PORTO Alegre is known as “Cidade Sorriso” or Smile City. It’s appropriate then, that it should export the most famous buck-toothed grin in world football. An odyssey that traversed three of Europe’s most renowned cities came full circle when Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, better known as Ronadinho, returned to his homeland where his career has continued to glitter. He celebrates his 34th birthday this week.
Last February, the day after he turned 21, all eyes at Wembley were on Brazil’s latest superstar Neymar as England played host to Brazil. However, followers of the Selecao also hailed the return of another hero, the grinning teeth and smiling feet of the one they call Ronaldinho Gaúcho.
Although surprised himself at his recall, Ronaldinho’s comeback was greeted with acclaim in his homeland. Despite his age, his outstanding performances in guiding Atlético Mineiro to second in the Brazilian championship the previous season made him one of the form players for the five-time World Cup winners.
Earlier this year, reports had linked the two-time World Player of the Year with a move back to Europe to Turkish side Besiktas, but Ronaldinho extended his stay at Atletico Mineiro with whom he enjoyed a stunning 2013. Having led his club to the Copa Libertadores title, the 34-year-old was recently voted South American player of the year in a fan poll, amid clamours for a recall to the Seleção in time for a World Cup swan-song.
The return of ‘Big Phil’ Scolari to the manager’s hot-seat, eleven years after leading Brazil to World Cup glory, earned Ronaldinho that chance and for a time, Scolari toyed with the idea of including the veteran in his squad as the hosts of the 2014 finals eye victory in the tournament. But Brazilian hopes look set to lie on younger shoulders in the form of Neymar, Oscar and co. Brazil are many people’s favourites to lift the trophy according to 2014 World Cup groups betting with William Hill
Adored at home, 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. But his eventual move to Atletico Mineiro has seen a resurgence in the fortunes of the man who in many ways paved the way for Lionel Messi.
While 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 journey 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 the world’s best player, 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 grin while opponents were helped to their feet, offered a handshake, and one of the greatest exponents of the joga bonito carried on.
Though he’s since had his teeth corrected, and has threatened to become a singer when his career eventually ends, for now Ronaldinho still has plenty to smile about.