In summer 2006, Ronaldinho had the world at his feet. A back-to-back FIFA world player of the year, he had just won the Champions League as Barcelona’s finest talent. Still just 26, he appeared to be coming into his prime as holders Brazil looked to defend their World Cup in Germany. Four years after playing the junior role in a front three with Ronaldo and Rivaldo, the former Paris Saint-Germain player was now the undisputed ace in Brazil’s pack and some had even begun to compare him to Pele.
Then it all went wrong. Brazil were abysmal, limping to a quarter-final exit at the hands of France with Ronaldinho failing to get on the scoresheet or influence any of the matches. Two days later, a fibreglass statue of Brazil’s No. 10, which had been erected following his 2004 FIFA world player of the year award, was destroyed in the city of Chapeco. It’s fair to say the Porto Alegre-born superstar has never truly recovered.
Axing Ronaldinho on his arrival was one of Pep Guardiola’s finest decisions. The Brazilian had become peripheral in Frank Rijkaard’s final season but at 28 appeared to have plenty left in the tank. But selling him to AC Milan allowed Lionel Messi to flourish, and the Argentine, now 28 himself, has already outshone Ronaldinho in ways which were unimaginable back in 2008. Meanwhile, Ronaldinho’s post-Barca career has amounted to very little.
In two and a half years with Milan, he won nothing, leaving half way through the 2010/11 season after failing to score in 11 Serie A matches that campaign. He returned to Brazil, first with Flamengo, then Atletico Mineiro. With the latter, he won the Copa Libertadores. His spell at Mineiro proved to be a brief rejuvenation, and he was named 2013 South American footballer of the year. However, his side were humiliated 3-1 by Raja Casablanca in the FIFA Club World Cup, despite the fact he scored a classic looping free kick.
The defeat denied Ronaldinho a chance to take on Bayern Munich, then under the management of Guardiola, the man who had ended his Nou Camp career. But, as had been clear for several years, the party-mad Brazilian was not looking after himself off the pitch and his fitness and consistency have never returned. On joining Mexican club Queretaro in 2014 his lack of focus was apparent when he said: “I hope to continue winning titles and girls. I’ve always lived in the same way.”
He quit the Mexican club after a substandard year and rejoined Fluminense, his fifth club since Barca, in July 2015. Tellingly, despite not having played since May, he asked for two weeks holiday before linking up with his team for training – making it clear where his priorities lied.
Still just 35, Ronaldinho may play on for a few years yet. His debut for Fluminense, against his first club Gremio, offered some hope. Despite being unfit, a pinpoint long ball helped set up the winning goal for Marcos Junior and showed the old magic was intact. But nine games and two months later he parted ways with the club, and spent the rest of 2015 out of work.
Never short of offers, the likes of Newcastle United and Leicester City have both been linked with the playmaker in recent months, but a lucrative move to China or Turkey seems more likely. Wherever the Brazilian takes his ingenious free-kicks, fancy footwork and thunderbolt finishes, he will continue to be adored by fans around the world.
An undoubted legend of the game, Ronaldinho will always be remembered fondly by those who watched him announce himself at World Cup 2002 and run the show with Barcelona in the following years. But if he’d had the professional focus of a Paolo Maldini or Javier Zanetti, the feeling remains that he could have been so much more.