Brazilian World Cup winner and former Barcelona forward Ronaldinho has retired from football at the age of 37. Here Joel Sked pays homage to one of the game’s great entertainers… Football is largely about endurance, about suffering. Because otherwise, what’s the point? But every so often a player comes along radiating joy. A player who makes everything entertaining. Lionel Messi currently provides that. He has done ever since 1 May 2005 when he netted his first ever goal for Barcelona, indifferently lobbing the ball over a stranded Albacete goalkeeper. The moment was akin to the succession of a king. The then 17-year-old heir to the throne had been played through by a cunning lofted pass from the reigning king, Ronaldinho. For a time in the Noughties, the buck-toothed Brazilian wasn’t only the greatest player in the world but arguably the most entertaining sportsman on the planet. This week the 37-year-old announced that he will finally retire in 2018. For many he had all but retired in 2015 when he left Brazilian giants Fluminense after nine matches,
while his commitment was questioned as early as 2006. In the last three years he has been linked with all manner of clubs, including one where there would be a no-training clause in his contract, if reports are to be believed. Even in the final, dying embers of his career he continues to perform. Whether he was at the peak of his powers or distracted by off-field frivolities, it is an affection which has never left him. From the streets of Porto Alegre through boyhood club Gremio to Paris, Barcelona, Milan and back to Brazil. Like so many Brazilian youngsters, Ronaldinho learned his craft on the futsalcourts. The shimmies, feints, lollipops and elasticos were all perfected, before he followed in the footsteps of his brother, who played for Gremio. There were question marks over whether he could live up to his sibling’s ability. Channeling Brazilian great Rivellino and Diego Maradona, who he looked up to as a child, Ronaldinho took no time at all to exceed his brother. He came to the nation’s attention as a nimble, lightweight, dribbling machine when he continuously embarrassed Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning captain Dunga during a captivating performance in the Grenal,
Brazil’s most heated derby match between Gremio and Internacional. By 21 he was a World Cup winner and on the move to Paris Saint-Germain, after a protracted and controversial deal which saw the club receive no fee, and Ronaldinho without a club due to a quirk in the contract ahead of his move. The loophole saw Scottish side St Mirren offer the Brazilian an opportunity to keep fit by signing for them for a few months. Alas, the bizarre transfer did not come to pass and Paris was his home for two seasons. His time in the French capital was a portent for off-field activities and a perceived poor attitude. But it provided a suitable grounding in Europe and he offered enough for Manchester United and Barcelona to tussle over the player. Manchester United had to settle for Cristiano Ronaldo as David Beckham moved to Real Madrid, and Barcelona got their Brazilian star. Few could have predicted the impact he would have at the club. Barca had not won the Spanish league since 1999. Ronaldinho’s effect was transformative. In five seasons he helped Barca to two league titles, two Supercopa de Espana and the club’s first Champions League since 1992. More than the tangible medals, it was they way the team played with Ronaldinho. Pace and power. Poise and panache. Visceral and cerebral. The Brazilian had added strength to his frame but was a constant threat when he rampaged gracefully, and there were few sights more thrilling than Ronaldinho slaloming in and out of challenges as if skiing the slopes of Whistler. A born performer, he offered substance. There were the rockets against Sevilla and AC Milan, the acrobatics against Villarral and Atletico Madrid, and then there were those individual dribbles against Real Madrid which earned him a standing ovation at the Bernabeu. Missing something? Champions League. Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea. No player has made a toe poke look so beautiful. By the time he had left Barcelona the club were transformed, the Brazilian having left an indelible mark. Having conquered Spain, Italy was the next destination. At AC Milan his productivity fell sharply, and he was perhaps remembered more for a glorious piece of control and nutmeg on one of his coaches than anything on the field. There was a real fear of a career petering out far too soon, especially as he moved back to Brazil aged just 30. But there would be a renaissance. A player who epitomised his love for the carnival through the way he played had to have at least one last party. He brought joy to unheralded Atletico Mineiro. Their first and only Copa Libertadores was claimed, Ronaldinho playing a pivotal role as the club won South America’s version of the Champions League in 2013. It increased calls for Ronaldinho to be chosen for the 2014 World Cup squad. But much to the disappointment of world football he finished his career on 97 caps and there was no appearance at the tournament. On his Football’s Greatest episode, the narrator states: “Ronaldinho. Perhaps the most gifted player of his generation.” There is no perhaps. For a couple of years at most he was the world’s greatest. Football will lose a little bit of joy when he finally hangs up his boots.