You watch Zidane, and you think blimey, that technique is crafted from gold. You watch Maradona, and you think you’re a bloody god among mortals, you are. You watch Pirlo, and you think fuck, you’re seeing lines that nobody else can see. You watch Zlatan, and you think you’re the kid from sixth form playing with the year 7s. And then you watch Ronaldinho…
Watching Ronaldinho is watching a boy. The way his body moves, the way his face moves, the way the ball moves. Even in front of 98,000 at Camp Nou, he’s a kid dribbling a ball heavier than his head on the futsal pitch. His toothy grin gave us toothy grins for almost twenty years, and whether he was receiving standing ovations from the Bernabéu faithful, winning the World Cup with Brazil, or nutmegging fellow ten-year-olds in Nike adverts, it was overwhelming how much he enjoyed playing football. He fucking loved it. His natural instinct was to create—and his innovation with a football fulfilled that caricature we have of him sketched in our minds. Ronaldinho—a man whose output with a football was like when you ask a child to do a crayon drawing of an animal—was there to remind us that football, above all else, is supposed to be fun.
LET’S TALK ABOUT O JOGO BONITO
That thing that we play in the wet mud on a Sunday morning with nets held up by tired electrical tape and your mate nutting their centre half after seven minutes is the beautiful game. That thing that we played on the playground with a tennis ball and two bins for goalposts is the beautiful game. That thing that they played on smokey, cobbled streets with the butcher’s doors for the onion bag was the beautiful game. That thing they play on a slick, streamlined pitch with thousands leering and the hyper-real cameras and the personalised carbonite super light boots and the tactics and the stats and the millions and the billions and the flicks and the chicks and the moans and groans is the beautiful game. O jogo bonito, man: The beautiful game. Ronaldinho lived it.
In 1952, on the other side of the world and 28 years before Ronnie’s birth, The Sunday Times published a 991-word article called ‘BRAINS IN THEIR FEET’. It was by H.E. Bates, a Northamptonshire writer who got fired from a shoe factory for writing his first novel while on the job and a man often attributed with being the first person to use the phrase ‘the beautiful game’ to describe football. In his piece, Bates writes: “I think we sometimes forget, or take for granted, the unique beauty of this game. It is the only ball game in the world played with the feet. In its simplicity it makes a mockery of all the complicated paraphernalia of golf or even the sly and contradictory subtleties of cricket. All other variations of it, Rugby, Australian, or American, have removed from it the handicap that makes it unique and thus are bastard. This game alone is true football, played within those narrow restrictions that, like the unities in the theatre, are the terror and test of the artist.”
Ronaldinho’s paraphernalia came from every swivel of his hips and every bend of his sole. He drew up a mood board on the simplicity of moving a ball around with your foot and made a mockery of anyone who thought it might be a good idea to question it. The purity of his play was simple even if what he was doing was not. Acknowledging those ‘narrow restrictions’ and nutmegging an elastico straight through them, Ronaldinho was out there on the biggest stages in the world taking the absolute piss. From the theatre of the Estádio Olímpico Monumental to the battlegrounds of the San Siro, Ronaldinho took on those ‘terrors and tests of the artist’ and made them fun. Someone so good that when they beat an opponent, it became not only fun but funny. His was a juvenile kind of brilliance. Ronaldinho was both jester and genius.
Throughout his career, for whichever side he played, watching Ronaldinho was like watching someone who never truly grew up. Yes, here was a serious game to be played by serious people in serious situations, but here was also an opportunity to have uninhibited fun—and he’d ridicule anyone who attempted to put an end to that on the pitch. Like the gawky kid doing magic at the back of the coach on a school trip despite being told to stop, Ronaldinho took his tricks and put them on show for those that mattered.
Former Brazil international Tinga, who grew up alongside Ronaldinho at Grêmio, said in 2009, that “what [Ronaldinho] does today, he was doing back then at the age of twelve or thirteen.” That unquenchable, uniquely childlike desire for chasing and playing with a ball never left Ronaldinho’s mind. Where most people get to a certain age and start to cut their hair shorter and stop spending their money on gigs and start going to bed before 11pm, there’s those who don’t. These are the ones you still kind of want to be but are too scared to. At the age when most of us start getting rid, Ronaldinho held close.
