Ronaldinho’s return to form: Redemption for El Gaucho?

by Ciaran Kelly

As Ronaldinho left Milan for Flamengo in January, without his once trademark ‘flick of the switch’ ability, beaming smile and lean frame, few expected the 31 year old to rediscover the unplayable form that had won him 2 FIFA World Player of the Year Awards, a World Cup, a Copa América, two La Liga titles and a UEFA Champions League.

However, at just 31, in comparison to when the 33 year old Ronaldo left for Corinthians in 2009, it seemed, and proved, a premature homecoming for one of the most gifted players of all-time and Ronaldinho has defied his critics and battled back – earning himself a place in Mano Menezes’ Brazil squad for the friendly against Ghana on 5 September.

Ronaldinho’s career has always been a paradox: brilliance on-the-field meeting controversy off it. At Grêmio, El Gaucho netted an impressive 72 goals in 145 games but his £5 million departure to PSG was shrouded in underhandedness – as Grêmio were never officially contacted about the deal and were hoping to offer the then 21 year old Brazilian a new four-year contract. Ronaldinho’s seemingly remarkable maturity was applauded for choosing first-team football at PSG, amid reported interest from Lazio, Milan and Barcelona, but the Brazilian’s extended holidays and love of the Parisian nightlife led to his dazzling, yet often inconsistent, performances being overshadowed and a fall-out with manager Luis Fernández ensued.

While Ronaldinho peaked and astonished world football at Barça, leading Joan Laporta’s revolution and displaying the self-motivation that had been lacking in his earlier career, once he had won all of the major prizes at Barcelona, his career went horribly off the boil from 2007. After all, in the lead up to his World Player of the Year awards in 2005 and 2006, Ronaldinho had provided some of the most memorable moments of the decade – without even considering the Brazilian’s moment of genius for Brazil at the 2002 World Cup when, 40 yards from goal, he lobbed a scrambling David Seaman. His inspired performance at the Santiago Bernabéu in November, 2005, where Ronaldinho scored two magnificent solo goals, led to an unprecedented standing ovation from the Madristas.

While the 2005 Champions League quarter-final tie against Chelsea was shrouded in controversy, from the retirement of referee Anders Frisk to John Terry’s controversial 76’ winner, the tie should have been remembered for Ronaldinho’s stunning goal from the edge of the area, which left the whole of the Chelsea defence and Petr Čech flat-footed. Perhaps that magnificent goal was outdone in the 2006 second round tie against Chelsea, where El Gaucho brilliantly accelerated past four Chelsea players, shrugging off the then formidable Terry, before a powerful finish past Čech. Another fantastic European moment was Ronaldinho’s free-kick against Werder Bremen in 2006, when he hit a skidding 20 yard free-kick underneath a leaping Bremen wall.

However, niggling injuries, an increasingly damaging lifestyle, poor form and the emergence of Lionel Messi saw occasions such as when Ronaldinho took off his shirt after the Champions League second round match against Liverpool in February 2007, which showed him to be overweight, epitomise what should have been the season that solidified the Brazilian as one of the all-time greats – at the peak age of 27. The arrival of Pep Guardiola, and a strict ‘no passengers or egos’ regime, saw Ronaldinho depart for Milan but even with the slower pace of Serie A, it was clear that Ronaldinho would never return to his lightening best – scoring just 29 goals in 116 games.

The Brazilian still had the tricks and flicks but without his once trademark acceleration, these rarely resulted in anything other than showboating. After being ousted by Dunga in 2007, who shared the same passion with A Seleção fans and who had been left appalled by Brazil’s 2006 World Cup performance and El Gaucho’s subsequent ‘homecoming’ party with Adriano, Ronaldinho seemed to lack the self-motivation and professionalism to get back to his very best. Once Massimiliano Allegri arrived in the summer of 2010, Ronaldinho’s partying habits even began to cost him a place in Milan’s matchday squad. With little choice other than to make a January move, and after dismissing reported interest from Blackburn, LA Galaxy, Corinthians and his hometown club of Grêmio, Ronaldinho opted for Flamengo.

