The day after he turned 21, all eyes at Wembley will be on Brazil’s latest superstar Neymar but the followers of the Selecao will also be hailing the return of another hero, the grinning teeth and smiling feet of the one they call Ronaldinho Gaúcho.
Although surprised himself at his recall, the 32-year-old Ronaldinho’s comeback has been greeted with acclaim in his homeland. Despite his age, his outstanding performancess in guiding Atlético Mineiro to second in the Brazilian championship make him one of the form players for the five-time World Cup winners.
While Lionel Messi rightfully claims football’s brightest spotlight today, the Argentine was waiting in the wings at the Nou Camp while Ronaldinho held centre stage.
May 1, 2005: Barcelona led Albacete 1-0 at home. Samuel Eto’o had given way to a diminutive wavy-haired 17-year-old.
Ronaldinho took possession close to the touchline. With his trademark pony-tail shaking wildly as he drew six Albacete players, the Brazilian masterfully stroked an outrageous flick above the defence into the path of Messi. The substitute exquisitely chipped goalkeeper Raúl Valbuena only for the referee to incorrectly disallow the score. Messi looked like a bewildered child but his fellow South-American smiled at the magic he’d witnessed and helped to weave.
Just a minute later, Ronaldinho received the football on the opposite flank and perfected an almost identical pass for Messi to arch a super finish to score his first goal on the way to becoming arguably the greatest player the game has known.
It was a changing of the guard in some ways. Ronaldinho was mid-way through his footballing odyssey across some of Europe’s greatest cities, Paris, Barcelona, and Milan. Messi was opening the first page on the story that would re-define the history books. Before the Argentine’s twinkle toes lit up La Liga, it was the samba soles of the toothed one who captivated the Camp Nou.
Messi is rightly revered for the childish abandon with which he plays the game. He may have broken the mould but it was Ronaldinho who cast it. In the blaugrana shirt, the Brazilian danced with a football as if he were a barefoot kid in the city of Port Alegre. Twice named world player of the year, in 2004 and 2005, the plaudits and acclaim of the tens of thousands in the Catalan cathedral barely fazed him. Each flick, dribble, or pass, whether executed or rarely mis-hit, was greeted with a smile while opponents were helped to their feet, offered a handshake, and one of the greatest exponents of the joga bonito carried on.
Adored in Brazil, there was consternation when Ronaldinho was dropped from the national team by coach Dunga for the 2010 World Cup. Omitting him from the side that played Ireland in London in March of that year, the 1994 World Cup winning captain said Ronaldinho’s ‘time had past.’
The following January, having left Europe with a host of clubs chasing his signature, Ronaldinho landed home to huge fanfare when he joined Flamengo and 20,000 greeted his arrival. A year and a half later, he left in acrimonious circumstances, cancelling his own contract in a dispute over wages.
In the meantime, he returned to the national team under Mano Menezes but hasn’t featured since February 2012.
Last season, however, Ronaldinho was named in the team of the year as he played a starring role in the Atlético Mineiro side which finished runners-up behind Fluminense in the Brazilian championship.
The return of ‘Big Phil’ Scolari to the manager’s hot-seat, eleven years after leading Brazil to World Cup glory, has earned Ronaldinho a recall to the Selecao as the hosts of the 2014 finals eye victory in the tournament on home soil. In the twilight of his career, Ronaldo de Assis Moreira may still have plenty to smile about.
The Brazil Series – Póg Mo Goal