Ronaldinho: a player so good he made you smile

The Brazilian has retired after an extraordinary career but his wonderful talent will be remembered for ever. He changed our history, the Barcelona midfielder Xavi said

Ronaldinho: a player so good he made you smile

The Brazilian has retired after an extraordinary career but his wonderful talent will be remembered for ever. He changed our history, the Barcelona midfielder Xavi said

Ronaldinho. See? Youre smiling already. Just thinking about the things he did and the way he did them, the way he was, gets you giggling. Look him up on YouTube and maybe youll fall for him all over again, a bit like all those defenders. Watch for long enough it wont take long and you might even feel like standing to applaud, just like the Santiago Bernabu did, an ovation for a Barcelona player, as if for all the rivalry they hadnt so much been beaten by his genius as shared in it. Sergio Ramos was on the floor, they were on their feet. Cameras zoomed on a man in the north stand with a moustache and a cigarette hanging limp from his lip: Bloody hell, did you see what he just did?

Its a question that was asked a lot. What Ronaldinho did, no one else did. And it wasnt just what he did; it was the way he made people feel. Nostalgia, memories, are about that: not so much events but emotions. Watching Ronaldinho was fun, it made people happy. Those may be two of the most simple, childish words of all but they are the right ones. Football stripped right down to its essence: happy, fun.

Funny, too.

There may never have been a player who made the game as enjoyable as Ronaldinho, in part because he played and it was a game. I love the ball, he said. One coach, he recalled, told him to change, insisting that he would never make it as a footballer, but he was wrong. It was because he played, because he enjoyed it, that he succeeded: the grin on his face was not just there after he won the league, the Champions League, the World Cup and the Ballon dOr, it was there while he won them. It became contagious. He changed our history, Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernndez said.


Ronaldinho’s glittering career

The Brazilian forward won the World Cup with Brazil, the Champions League with Barcelona and the 2005 Ballon d’Or and will be remembered as one of the 21st century’s finest players

Hometown hero

Ronaldinho emerged as an 18-year-old with Grmio, embarrassing World Cup winner Dunga in a state championship final with the tricks that would become his trademark. One month later, he scored six goals at the Confederations Cup

Embarrassing England

The World Cup triumph with Brazil in 2002 catapulted Ronaldinho onto the world stage. His long-range winner against England in the quarter-final that left David Seaman flapping at thin air. Ronaldinho claimed he had intended to shoot but was aiming for the other corner

Instant impact at Barcelona

Ronaldinho returned to PSG after the World Cup but fell out with manager Luis Fernndez. Barcelona intervened after David Beckham joined Real Madrid, swooping in a 30m deal. Ronaldinho joined a club down on its luck, but an audacious solo goal on his home debut gave a hint of what was to come.

That goal against Chelsea

The Brazilian’s most memorable goal of all came in a game Barcelona lost, at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League. Standing on the edge of the box, his path to goal apparently blocked, Ronaldinho picked out the far corner in extraordinary fashion. It put Barca ahead on aggregate, but John Terry scored a late winner.

The best in the world

2005 was perhaps the greatest year of Ronaldinho’s career, capped by winning the Ballon d’Or in November. A week before, the Bernabu had applauded him for his performance in the clsico. Barcelona were on their way to a second title and captured the 2005-06 Champions League, beating Arsenal 2-1 in the final.

World Cup heartache

Playing alongside Kak, Adriano and Ronaldo in a ‘magic quartet’, Ronaldinho was expected to lead Brazil to a second straight World Cup but underperformed, failing to score as the defending champions crashed out to France in the quarter-finals

Falling out of favour

The next two years at Barcelona saw memorable moments including a bicycle kick against Villarreal, but both the club and player declined. Ronaldinho suffered injuries and lost focus and discipline. Bara president Joan Laporta showed Ronaldinho the door in May 2008, and he joined Milan while Barcelona’s new coach, Pep Guardiola, built his team around academy graduate Lionel Messi.