He taught us to stay young, to do the things you want to do even if grey people tell you it’s probably not suitable anymore. He took the abacus, pulled out the bars, threw its beads all over the place, and started juggling them. And for me, as an eleven-year-old child who wanted to grow up, get a pair of Rockports, and have a line shaved into my eyebrow, his performance during that Brazil in blue game was something altogether new. We had the morning off school. We were fucking mesmerised.
THE MORNING OFF SCHOOL
On Perton—the 70s overflow-from-Wolverhampton estate/tiny town thing that I grew up in—we had First school, Middle school, and then off to Codsall you went for High School in Year 9. A weird structure for a weird place. A circular road containing 5,000 almost identical orange houses surrounding a Sainsbury’s (where I asked if you had a Nectar card three times a week for two years), a hairdressers, two crap pubs, a betting shop, a funeral parlour, a pet shop, a Home & Motor Save, a toy shop, a Post Office, an Indian restaurant, a pharmacy, a doctor’s, a fish and chip shop, a freezer store, and a vets. With only two roads leading in and out, Perton is the kind of place the powers that be could shut off with ease and leave to its own stagnant demise. But, on 21st June 2002, none of that mattered. I was 11, round my mate Inderjit’s house, and Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England had Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals.
Any days off school are always a victory for the little people, and with England up against Brazil’s “Three R’s”—Rivaldo, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho—my eyes were ready to pop out. At that age, the Wolves players down the Molineux and those on Match of the Day were the only ones I really knew. The ones with exotic sounding names who appeared on souped-up sports apparel adverts were the ones I wanted to know. Ronaldinho was one of them. One of those players who you knew to be good, but didn’t quite know what or why or how or where. I knew he could do skills, had cool hair, had the best boots, but this was the first time he’d properly dribbled into my consciousness. And, just as he’d done a few years before in a match between Grêmio and Internacional, his entrance into the broader awareness was achieved by doing things that people didn’t really think were possible.
Sat there on the sofa, we knew we were watching someone play football the way that we wanted to play football. He’s there gliding the ball between Scholes’ angry legs and drawing an invisible web around Danny Mills to leave him slumped on the turf like a sad dad who doesn’t want to be at Alton Towers anymore. He’s moving his body in a way that doesn’t make him look real. He’s bendy. He’s animated. He’s a cartoon. He’s something from a Saturday morning show. He’s playing with a different sphere on a different sphere. And, in the 45th minute, he’s gleefully taken the ball in his stride in his own half, and gone slaloming towards the England penalty area, spiralling Ashley Cole’s internal compass with a step-over and hip-wobble that belongs on the sticky Dalston dancefloors and, finally, he’s flicking the ball with the last bone of his right foot into Rivaldo’s path. Goal. Michael Owen, of course, had already scored but—sat on that sofa with our lunchboxes starting to sweat in our backpacks—we weren’t really thinking about that. It was 1–1 at half-time, and we were very into this football that wasn’t Wolves and didn’t look like anything Alan Hansen could even attempt to analyse on Saturday nights.
There have been meaningless debates on whether our Ronnie meant to do what he did in the 50th minute. But, if you rewatch it, Brazil had been shooting from distance throughout. Robbie Carlos had crashed two shots with his RPG of a left foot from long-range before half-time, and Rivaldo had had a pop too—the Brazilians clearly fancied a go against our ponytailed Seaman. And so, when Paul Scholes took a very Paul Scholes swipe at Kléberson, 42-yards out and almost bang in line with the far right edge of the penalty box, the weird little antennae in Ronaldinho’s head were whirring. Nestling the adidas Fevernova between a thousand blades of grass, he really wasn’t arsed about the chattering masses faffing around in the penalty area. His mind was on the back of the net. And so, he does what kids do—disregards the adults waiting to use their heads, and uses his own. Get on YouTube, pause it at the moment Ronaldinho strikes the ball and have a look at where his head is: he’s not looking at the lads facing the goal in the box; he’s looking straight at the lad with the gloves on his hands and the hands on his hips. The bastard meant it. And, as the ball continued to accelerate over Seaman’s head and into the back of the net, Ronaldinho had already started to peel away. He was off, doing that chicken thing with his arms, running towards the fans. Then he was dancing on the athletics track. Then he was being jumped on, mobbed, by the boys in blue. All the while he’s laughing—he’s fucking laughing—in front of 47,000 people in Shizuoka, in front of millions of ogling eyes worldwide, in front of a load of other gawking English kids with the day off, he’s fucking laughing. And so, really, were we. Ronaldinho was out there, taking the piss, doing his own thing, bringing his own magic to the World Cup. And nobody else has ever done it the way he did it. Because they can’t. Because they grew up.
