This week's inductee to The Cult was a footballer like no other, and a man whose trademark grin was emblematic of an era. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Showman
Messi or Ronaldo. The argument has rumbled on for almost a decade. Based on numbers alone – trophies, goals, Ballon d'Or titles – there's little doubt that they are the pre-eminent footballers of their generation, perhaps of all time. But football is about more than numbers.
Though their public images differ greatly, Messi and Ronaldo share a similar drive, an all-consuming desire to be the best. They stand as twin monuments to relentless professionalism and a lifelong pursuit of success. Both score goals and break records at an ungodly rate, raising each other to new heights of productivity and technical perfection. Yet beneath the glossy exterior, it feels as though a vital ingredient is missing – a warmth and humanity that is stunted by their superhuman efforts.
Ronaldinho was different – and much the better for it. There was a disarming playfulness and exuberance to his game that Messi's quiet self-effacement and Ronaldo's posturing seriousness simply can't match. For all their incredible achievements, they will never stir the passions in the same way. The tired debate of who's best won't be settled by reason or logic; it's the romantic and intangible elements of football that draw us back in. For that alone, Ronaldinho trumps both.
The Brazilian was simply a pleasure to watch. He was pure box office, a showman in the truest sense, and, during my teenage years, by far the most exciting footballer in the world. While most lads my age got their kicks watching videos of a rather different kind, I was enthralled by compilations of his latest skills – of nutmegs, flick flacks and step overs that were bordering on the divine.
In 2005, a video of Ronaldinho doing keepy-uppies off the crossbar went viral, becoming the first on YouTube to reach a million views. That a dispute even existed over the legitimacy of the footage spoke to the sheer mastery of touch and control that many believed him capable of. In the same year he was on the cover of FIFA Street, his footwork once more cast as the stuff of digital trickery and video game excess.
He was a one-man highlights package, freestyle football incarnate. But more than just showboating, there was substance, too.
Point of Entry: Superstar
It's arguable that, more than anyone else, Ronaldinho transformed Barcelona into the sleek, modern, all-conquering behemoth they are today. Before his arrival in the summer of 2003, as the marquee signing of newly-elected President Joan Laporta, the club had finished sixth the previous season, lower than in any of the previous 15 years, and hadn't won the title since the turn of the millennium.
The Barcelona that Ronaldinho joined were still a grand name, but one which had become stuck in a slump, struggling to rouse and reinvent themselves. Out of the Champions League, low on confidence, and experiencing massive upheaval at all levels, they needed a central figure to ignite and galvanise their ambitions. Then, in sauntered Ronaldinho. An outrageously gifted footballer but with an attitude to training that bordered on professional negligence, he hardly seemed the sort of person to build a dynasty around.
Yet despite inauspicious appearances, this decision was to be the making of both player and club. Although Ronaldinho had recently won the World Cup with Brazil, as the junior partner in the three Rs frontline, alongside Ronaldo and Rivaldo, he was deemed unreliable – a wildcard who couldn't be trusted to deliver when it really mattered.
At previous club Paris St-Germain he'd regularly succumbed to off-field distractions. The broad smile and roguish personality were always part of Ronaldinho's appeal, but his lack of focus exasperated manager Luis Fernandez and began to undermine his performances. He risked becoming another Denilson, a failed maverick who fell into the role of entertaining sideshow attraction when his career had once promised so much more.
But Ronaldinho's arrival at the Camp Nou proved a fresh start, and the beginning of his ascent to true superstar status. In the preceding years, Barcelona had burned through players and managers at a remarkable rate. With Frank Rijkaard and Ronaldinho both in place, their five years at the club delivered two La Liga titles, the Champions League and two Spanish Super Cups. It was the return of the aura of invincibility that surrounds Barcelona to this day.
Throughout that time, a forward line that featured various combinations of Deco, Samuel Eto'o, Henrik Larsson, Ludovic Giuly and the emerging Lionel Messi (among others) had Ronaldinho as its off-the-cuff conductor. He exploited openings that nobody else could see and scored some spectacular goals.
There was the hip swivel and stationary toe-poke away to Chelsea, the overhead kick against Atletico Madrid, and self-engineered acrobatics against Villarreal and Osasuna. A set-piece specialist, he found the net from all sorts of free-kicks, too. Adept at swinging one in from 25 yards out, he could also slide the ball under the wall or use a disguised chipping wedge technique, depending on the situation.
Ronaldinho made the ball dance for his amusement and ours, embarrassing opponents with his superior control, his sense of time and space. He was one of the finest exponents of the elastico and the no-look pass. It was joyous football that, although it occasionally strayed towards novelty, was always underpinned by a ruthless streak, a remarkable ability to seize the moment. He was a consummate performer and the last of his kind.
Such players are no longer indulged in the same way at the very top level, as Ronaldinho discovered when Pep Guardiola was promoted to the role of first-team manager in the summer of 2007. Those who fell short of the peak physical condition and unwavering commitment that his high-intensity demanded were cast aside, no matter how talented. Ronaldinho was soon phased out – sacrificed on the altar of the collective.
His form of spontaneous individualism has been lost to a more methodical and prescriptive form of football, as advocated by Guardiola and his disciples. Ronaldinho and Guardiola represented two conflicting ideologies, and defined two different eras at Barcelona. In contrast to the implacable, suffocating dominance of Guardiola's team, Ronaldinho's had a thrillingly improvisational feel. Both were successful, but only one was fun.
The Moment: Real Madrid 0 Barcelona 3
In the 2005/06 season, Ronaldinho, and by extension the Barcelona team that relied so heavily on him, were at the peak of their powers. This game against their great rivals came in the midst of what would become a run of 14 successive league wins, during which they scored 38 goals and conceded just six. They steamrollered all-comers, including Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
The home side, still gripped by their Galatico obsession, had an unbalanced starting XI that featured Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Ronaldo, Robinho, and Raul. While they were busy showing how misguided a reliance on outstanding individuals could be, Ronaldinho demonstrated the value a true game-changer could have in the right setting.
Nominally stationed on the left wing, but with license to roam, he received some rough treatment from Michel Salgado in particular. But, after a couple of loose early touches, Ronaldinho came into his own. Teasing the opposition, drawing the ball into the defender's reach before whipping it away again. There were delicately weighted passes, little nudges and flicks in the first half, a mere warm-up for the main show.
Barcelona led thanks to a Samuel Eto'o strike before Ronaldinho secured victory with two perfectly executed goals. Receiving the ball in his own half he sped away down the left, jinking past Sergio Ramos, ducking inside Ivan Helguera and firing home. The net had barely rippled before Iker Casillas was flinging his arms out in frustration. A second arrived shortly after as Ronaldinho again isolated Ramos, accelerated past him and slid the ball into the far corner. Madrid's supporters rose to applaud.
There was something about Ronaldinho that transcended rivalry. He was irresistible and, for an all-too-brief spell, untouchable. Even the most staunch opposition supporter couldn't help but admire his efforts, inflicting pain in the most beguiling way possible, all with a winning smile on his face.
A month later and he was deservedly named World Player of the Year for the second time in a row. By the end of that season, Barcelona had won the La Liga title and the Champions League, utterly transformed from the team he had first joined.
"Ronaldinho was responsible for the change in Barça. It was a bad time and the change that came about with his arrival was amazing. In the first year, he didn't win anything but people fell in love with him. Then the trophies started coming and he made all those people happy. Barça should always be grateful for everything he did." – Lionel Messi
Words: Sean Cole // Illustration: @Dan_Draws