Back to Brazil

After two and a half years at Milan, Ronaldinho returned to his homeland with Flamengo. Having been snubbed by Dunga for the 2010 World Cup, his impressive displays back in Brazil saw him make an unexpected international return, appearing at Wembley in a fixture to commemorate the FA’s 150th anniversary

One Real Madrid director claimed that Madrid hadnt signed him because he was too ugly and would sink them as a brand. Thanks to Beckham, everyone wants to shag us, he said. He, too, was wrong: everyone wanted to embrace Ronaldinho, enjoy him. The long, soul-glow hair, the goofy grin, that surfers wave, thumb and little finger waggling a gesture so his, so symbolic of Barcelonas revival that it was fashioned from foam and sold in the club shop.

An entire publicity campaign was built around him, the embodiment of jogo bonito. He might not have been beautiful but his game was and no one was more attractive, a marketing dream Madrid missed. Almost a comedy cartoon character himself, he inspired the BarcaToons and on Spains version of Spitting Image his puppet giggled and laughed and repeated one word over and over: fiesta! I am like that, he admitted.

On the pitch, too, an extension of that expressiveness. When you have the ball at your feet, you are free, Ronaldinho wrote in an open letter to his younger self, repeating a mantra: creativity over calculation. It is almost like youre hearing music. That feeling will make you spread joy to others. Youre smiling because football is fun. Why would you be serious? Your goal is to spread joy. He said that was the way his father, a shipbuilder and football fan who worked weekends at Grmios ground, had told him to play. His older brother Roberto was at Grmio too. And then, growing up, there was Bombom, his dog. He also played.

Ronaldinhos brother was his idol but he ended up better than him. He was better than anyone at the time: you genuinely wondered if he might end up better than anyone else ever. It didnt last long enough for that but it lasted because he did things youd never witnessed before, skills most never imagined let alone replicated, and that emotion remained. His feet are so fast he can touch the ball four times in half a second. If I tried to do what he can do, Id end up injuring myself, Philippe Cocu said.

For three years no one could match the wow, the wonder, the silliness, the jaw-dropping, laugh-out-loud daftness of it all. The back-heels, step-overs and rubber ankles, the power too, the change of pace, the passes without looking. The passes with his back, for goodness sake. The free-kicks over the wall, round the wall and under it. Nutmegs, lobs, bicycle kicks, everything.

Ronaldinho surrounded by four Celtic players during a Champions League match in March 2008. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

An advert featuring Ronaldinho showed him ambling to the corner of the penalty area, pulling on new boots, flicking a ball into the air and keeping it there. Strolling around the area, he volleys the ball towards goal. It hits the bar and comes straight back to him, he controls it on his chest, swivels and volleys it goalwards. Again, it hits the bar and comes back. He controls it again and, still without letting it drop, hammers it goalwards a third time. For a third time, it thuds off the bar and sails straight back. Without letting the ball drop, he strolls back to where he started, sets it down and smiles. On the boots is stitched the word happiness.

It is quite astonishing; it is also a fake, a montage. Or was it? There was a debate. You didnt know and that was the point, the measure of him. The fact that anyone could even begin to believe that such a nonchalant demonstration of mastery might be genuine was eloquent and only with Ronaldinho would they. That didnt happen, no, but the Bernabu ovation did. So did the shot thundering in off the crossbar against Sevilla at 1.20am. The goal against Milan. That toe-poke against Chelsea. Its like someone pressed pause and for three seconds all the players stopped and Im the only one that moves, he said.

The Brazilian legend Tosto claimed: Ronaldinho has the dribbling skills of Rivelino, the vision of Gerson, the spirit and happiness of Garrincha, the pace, skill and power of Jairzinho and Ronaldo, the technical ability of Zico and the creativity of Romrio. Above all he had one, very special ability: he made you smile.

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