Golden Goal: Ronaldinho for Barcelona v Chelsea (2005) | Daniel Harris

Though football has infinite possibilities, it delivers very few goals unlike any other, but the genius of Ronaldinho found a way

Football has lots of worthy aims: identity, community, competition and the like. But important though they are, none are felt quite so profoundly as the simple desire to take the piss.

Off the pitch, whether in dressing room, stand or pub, no tiny fault passes unexploited, while on it, the imperative to make opponents look silly is even more elemental than in other sports. And no one, anywhere, ever, has embraced that art and mastered that craft to the same degree as Ronaldinho Gacho.

Ronaldinhos genius became evident while he was still a child, and being that good that young represented a direct challenge to his elders. But there was more to it than surface disrespect. Without wishing to objectify him, a short-arsed waif with bug eyes, buck teeth and jheri curl had no business looking so cute and playing so cruel. Yet, there he was, charming and humiliating all those lucky and unlucky enough to cross his path.

Ronaldinho soon joined his brother at Grmio, and aged 19, carried the team to the final of the Rio Grande do Sul state championship, in which he deliberately, hilariously and absolutely ripped it out of Dunga, Brazils World Cup-winning captain. By incredible coincidence, when Dunga was Brazils World Cup manager, he did not pick an in-form Ronaldinho for his squad; one quarter-final defeat later and he was looking for a new job, which really showed everyone.

Ronaldinho had first been picked for his country in 1999, and four minutes into his competitive debut scored a goal of perfect impudence, controlling a pass from Cafu with his shin, flicking the ball over one defender, bursting past another, and finishing with ease. Then, later that year, he teamed up with 22-year-old Ronaldo or Ronaldinho as he was known at the time to destroy an Argentina side featuring Walter Samuel, Roberto Ayala, Fernando Redondo, Juan Sebastian Vron, Javier Zanetti, Hernn Crespo and Ariel Ortega.

In 2001 Ronaldinho moved to Paris Saint-Germain, where he became acquainted with Jay-Jay Okocha, another virtuoso, and it was there that his repertoire of elasticos, pedaladas, feints and no-look passes first reached a worldwide audience. It was also there that he first ran into disciplinary difficulty: Luis Fernndez, his endearingly avuncular manager, considered extended evenings and holidays to be a step too far, and perhaps as a consequence, Ronaldinho did not tear it up to the full extent of his potential.

However this tension helped cement his status as the acme, epitome, apex and apotheosis of what Brazilians call malandro, a zesty trickster and provocateur revered for speaking truth to power. So profound is the affection for such types that Garrincha, its original footballing iteration, was known as Alegria do Povo, the Joy of the People. Garrincha, though, lived a difficult life, and eventually died of alcoholism. But if he was a tragic hero then Ronaldinho was a heroic hero, within whom resided all the joy, grace, playfulness and abandon let us just call it love which makes Brazil the greatest country on earth.

In June 2002, Ronaldinho was part of the Brazil team which won the World Cup, taking centre-stage in the quarter-final against England: in creating an equalising goal for Rivaldo, he left a bamboozled Ashley Cole staggering, then curved an improbable free-kick winner past David Seaman. At the time, there was plenty of debate: had he meant it or had he not? Now, though, we can be sure: he had an eye for a weak spot, the chutzpah to attack it, and the skill to pull it off. So he did.

A year later Ronaldinho was ready to move to one of Europes bigger clubs, but because Real Madrid had sagely deduced that an amazing, amusing, unique talent, amplified by an amazing, amusing, unique phizog would be anathema to sponsors, they bought David Beckham whom Manchester United had tried forcing to Barcelona. This meant Bara could redirect the cash to hijack Uniteds own deal for Ronaldinho, while Peter Kenyon cannily ensnared Tim Howard, Klberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion instead. Oh, and some goofy, zitty Portuguese show-pony who made John OShea look bad during the six-month period where such a feat was deemed difficult.