But of course, because kids can’t just leave it, he goes in late on Danny Mills, doesn’t he? At the edge of the England box, just a dangling leg, seven minutes after he’s bent the ball into the back of the net. That’s all it is: a dangler. Neither a stamp nor a whack. But the ref does that ref thing where he walks over and you know the card isn’t going to be the one that lets you stay on the pitch for a bit longer. Ronaldinho’s got his hands on his head, his eyes are bulging, and his teeth are out, and then the ref waves the red, and Ronaldinho’s laughing again. He’s fucking laughing. Cafu walks him off before Kaka meets him by the sub’s bench and then he’s away down the tunnel. There’s still ages to go, but he’s off. Gone. Still grinning with his coaches’ arms around him. And that’s that. An abnormal reaction from an abnormal human, a human that doesn’t yet believe in repercussions. It’s that time my five-year-old brother was walking towards a hot iron, and my mum noticed and screamed: “TOM, DON’T TOUCH THE IRON!” But, of course, he does it anyway, doesn’t he? He wanted to find out. He didn’t yet believe in repercussions.
You know what followed: Brazil go on to win the World Cup, Ronaldo’s redemption story is set, and Ronaldinho is now the most exciting attacking player on the planet. But that performance, that’s the kind of performance that only the madcap grand wizards of football can conjure. Sheer sorcery, madness. And that, well, that is very joga bonito. It is very morning off school.
And, for what it matters, after being asked “for the thousandth time” in 2012, Ronaldinho said, “My response is always the same: I was shooting.”
DRIBBLING PAST DUNGA
There are those times in football where names throw themselves into the broader consciousness, those times when a single individual fully disrupts the expansive norm, those times where someone goes fully tonto and fucks things up for everyone else. Think about Wayne Rooney needing to be remembered as a 16-year-old at Everton against Arsenal, think about Michael Owen jumping off your bedroom wall and onto the pitch to slander an entire Argentine defence (also, have a look at how deep their centre backs were), think about our David’s halfway line lob in 1996.
Growing up in Porto Alegre, Ronaldo de Assis Moreira was quickly nicknamed Ronaldinho—inho being a suffix meaning diminutive in Portuguese—due to almost always being the smallest player on whichever pitch he found himself on, whether futsal, beach, or regulation-sized. And, no matter which he played on, he was always sensationally adept.
He made his Grêmio debut as a scrawny 18-year-old in 1998, and a year later he was starting in the finals of the Rio Grande do Sul state championship—a three-game end of season symphony, against their biggest rivals, Internacional, a side also based in Porto Alegre.
Internacional won the first game 1–0, with Brazilian World Cup-winning captain Dunga and his midfield partner Regis, dropping deep to nullify Ronaldinho’s trickery. That season had been Ronaldinho’s breakthrough into the first team, and Dunga, who’d arrived at Internacional on a free transfer at the start of the year, had successfully shepherded Ronaldinho to a loss in the first leg. The second leg heralded a 2–0 win for Grêmio, with Ronaldinho dropping deeper to collect the ball in more space and scoring a corker of a free kick. He was awarded man of the match. According to Jethro Soutar’s Ronaldinho: Football’s Flamboyant Maestro, Ronaldinho said afterwards: “I want a tape of the radio commentary to keep as it was my first goal in a Gre-Nal. Since childhood, my dream has always been to score in a Gre-Nal”. And there was still another game to make his mark. It was after this following match, according to Soutar, that Brazil’s football journalists were left asking: who is this kid?
