It’s difficult to pin point exactly when Ronaldinho’s career began to regress, but the early signs were evident during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Brazil entered the tournament as favourites with a frontline containing Adriano, Kaka and Ronaldo expected to retain the gold trophy in style. Nike even made the quartet the basis of an advertising titled Jogo Bonito in anticipation of a sixth victory for the Selecao.
Of course, the campaign backfired spectacularly. The much vaunted forwards contributed just six goals in five games and Brazil were dumped out by France at the quarter-final stage. On the day the national team arrived home, vandals destroyed a fibreglass statue of him which was erected to mark his FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2004. On the same day upon returning to Barcelona, Ronaldinho and Adriano partied into the small hours at a nightclub which drew more ire from supporters.
The ironic aspect of the 2006/07 season was that it featured Ronaldinho’s best goal tally in La Liga. His overall influence was dwindling though and reaching previously dizzy heights was proving taxing. He enjoyed frequenting establishments of the night and was less fond of his professional obligation to train.
Stories of his off the field galavanting were legendary. Evenings tended to begin at the Casanova beach club, where he would dine with friends eating pasta and a selection of red meats while drinking beers. From there, he and his entourage would make their way to a Caribbean themed club in Port Ginestra. They would dance and drink well past the 5am closing hour, all of which was acceptable behaviour until you realise that this would occur the night before Champions League games.
It was amidst this period that he began to fall from his pedestal. More and more, Barcelona’s team revolved around the prodigious talents of Lionel Messi. The Argentine was maturing into an exceptional player and Ronaldinho was on the wane. The precise moment they switched roles was a 3-3 Clasico draw at the Camp Nou when Messi grabbed a hat-trick.
For much of 2007 merging into 2008, coach Frank Rijkaard was essentially a dead man walking. The club were planning on getting rid and he knew he was leaving. Rijkaard initially turned a blind eye to his star player’s discretions until he just stopped picking him altogether. The feeling was that if the player kept producing on the field, his lazy faire attitude off it would be tolerated. But when his physical condition began to deteriorate, he was of little value.
There would be no such indulgence from Rijkaard’s successor. Pep Guardiola immediately informed Ronaldinho that he wasn’t in his plans and, along with Deco, was sold. Later on it emerged that the prime reason Guardiola had for discarding two key dressing room figures was to remove the cliques and steer Messi in the right direction. The Brazilian was close to Messi and Guardiola believed he was leading him astray, so the decision was made.
Next he ended up at then European champions Milan. Despite that status and the number of quality players in their ranks, it was clear that he was leaving a team on the rise and joining one over the hill. Still, he produced flashes of the brilliance which endeared him to football fans – particularly in the early weeks and months at the San Siro. One cold, rainy night in Bergamo against Atlanta, Ronaldinho decided it was high time to put on a show.
Before kick-off, he warmed up by casually cracking shots off the crossbar in something not dissimilar to the iconic Nike advertisement he starred in a couple of years before that. In the early going, he danced past defenders, feinted, flicked and no-look passed and assisted Milan’s opener. Then, with seconds remaining, the former Ballon d’Or winner controlled an Alessandro Nesta pass and volleyed past Andrea Consigliere. A man of the match display was even more surprising considering events of the previous week: Ronaldinho had been dropped for a Champions League game after he was caught in a Milanese night club at 2:30am less than 48 hours beforehand.
Peculiarly, there were a few bright shoots which sparked hope of a Ronaldinho revival. Every once in awhile he’d give the impression that he was motivated again, but then more stories would be published documenting early hour jaunts in Paris when he should’ve been preparing for matches.
“The decline of Ronaldinho hasn’t surprised me,” Ancelotti was explained. “His physical condition has always been very precarious. His talent has never been in question though.”
Quite soon after his reprimand for a lack of professionalism, Ronaldinho and teammate Dida were spotted enjoying a Latin music festival in the lead up to another Serie A game. They posed for pictures and signed autographs until a group of Milan supporters angrily confronted them. In typically carefree fashion, Ronaldinho laughed it off and told them to calm down.
In the end, it caught up with the Brazilian and his spell at Milan finished hollow and unfulfilled. He returned home and proceeded to go on a greatest hits tour of the Americas, plying his trade for any team who would have him. There were sporadic international recalls and fleeting highlight reel clips, but his career would wind down quietly and without much fanfare.
In a way, it’s unfortunate that Ronaldinho’s peak was crammed into a three year window, as it perhaps prevented more from recognising just how special he was. The eternal question arises – what is there next when you have it all? By the age of 26, Ronaldinho had won the World Cup, Champions League, La Liga, Copa America and the Ballon d’Or. Is it any wonder his motivation dried up?
Much like Alexander the Great, there were no worlds left for him to conquer. And sure, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s relentlessness has skewed perception of what makes a great, but not everyone can be so consumed by constant excellence. Footballers aren’t drones. They have hopes, fears, desires and flaws like the rest of us. Ronaldinho was extraordinarily gifted, but loved a beer and a dance too. And regardless of what he achieved, he put smiles on millions of faces and did it all with that trademark grin. There’s a lot to be said for that.