. And Ronaldinho, the superstar of the future, announced his arrival.
Known for his breathtaking skills, the Brazilian’s biggest asset was perhaps his uncanny coolness which saw him manoeuvre his way out of pressure situations. However, despite such intelligence on the pitch, the Brazilian was naive enough lose Coke sponsorship worth $750,000 for drinking a can of Pepsi at a press conference.
Despite being a World Champion by the age of 22, Ronaldinho did not quite live up to the expectation in France and eventually moved to Spain, FC Barcelona – And then began the fairytale romance.
The FC Barcelona-Era
FC Barcelona had just finished 6th in La Liga. Joan Gaspart left the club. So did Van Gaal, Antonio de la Cruz and Radomir Antic. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. And then arrived Joan Laporta, Frank Rijkaard & of course, the young and gawky Ronaldinho. His move to the Catalan club was nothing short of serendipity and perhaps no other player has influenced the destiny of a club of the stature of Barcelona as much as Ronaldinho. The arrival of Laporta, Rijkaard and Ronaldinho had such a profound influence that even BBC did a documentary, titled “FC Barcelona Confidential“, based on the turn of events at the Camp Nou.
The Brazilian made an immediate impact and helped Barcelona finish second behind Valencia. Not only did he end up as the highest scorer for Barcelona, but also ended up as one of the players to have played the most number of minutes – a feat not many players achieve in their first season at a new club in a new country.
Ronaldhino’s arrival was such a hard sold point in the history of the Catalan club that not many remember or know that a certain Rafael Marquez also signed that season and La Masia promoted Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdez to the senior team – Ronaldinho hogged all the limelight. And quite rightly so.
If the 2003-04 season was any indication, the following season saw a rejuvenated Barcelona weaving her magic once again and winning hearts like never before and they were back at the summit of the Spanish top flight football and thereby ending their six-year trophy drought. 2004-05 season was also one to be remembered because the team underwent a metamorphosis and veterans like Cocu, Davids (return to Juventus), Saviola, Luis Enrique, Overmars, Luis Garcia, Kluivert, et al. The Catalan club got a lease of new life in the form of Samuel Eto’o, Deco, Edmilson, Giuly, and of course Henrik Larsson – to complete a team where Ronaldinho would eventually be the heartbeat, and of course the brain.
2004-05 saw Barcelona race past Real Madrid and in style and Ronaldinho bag the FIFA World Player of the Year. And 2005-06 was even more awesome. Rijkaard and his team, led by Ronaldinho mesmerized and won the La Liga and also the Champions League beating Arsenal in Paris. Ronaldinho won the FIFA World Player of the Year, yet again, thereby etching his name as one of the greatest ever in the history of the beautiful game.
The significance of the 2005-06 season doesn’t end here – La Masia promoted yet another youngster into the senior team – a young and reticent kid, who was often thought to be a mute. The irony was that it’s this kid who went on to replace Ronaldinho as the worthy successor of the hallowed number 10. The world got the first glimpse of perhaps the best product of famed Barcelona youth system or any youth system for that matter. The world saw the superstar of the future. The world saw Lionel Messi.
Ronaldinho’s performance reached a level which looked insurmountable. Even by the maverick genius himself. Not many get a standing ovation from the Santiago Bernabeu faithful after he has ripped the home team – November 2005 was one such incident. The Brazilian scored his second goal and Blancos in the stadium stood up as a sign of surrender and respect for the wizard, who was at the peak of his power. Good times never last. Ronaldinho’s fairytale at Barcelona was reaching its twilight and the eccentric footballer never got back to the level he once achieved with the Catalans.
2006-07 was the season when things started getting bad. Barcelona’s stranglehold on the Spanish league and the Champions League was loosened by Real Madrid and AC Milan respectively and the genius started losing track of his objectives. Controversies have been a perennial part of Ronaldinho’s career starting from PSG. The dressing-room bust-up between him and the mercurial Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o didn’t help either. Eto’o went under the blade and finally recovered after five long and cold months leaving Ronaldinho as the only genuine threat in the offense. Barcelona’s trophy aspirations were deeply fraught. Amidst speculations of probable dressing room unrest between Ronaldinho and Eto’o, the latter’s refusal to come on as substitute in a match only confirmed suspicions. Barca was in first place for much of the season while arch-rivals Real Madrid were six points behind and in fourth. Just after the supposed dressing room bust-up, the Catalan side’s form depreciated and Real’s improved considerably. At a crucial juncture in the league, Real Madrid came back valiantly after going down 1-3 at home against Espanyol and finally won 4-3. A beleaguered Barcelona dropped points against a struggling Real Betis. Both teams eventually finished on 76 points but a better head-to-head record gave Real Madrid their first La Liga after 2002-03. Ronaldinho ended up as Barcelona’s top scorer by there was more to it than met the eye.
If the 2006-07 season was bad, the following was a disaster. FC Barcelona fell from the zenith of a prestigious Double (La Liga and UEFA Champions League) to the nadir of finishing third in La Liga and with no silverware whatsoever. Frank Rijkaard’s departure was imminent along with a host of stars, Ronaldinho being one of them. Arsenal captain Thierry Henry signed for the Catalan side. In a bid to restore parity the addition of yet another superstar only added to Rijkaard’s problems. The rumours of dressing room upheavals only gained momentum.
On the eve of the 2008-09 season, Barcelona bade goodbye to one of their most successful managers. Josep Guardiola i Sala, the man who replaced Rijkaard, made his intentions clear at the very beginning. Surprisingly, the volatile Brazilian was deemed surplus to requirements along with an ageing Deco. A transfer to AC Milan for €21 million + €4 million in variables, gave Ronnie one more chance to resurrect his career. Despite winning the 2010-11 Serie A, Ronaldinho was nowhere near to what he once was. His Europe days were numbered.
What They Say…
“Rijkaard style allows Ronaldinho to potentialize his innate talent and his unbalanced football skills”
“…He’s a great player and I guess that makes him psychic. When you play with him and see what he does with a ball, nothing surprises me any more (sic). One of these days, he will make the ball talk.”
“There are not many players who can offer goalscoring passes like he can. He is just marvellous. He is a rare case of an assist man who can provide the ball from anywhere.”
“I would love to face him again because I like to play against the best players. Ronaldinho is on his way for making history.”
“As electrifying as a hairdryer thrown into a hot tub, like Betamax, they don’t make them like that anymore”