Grêmio only needed a draw to claim the Championship. But kids don’t just like to win; kids like to really go for it, to really take the piss. Ronaldinho had been accused of dirty tackling in the first two games and was heading into the final with a goal to his name and the press on his mind. He’d responded with “I always go in hard, but if I injured him (Dunga) it was accidental. He is an example to us all and I admire him as a player”. But, if it was what he did without the ball that had hurt Dunga in the first two legs, it was what Ronaldinho did with it that hurt him in the final. Dunga, who captained Brazil to their 1994 World Cup and had had a tough time at his hometown club since signing the previous year, was made to have an even tougher time. Ronaldinho absolutely ruined him, twice. Not so much taking the baton but nicking it, balancing it on his head, and throwing it into the Guaíba River.
Grêmio won the final game 1–0 courtesy of a Ronaldinho goal. Taking the ball outside the Inter box, he nutmegged Anderson, continued his run, played a one-two, reclaimed it and slid it into the back of the net. But it was his double annihilation of Dunga that shook the Brazilian game.
In the first occasion, Ronaldinho received the ball surrounded by players and then removed himself from the situation by flicking it over Dunga’s head and rotating around him, leaving the veteran as motionless as a lonely recycling bin taken out too late for the morning’s binmen. He collects once more and sprints off down the line. His next ensemble was essentially a “backwards elastico”. It was genre-defying. You simply did not do that in a game of professional football. Crossing his right leg behind his left, then drawing the ball back across to his right with the outside of his foot, Ronaldinho had Dunga beaten once more, before whipping in a sexy cross that was headed over the bar. Perhaps, as often with words, these don’t do this piece of barely decipherable skill justice. You can’t even tell what leg he uses, for fuck’s sake. It’s the stuff of pure imagination.
At the final whistle, Ronaldinho was hoisted into the arms of the pitch-invading Grêmio fans and carried out of the theatre. Afterwards, the local paper, Correio do Povo, gave the 19-year-old a 10 out of 10 match rating. The next day, he was called up to the Brazil squad for the first time.
Even in the most important games, Ronaldinho played like someone who’d learned some new skills and was dying to try them out. Uninhibited, ridiculous, brilliant. Jethro Soutar reports that at half-time of the Ronaldinho/Dunga Porto Alegre derby, Dunga put his arm around Ronaldinho and said “That’s it. That’s how you play the game.”
For Ronaldinho, this truly was a game to be played.
If Paris was Ronaldinho’s crèche, then Barcelona was his canvas.
Under the leering lights of Camp Nou Ronaldinho played football in a way that was lapped up by the Barcelona fans. Those sliding hips and fluid feet somehow looked just right in the proud blue-and-garnet stripes, but it wasn’t just his style of play that they consumed so readily: The trophy cabinet in Catalonia had begun to resemble that dusty dresser at your nan’s—just a few cans of Shandy Bass and your uncle’s snooker trophies from the 80s—and Ronaldinho, alongside his flicks, goals, and assists, swept them right the fuck out and replaced them with what they so dearly craved. Ronaldinho brought major silverware.
Not since Louis van Gaal’s La Liga-winning 1998 vintage (a squad that included Patrick Kluivert, Rivaldo, Pep Guardiola, and the de Boer brothers) had Barcelona won a trophy, and they were again left empty-handed in Ronaldinho’s first season in 2003/04. But the table was set. Ronaldinho was taken on as one of them. His first La Liga goal for the club, a 30-yard hammer against Sevilla, was insane. A real “I play for you guys, now” moment. After goalie Víctor Valdés fed him the ball inside the Barca half, Ronaldinho cruised past two Sevilla midfielders before letting rip with the breadth of every metatarsal in his right foot. The size 5 screamed against the underside of the crossbar, bounced down onto the line, and then back up into the roof of the net. He runs off towards the crowd laughing. This was Frank Rijkaard’s first season too, and in his second, the manager and his marquee signing delivered with both the La Liga title and the FIFA World Player of the Year. But it was the 2005/06 season where Ronaldinho was at his absolute apex as footballer, pisstaker, and giver of joy. And it was during the November of that season that something incredible happened. Like enduring a total eclipse or seeing a blue whale or hitting a 180 at darts down the pub in front of all your collected friends and family and meaning it[, this was something that almost never happens.
