Listening to a couple of rappers recently, I have been reminded of Ronaldinho. The first of those MCs is Kendrick Lamar, who has just recorded a verse for the remix of Future’s towering nightclub hit, “Mask Off”. The second one is Andre 3000, who delivered a similarly mindblowing appearance on Frank Ocean’s latest album, “Blonde” (the track to look out for is “Solo: Reprise”). During both pieces of music, those artists achieved what Ronaldinho did with the ball – they showed a mastery of their craft so complete that they were utterly playful. Whilst everyone else was struggling and sweating to compete with them, they were laughing from the top of the mountain, peering down through the clouds.
At his peak, Ronaldinho was so dominant that football seemed to be – well, a game. It takes a remarkable talent to reduce a sport which has become a multibillion-dollar beast back to its basic elements, and almost no-one has managed this before or since. Perhaps tellingly, the most famous to have done so either side of Ronaldinho are fellow Brazilians, Garrincha and Neymar. Watching any of them, they go about their work with the same abandon as kids on the tarmac in the schoolyard, showing us again that, for all its pressures and passions, football is still play.
It seems strange, at first sight, that the most successful period in Barcelona’s history was catalysed by a forward so in love with the ball. After all, the club’s ethos during the last few years of astonishing success has been to emphasise the collective ahead of the individual, and Ronaldinho – should you glance only briefly at his highlight film – looks like little more than a soloist. Yet this would be a deceptive reading; almost as deceptive as the otherworldly skills of the man himself. Ronaldinho was endlessly generous with the ball, and when he held on to to it there was always a point to it; either he was hesitating, waiting for the right moment to release it, or he was making the opposition look merely mortal, and thus setting the tone for his team-mates.
Watching him go to work was a rare joy. Any attempt to stop him – or, more realistically, to hinder him – had to be acrobatic. Poor Sergio Ramos, for all his gifts, was no elite gymnast, and Ronaldinho duly dragged him across the turf of the Bernabeu. That 3-0 win over Real Madrid, in which the Brazilian scored twice and left the field to a rare standing ovation from the home crowd, was merely one of his countless masterpieces. There’s the time John Terry, perhaps thinking himself tougher than this greasy-locked marauder, tried to barge him aside in the UEFA Champions League. To his surprise, we can presume, he bounced off him, leaving Ronaldinho to surge through on goal and put the tie beyond Chelsea’s reach.
At his best, Ronaldinho shattered all stereotypes of what a flamboyant playmaker should be. He had the height of a centre back – he was over six feet tall – the pace of a winger, and the consistency of a defensive midfielder. More than that, he finished like a centre-forward whose job it was to do nothing else. At Barcelona he scored 94 times in 207 matches, a highly respectable figure still dwarfed by the number of goals he was directly involved in.
Ronaldinho is one of the few great footballers who seems to have conceded his peak years due boredom. His 2006-07 season, by which time he was already deemed to be in decline, still yielded 24 goals in 49 appearances; and he still went on to dazzle, albeit not as regularly, at AC Milan. Long before he was sold, there were rumours that he was far more keen on the nightlife than the exercise bike; by that point, though, he had already won virtually every major honour that the game had to offer. Someone who has claimed the World Cup, the Primera Liga and the UEFA Champions League by his mid-twenties may find motivation tough to come by.
Maybe, in a career that often defied expectations, it was fitting towards its close he should complete the set of trophies by claiming the Copa Libertadores in 2013, with Atletico Mineiro. But his legacy will go far beyond what he won. Instead, he may be remembered more for being Leo Messi’s guiding star – he provided the emerging genius with the assist for his first Barcelona goal – and for giving the sport moments of fantasy no-one thought possible. Before him, few players had passed the ball without looking at it; even fewer had done so at a game’s most crucial point, as he did when setting up Xavi for a last-minute winner against Real Madrid. Few players, when moving to receive a clearance from their goalkeeper, had started a counterattack by volleying the ball off their back. Fewer still had chosen to beat a goalkeeper with a toe-poke from the top of the box, as Chelsea’s Petr Cech can bitterly attest.
Like Andre 3000, like Kendrick, Ronaldinho is a pioneer with a difference; whilst others in their fields have toiled their way into the history books, they have laughed and danced their way into the future. And, just like those two rappers, the Brazilian has shown us what artistic freedom is truly all about.