Ronaldinhos first opponents at the Camp Nou were Sevilla, who quickly went a goal up. Just before the hour the new man took possession on the left and gambolled across halfway, swaying mesmerically inside two challenges before exploding into a drive which crashed in off the bar. On the touchline, a staggered Frank Rijkaard had no idea what to do with himself, while in the stands people went wild. Football was on the cusp of change.


div class=”u-responsive-aligner”>


div class=”embed-video-wrapper” u-responsive-ratio”>

Unable to stop Real Madrid amassing an 18-point lead by January, Ronaldinho was instrumental in ensuring that by the time the sides met at the Bernabu with five games of the season to go, that gap between them was down to seven. Four minutes from time, with the score was 1-1, Ronaldinho then took the ball outside the Madrid box, flipped an aimless pass over the defensive line to meet the blind-side run of Xavi, and he volleyed home the winner. Madrid still won the league, but they had been usurped as Spains best team before so much as collecting the trophy.

By now Ronaldinho was untouchable, complete footballer and absolute baller. God but with a sense of humour; dancing to music that only he could hear, part-capoeira, part-candombl, he simultaneously moved fast and slow as challenges vaporised around him. To watch him play was inspirational and transcendent, to be teased by him a privilege and a status symbol, because in true malandro style he punched up not down, specially seeking out the most august names to embarrass. I dont look for my goals online, he said years later. I only look for the videos of the nutmegs I did!

Rarely have personality and performance been in such celestial harmony, every conceivable circumstance cloaked with Ronaldinhos essential him-ness. Unsurprisingly, this behaviour was not to everyones taste and retaliatory reducers were endured as such, but they brought no catharsis. The higher he was kicked the wider he smiled, infuriating and affirming in equal measure.

In February 2005, Frank Rijkaards Barcelona met Jos Mourinhos Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League. One of the criticisms of the modern competition is that because the same clubs clubs qualify nearly every season, the mystique of cross-border clashes has been lost. Occasionally the system germinates a rivalry which does not just capture the public imagination but places it in solitary confinement; in the mid-to-late-90s, there was Juventus and Manchester United, more recently there has been Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, and from the mid-00s until the early 10s, there was Chelsea and Barcelona.

Barcelona were all old money and entitlement, Rijkaard having gnomically wandered from playing into managing, failed, and been rewarded with a top job. A total footballer who happened to play in defence, it was no great surprise his full-backs, Juliano Belletti and Giovanni van Bronckhorst, were more into attacking than defending, nor that his midfield three contained two artists in Xavi and Deco, with Ronaldinho, Samuel Etoo and often Andrs Iniesta in front of them. It was a lot.

Chelsea, meanwhile, were confrontational and arriviste, Mourhino having forced his opportunity by way of talent, personality and bristling sex appeal. He had become widely known just a year earlier, beating Alex Ferguson in the pre-match mouth before his Porto side beat Manchester United in the Champions League, and after they became champions of Europe he left for Stamford Bridge. There, he discovered similar competitors in John Terry, Frank Lampard and Petr Cech whom he intensified and augmented with Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho and Claude Makll. The characterisation of that team as dogged skanks, though, was not entirely fair through the winter they had played some outstanding football even if Mourinho then contrived to fall out with Arjen Robben, its chief on-pitch architect.

Before the first leg at the Camp Nou Chelsea were nine points clear at the top of the Premier League, having won nine of their last 10 games without conceding. Barcelona, meanwhile, led Madrid by seven points, so in his pre-match press conference, Mourinho got to work, announcing both his and Rijkaards starting XI: If he is going to name his team, I dont know why they train behind closed doors, came the retort. Usually when people talk, its a sign theyre not very calm.

Of course, there was more to it than that. Mourinho got the Barcelona team right but his own team wrong, replacing Eidur Gudjonsen with Damien Duff, whom he had previously declared injured.

The first 90 minutes were fast and hard. Bellettis own goal gave Chelsea the lead, but Drogba was controversially sent off with more than half an hour to play. Shortly afterwards, Rijkaard sent on Maxi Lpez for Ludovic Giuly, who equalised within two minutes and after a further seven had a shot deflected home by Etoo. The return could not have been better set up.