The Barcelona and Real Madrid squads at this time were, frankly, fucking mental. And, the El Clásico on Saturday, 19th November 2005 is a familiar but apt synecdoche of those times: playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, this was Real Madrid at their hyper-Galacticos stage against a free-flowing, free-living Barcelona. Casillas, Roberto Carlos, Helguera, Ramos, Salgado, Garcia, Beckham, Zidane, Robinho, Raúl and Ronaldo were managed by the Brazilian, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, and were up against a Barcelona starting line-up of Valdés, van Bronckhorst, Márquez, Puyol, Oleguer, Edmílson, Xavi, Deco, Ronaldinho, Messi, and Samuel Eto’o. Forget your app’s points and Wildcards, these were true fantasy football teams. These Football Manager teams with the cheats on, teams containing player after player handed down from the Gods, in a maelstrom of skill and with a whole spectrum of dodgy hair.
A now familiar diagonal Lionel Messi run in from deep on the right side of the pitch set up Eto’o for the first goal after fifteen minutes. The latter, whose vengeance towards Madrid always ran very, very sweet, immediately sprinted towards Madrid president Pérez, sat in his President’s Box, and pointed to the crest on his shirt, never letting them forget that they tossed him aside as a young man. Ronaldinho was the first player to catch up with him, putting his arms around his neck and whispering sweet-everythings into his teammate’s shell-like.
By half-time, Ronaldinho had been booked, nutmegged Sergio Ramos, and repeatedly skinned Salgado. In the 60th minute, he ran with the ball from inside his own half past two Madrid defenders and fired it into the far corner, and 17 minutes later he’d make it 3–0. Again cutting in past Salgado and Ramos on Madrid’s right-hand side, Ronaldinho entered the penalty area and, from almost the same tuft of grass as his first, caressed the ball past Iker Casillas. As he reeled away towards the touchline, the Real Madrid fans, one by one, stood to applaud him. It was standing ovation. For a Barcelona player. By Madrid fans. With their side 3–0 down. In their own stadium. Diego Maradona is the only other player to have turned the Bernabéu towards him, to defy the natural gravity that pushes the King’s side and the Catalonians away from each other, but, with the eyes of a hundred million or more fixed at their screens around the world, had it ever been on a stage quite this grand?
Barcelona would go on to win La Liga by twelve points that year, and Ronaldinho’s ménage à trois with Messi and Eto’o glided through defences with an enthusiasm that only new love can stimulate. That trophy was later joined in the cabinet by Barcelona’s second Champions League title—their only other European title coming in 1992 under Johan Cruyff in its inaugural year. With Rijkaard at the helm, they had a manager who had won the European Cup three times as a player and, with Ronaldinho—who scored seven goals in the tournament—the talent it takes to do so again.
Six months before making all those people stand and applaud, he made a whole pitch of players stand and stare, while the watching world could only blink in amazement.
In Barça’s 4–2 loss at Stamford Bridge, Ronaldinho stopped time.
Receiving the ball on the edge of the box, he kills it dead and shimmies his body to and fro. The ball doesn’t move. Everyone has stopped. The Chelsea players, the Barça players—they’re stuck in their own mud while Ronaldinho decides what to do with them. He’s gone all Bernard’s Watch on them. And, after three full shimmies, he toe-pokes the adidas Finale into the bottom corner of Petr Čech’s net. No backlift. No time. No chance. Nobody really knows what happens. It takes rewind after rewind to understand how he does it. We have to go back in time to see how he stopped time. It’s what Pierluigi Collina describes as the goal that impressed him the most after years of chaperoning football matches.
It shouldn’t work. It does work.