At Barcelona and Milan, Ronaldinho was unveiled to 30,000 fans a piece in the amphitheatres of the Camp Nou and San Siro so after his welcome of ‘just’ 20,000 Flamengo fans at the 47,000-capacity Engenhão, regardless of how warm a welcome it indeed was, it would surely have registered in the Brazilian’s mind that this was the final chapter of his playing career. Nonetheless, considering how Ronaldinho’s time at Mengão has panned out, the early signs were, regardless of Brazilian football being ‘inferior’ to European football, that little had changed in Ronaldinho’s mentality.

The first six months of his time at Flamengo saw Ronaldinho, while curling in the odd brilliant free-kick, such as the Taça Guanabara winner against Boavista, disappoint and drift through games – failing to dazzle in his traditional roaming role. Any hopes Ronaldinho, and indeed many Europeans, had of rolling back the years and mesmerisingly dribbling past seemingly vastly inferior full-backs soon evaporated. Flamengo, who in tandem with Traffic Sports Marketing Company were paying El Gaucho over £100,000 per week, a figure unprecedented in Brazilian football, were beginning to lose patience and their fans and manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo began to lose faith in Ronaldinho.

While Frank Rijkaard, in the end, never held back in substituting or dropping Ronaldinho after a below-par performance in the 2007/2008 season, the Brazilian had too much of an affinity with the Barça crowd for them to wholeheartedly boo him. After all, before Barcelona’s La Liga wins in 2005 and 2006 and Champions League win in 2006, Barça had gone six seasons without a La Liga title and fourteen without a European Cup win. Ronaldinho, above anyone else, had inspired their upturn in fortunes.

However, El Gaucho had become Flamengo’s highest-paid footballer in their history and even though Brazil and Brazilian football is experiencing an economic boom, the league is not a retirement home and is in no way comparable to the U.S, China or UAE for mercenaries. Thus, the turning point in Ronaldinho’s time at Flamengo, and indeed his recent career, came on 19 June, 2011. During a 0-0 derby against Botafogo, Ronaldinho was ‘needlessly’ hauled off on 88’ by Luxemburgo – for the sole purpose of giving Ronaldinho the brutal booing wake-up call that had evaded him in Europe. It has led to a remarkable transformation.

Ronaldinho looks motivated, re-energised and the needless and excessive feints and flicks that he had so often showcased to please crowds over the years have been dropped. The Brazilian, inadvertently, has become an all-round player due to his lack of pace and Luxemburgo has begun to realise this. Instead of relying on Ronaldinho for his once trademark bursts of magic, Luxemburgo has converted Ronaldinho into a second striker.

Rather than banishing him to a deep-lying regista or ‘quarter back’ role, which would accentuate El Gaucho’s often underrated creativity and lofted passes, Luxemburgo knows that Ronaldinho made his name at Grêmio, all those years ago, for scoring as much as anything else. This timeless attribute is one thing that is yet to desert Ronaldinho and he has netted a brilliant 10 goals in 17 games in the Brasileirão – including an inspired hat-trick in the 5-4 defeat of league favourites Santos on 27 July, who had gone 3-0 up in just 30 minutes.

With a new-look Brazil stuttering under Mano Menezes, following a disappointing Copa América and a 3-2 friendly defeat to Germany, Menezes is under immense pressure and is beginning to drop his strict youthful squad selections and proactive playing style. As ardent and conservative as Dunga was, in not selecting the likes of Ganso, Neymar and Ronaldinho for the 2010 World Cup and unashamedly using a counter-attacking style, he lived and died by his principles. Menezes’ willingness to be more open with his selections will make or break his tenure as without competitive games, due to Brazil automatically qualifying for the 2014 World Cup as hosts, friendlies and squad selections are what he will be judged on as manager of A Seleção.

For Ronaldinho, though, the chance to appear for Brazil for the first time since 2009 will be a just reward and vindication for a 31 year old that has been constantly written-off and dreams of the ultimate redemption – as a 34 year old 2014 World Cup winner.