Except it could, because Mourinho had psychosis to perpetrate. Furious at Drogbas red card, he set about the referee while his pals went for Rijkaard Steve Clarke, his assistant, and Les Miles, Chelseas security officer, alleged he had attempted to influence Frisk at half-time. Uefa duly accused Mourinho, Clarke, Miles and the club of creating a poisoned and negative ambience, also citing the delay in returning the players for the second half and the blanket refusal to perform post-match press duties. Punishment for this would eventually entail a general fine of 33,000 and a personal one of 8,900, handed out to Mourinho along with a two-game touchline ban which presumably did little to console Frisk, forced into early retirement after death threats made by Chelsea fans against him and his family.

Before the teams met again, Chelsea won the League Cup and another league fixture, while Barcelona won twice and drew once. But though they were in form, they could not avoid the lure of the fight. Sure enough, the home side, incited to mania by Mourinho, finished things before the visitors even knew there was a thing to finish, pasting home three goals inside the first 19 minutes to the disbelief of a wild Stamford Bridge.

But then, on 27 minutes, Paulo Ferreira handled in the box and Ronaldinho who had already shown his versatility, powering a near-post header just wide stepped up to take the penalty. In the Chelsea net, Cech stood to the left, offering the right, and typically, Ronaldinho refused him, just about finding the guarded corner; Barcelona were back in the game.

Then on 38 minutes, Belletti posted a long ball which Terry, backpeddling, nodded out; obviously Ronaldinho attempted a mid-air trap. It did not work out, but Iniesta found him immediately afterwards, on the edge of the D and more or less dead centre; Chelsea being Chelsea, Lampard came at him from behind and Carvalho jockeyed in front, while Terry and Gudjohnsen tried to block.

Naturally, Ronaldinho feinted to shoot by way of dance move, waving his right foot and pivoting on his left, transmitting a rising groove through ankle, knee, hand and hip, into a swagger, into a jump. In response, a transfixed defence did nothing so, on his way back down to the ball, he paused for effect before swiping a curling toe-bunger with no follow-through at an angle so improbable, with direction so precise, that none of the men between him and goal could cover it. Thus did the shot zoom into the far left side of the net, a third of the way up.


div class=”u-responsive-ratio”> Ronaldinho,

Ronaldinho, Ronaldinho, Ronaldinho, Ronaldinho! Photograph: Tom Jenkins and Action Images

For a split second there was silence, as reality caught up with imagination; a goal was not even in contemplation and the position of players and ball gave no clues as to how it had even happened. Well, Ronaldinho had happened, and through him, football had happened. A beauty of the game, one which distinguishes it from other sports, is that it is not repetitive like tennis and cricket, not prescriptive like rugby and American football, not restrictive like basketball and ice hockey. Generally speaking, there 22 players on the pitch, and though they are subject to laws, positions, tactics and formations, within those frameworks they have leeway to turn up wherever the play takes them, which is to say that the game offers so many moving parts, there is unmatched variety in the wonder it bestows upon us.

Nonetheless, we see few goals that are entirely unlike any others. Romario was famous for his toe-punts, and Ronaldo scored a beauty against Turkey at the 2002 World Cup the technique is popular in futsal as it arrives at a heavier ball sooner than laces or instep. But though these shots might surprise in the moment, they are enshrined within the range of options and need no explaining in the aftermath. Ronaldinho, on the other hand, altered what was possible, except what he did remained impossible even after he had done it, far beyond the contemplation, never mind execution, of anyone else.

Like the best magicians, his basic skill was that of a confidence trickster, drawing suspecting, unsuspecting victims into an elaborate misdirection before poking them in the eye once they relaxed into pleasure. Oh look, Ronaldinhos dancing on the pitch! How darlingly daring! How harmlessly charming! we thought as he set us up; Oh, we then found ourselves thinking as he knocked us down. When piss-taking was in progress, nothing was too showy and nothing was too simple.

In the event, Chelsea found a winner and progressed 5-4 on aggregate, but 12 years later, the tie occupies a strong room in the memory bank for one reason and one reason only: the goal scored by Ronaldo de Assis Moreira. And through it he taught us not just how to address a football, but how to address football, and how to address a life.


figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> Swoon.



  • <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Sign up to our weekly email, The Recap, here, showcasing a selection of our sport features from the past seven days.
  • Read more:

    No Comments
    Add comment

    Comments are closed.

    Copyright © EP4 Blog