There are footballers and there was Ronaldinho.
Long before football science and VAR, before football became all about goals and statistics,( has it ever been about anything else); before super human goal machines invaded our soccer planet, there was the all conquering, Paolo Maldini led, astutely defensive minded AC Milan side that won global acclaim for their impervious defense and with it, many trophies.
Then there were the pop star footballers; Eric Cantona, David Beckham and the rest. Over the years, within the last 20 years football has really evolved from a sporting event to a game, a multibillion dollar industry and even a science course in our sports universities.
Previously, wherever the debate is made for the greatest footballer of all time, the argument was between fans of two former South American world beaters in Pele (Brazil) and Maradonna (Argentina).
Recently, the game has evolved and while much the basic features remain, much of the rules have changed and with it, new kids have taken centre stage with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo the most prominent of the names too often, so easily mention in any discussion of the unofficial title of the greatest footballer of all time
While a lot has been writing about the suitability or not of both Ronaldo and Messi to unseat Pele and maradonna as the heir apparent to the make believe title, it is to yet another brazillian maestro that I would rather lean.
The name, Ronaldo de Assis Moreira may mean nothing to many people save for the very first name “Ronaldo” which has come to be associated with greatness in the game of football. But Ronaldinho is a name so many people all over the globe will recognize as a truly football great and icon.
As a teenage boy playing in his home country, Ronaldinho displayed dazzling skills and unparalleled football maturity on his way to winning a series of youth tournaments culminating in winning the 2002 world cup as a teenager.
It wasn’t until 2003 when he arrived in Europe at Barcelona did he began to illuminate the European game. For those who were opportune to have watched him, the buck toothed Brazilian made many to fall in love with the round leather game again.
Ronaldinho brought to Europe the samba street styled football with a combination of raw strength, mazy runs, silky dribbles and breath-taking finishes as he went on to conquer the football world with Barcelona, claiming a Ballon d’or and two FIFA world player of the year awards.
With his signature wavering long hair, always smiling, full of tricks and feints, Ronaldinho re-invented football as an entertainment in such a way the world has never seen before him.
Fans and opponents alike were left awed and in admiration of his abundant skills and sublime ability to make a goal, a pass or decide a game entirely in a moment of pure magic or class. So simple and yet mesmerizing, with a career full of defining moments too many to enumerate.
Take the goal scored against Chelsea in the 2005 Champions League for example, Chelsea would eventually win the Last 16 tie 5-4, but what everyone remembers is the goal Ronaldinho scored in the second leg at Stamford Bridge. Simply magic
He went on to describe the goal by these words himself, “It’s like someone pressed pause and for three seconds all the players stopped and I’m the only one that moves.” Or the complete personal annihilation of arch rivals Madrid at their own backyard, Barcelona players aren’t supposed to get a standing ovation from Real Madrid fans, yet when Ronaldinho put Los Blancos to the sword for a 3-0 El Clasico victory in November 2005,
Madridistas saw no other option but to take to their feet and clap. They had witnessed something special.
Great and mercurial as he was on a football pitch, Perhaps his crowning moment on a football field didn’t even occur in a game, but in a three-minute video clip of him mucking around at Barcelona’s training ground. Emerging in 2005, the video, an ad for Nike, showed Ronaldinho expertly pinging balls off a crossbar time after time.
It garnered a million YouTube views in a time when people had to spend potentially hours caching video using dial-up internet. Ronaldinho was worth it.
The video itself was simple: Ronaldinho gets gifted a new pair of white and gold boots, does a few kicks ups with them and then volleys the ball against a crossbar from the edge of the box. But somehow, every time Ronaldinho hits the ball off the crossbar, the ball returns to him, like a ship to a siren’s song. It couldn’t be real.
It shouldn’t be real. It was all too far-fetched. So much beyond the realms of physics and possibility. And yet, such was Ronaldinho’s skills, you couldn’t be too sure.
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He was too extraordinary, too magnificent, and too capable of the unprecedented in football to have us write off the video as fake.
The Brazilian legend may have won World Cups, Champions Leagues and Ballons d’Or, He may not have had a long career, didn’t score as many goals as the goal machines of today, but Ronaldinho’s true contribution to football was how every so often the ball would arrive at his feet and he appeared capable of disrupting the walls between dreams and reality and he so often did.
And as one of his former team mates later said, “Some players won trophies. Others won hearts. Ronaldinho made us question what was possible on a football pitch.”
He is for me and for many others, the greatest of all time yet.