Having just completed his move back to his native land of Brazil, I thought now would be as good a time as any to look back at a time when he was more than a well-known name he was also a superstar on the pitch.
It was the summer of 2003 and all eyes were on Spain. Real Madrid had just won title number 29, their 2nd title in 3 years. Meanwhile Barcelona had finished the season in 6th after consecutive 4th placed finishes in previous seasons, the last time they had won La Liga was in 1999. Joan Laporta was the newly named president and Frank Rijkaard was the newly appointed manager, 2003 was a time of change. Laporta promised the Barca faithful that one David Beckham would be arriving in Catalunya, a world-renowned signing to make everyone sit up and take notice. Out trumped by the Galacticos he had to make do with his second choice, outbidding Manchester United who in turn were forced to purchase an unproven 18-year-old Portuguese winger of a similar name who was never really going to amount too much. Ronaldo de Assís Moreira arrived for a figure of €32,250,000 from French club Paris Saint-Germain. He followed in the footsteps of other great Brazilians before him Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldo to name but a few. Ronaldinho as he was known in Europe had been plying his trade at PSG for the last two seasons and his stock was already high in England after an apparently freak goal against David Seaman whilst in the 2002 World Cup Quarter Finals. He was also reportedly swayed by then vice-president Sandro Rosell, who he had struck up a friendship with when Sandro was a Nike executive in Brazil.
Things didn’t start out quite as well as they would have hoped for, after all one good signing does not make a team especially when he is out injured. Just 5 wins in the opening 15 league games for Rijkaard’s side saw criticism from some sections of the home support as well as the media. Languishing in 11th place and having just been beaten at home to league leaders Real Madrid was a major kick in the teeth. At the turn of the year things changed dramatically as Edgar Davids joined on loan and Ronaldinho returned to full fitness. In 20 games they won 15 including a 9 game win streak. At the end of the season Ronaldinho had scored 15 goals in 32 games in the league and Mr Beckham had 3 in exactly the same amount of games, at least the shirts were flying off the shelves. Barcelona finished 2nd and Real finished in 4th the first time they had fallen below their rivals since 2000.
The feeling around Spain was Barcelona were back if they could just put their second half season form into a complete calendar year. A busy summer ensured as some of the deadwood made way for the likes of Deco, Samuel Eto and Rafael Márquez. Frank also made more of the talent pool that was La Masia as Andrés Iniesta started to play more regular and Xavi was made vice-captain. Ronaldinho was the star of the show though, Brazilians have always been known for some outrageous skills but this was taking the piss. Overhead kicks, passes off the back, step overs, back heels, flicks, disguised passes, ball juggling, if you could name it ? Ronaldinho could do it ! Unsurprisingly he claimed the FIFA World Player of the Year at the end of 2004 and Barcelona then secured there 1st title for 6 years. Rijkaard had built a very good side but one player stood out from all the rest. Coming in off the left flank with his pre-dominant right foot, Ronaldinho had the art of the inverted winger down to a tee. Gliding past tackles, a vision that seemed to be 360° and an ability to release the ball at the right time made him unstoppable. Just the 9 league goals for the season but more tellingly on the team he’s best assist rate with 16.
Things were looking rosy and Ronaldinho was the hottest property in world football. With that in mind Barca offered him a mammoth contract to fend off preying eyes but would have seen him tied to the club for the next 9 years. He rejected the deal but did sign a shorter extension to his current deal with a release clause of £85 million. Things continued in much the same way both on the pitch and off as the buck teeth wonder scooped a second World Player of the Year and a European Footballer of the Year. Perhaps the single most defining moment of Ronaldinho’s time in Spain could be categorised with what happened on the 19th November 2005. At the Bernabau, home of their deadliest rivals he put on some show scoring two outstanding solo goals in a 3-0 win. The last of which when he skipped past Sergio Ramos and slotted it in the far corner. As the camera spun around the stadium the Madrid fans stood emotionless in the face but clapping the man who had just ripped their own team apart. I personally had never witnessed such an action but it had happened before in 1982 when Diego Maradona received similar respect. All of a sudden that lob over ‘Safe Hands’ was starting to look a lot more like he ment it. The season finished with another La Liga but this time they had won the Champions League, only the 2nd in their history. A career best of 26 goals for a man who seemed to have a permanent smile attached to his face.
A significant thing happened at the end of that season assistant manager Henk Ten Cate left to manage Ajax. Maybe a coincidence or the fact he was the strict disciplinarian, Barcelona didn’t win anything else under Rijkaard’s tenure. That season Ronaldinho scored an overhead kick against Villarreal and a low free kick against Werder Bremen, when the wall jumped it slid under their feet. He had yet another fantastic season scoring his best return in the league with 21 goals. At the end of the 06/07 they were level on points with Real Madrid but lost out on the head to head rule (Barcelona had a 19 goal superior goal difference).
2007/08 was to be his last year at the Nou Camp and also the last for Rijkaard. That pre-season saw everything begin to decline, players complained of tiredness after the travelling to Scotland to the Far East and then to Germany. Frank’s authority was being constantly undermined and training lacked the intensity of the past becoming somewhat of a joke. Personalities were clashing in the dressing room and Ron took a rather a large fancy to a spot of disco-dancing. Ronaldinho was becoming more accustomed to the celebrity lifestyle that his fantastic talent had enabled him to. A largely disrupted final campaign due to injury (some of which has to be attributed to the way he was then looking after himself or not as the case was) saw him score 8 league goals in 17 appearances. Ronaldinho is very much a family man, Sister (secretary), Uncle (chauffeur), Mother (chef) but having his Brother as his agent was probably not to his advantage. In some ways you could argue that he would always have his best interests at heart, but in other ways it seemed he had more of a control over his client than other agents could ever achieve.
In July 2008, Ronaldinho joined AC Milan for a fee in the region of €18.5 million. On his exit from the club he wrote a letter to the fans http://www.fcbarcelona.cat/web/english/noticies/futbol/temporada10-11/08/24/n100824112529.html
For Ronaldinho the Barca years were certainly the form of his life.