AN ARM AROUND THE LITTLE BOY’S SHOULDER
Although Ronaldinho’s Barcelona exit in 2008 was perhaps underwhelming, the influence that the Brazilian had on another footballing anomaly can’t be ignored. In his exceptional, poignant article ‘Letter to My Younger Self’, published by The Players’ Tribune in January 2017, Ronaldinho writes emotionally, acknowledging not just the most important points of his own career, but those of his family, fans, and teammates. One of those people is Lionel Messi.
When Messi arrived in Spain from Newell’s Old Boys as a teeny-tiny talented ten-year-old, still chomping on growth hormones, he was cripplingly shy. And, as he moved through the La Masia setup (from the infantiles to the cadetes to the juvenils), Ronaldinho was moving through the La Liga’s defences. But, the Brazilian heard about him and went to watch him play. He knew he had something: “He wears number 10 like you. He’s small like you. He plays with the ball like you,” he writes to himself in the article. In Messi, Ronaldinho found a playmate, another child he could transcend the stifling rules of the ball pit with.
“The kid is different,” he adds.
After watching him play just that once, Ronaldinho asked the coaches at Barça to get the 16-year-old to come and train with the senior side. He’d seen enough. And, after that very first session, Ronaldinho told his teammates that he reckoned this was someone who’d become an even better player than himself. He took the tiny lad under his wing, nicknamed him “little brother” and helped ease the slightly timid genius into the senior squads. His arm around the little boy’s shoulder was an arm that would, again, change the course of football forever—and the one piece of advice that Ronaldinho says he gave Messi was emphatically joga bonito. He told him “Play with happiness. Play free. Just play with the ball.”
On October 16th, 2004, with Barcelona 1–0 up at Espanyol, Frank Rijkaard decided it was time for Deco to have a rest. Replacing him—with the number 30 on the back of a shirt three sizes too big— was a 17-year-old Lionel Messi. And, onto the pitch he went, the youngest player to feature in an official match for Barcelona, fitting into the right side of a reasonable front three that contained him, Henrik Larsson, and the man who would, just two months later, be named World Player of the Year, Ronaldinho himself.
Messi took part in 77 minutes of football for Barça that season, and it wasn’t really until the following year that he cemented his first team place, rewarded with a swanky new contract and a €150m buyout clause. Wearing number 19, Messi slotted into the right side of an attacking front three containing Samuel Eto’o and our man Ronnie. But it wasn’t until two years later, in 2008, after his big brother had left and handed him a more fitting number 10 shirt, that Messi really took the game of football by the scruff of its neck and towards another planet. If Ronaldinho was a boy genius, Messi became a boy alien.
The Ronaldinho that Camp Nou fell out of love with, as his motivation waned in 2008, was the same Ronaldinho that took the club’s philosophy, embellished it, and brought home the rewards. But, perhaps, in his move to the San Siro was a move for magic, a move to let the boy take the reins and the wand. His unusually forlorn demeanour told the story of someone who had lost both faith and love. He needed a new stage and knew that there was someone to take his.
It was Rijkaard who said of the Brazilian that “every once in a while, when he didn’t quite have his day, his level could drop enormously. If you think about that, you can say immediately that he is a sensitive guy. It’s important that players feel they are loved and liked and appreciated.” Love is fickle, and sensitive people need sensitive love. If this was fading at Camp Nou, Ronaldinho would feel it hard.
If the Barça faithful had got used to his tricks and started to see through the sleights of hand and feet, he knew that there was another anomaly to step up. Someone who also played. Someone to regalvanise the style that he’d given Barcelona for four years.
“Even when you are gone”, Ronaldinho writes to himself in that letter nearly a decade later, “the free style will live on in Barcelona through Messi.”
The baton he’d flicked over Dunga’s head and dragged around his shins was being passed on to his protégé. Ronaldinho was off to Italy, and with a knowing, but nonchalant drop of the shoulder, allowing Leo to take football in a new direction.
WINNING THE BLOODY LOT
For eighteen years, Ronaldinho meandered from Brazil to Europe to Mexico and back again, decorating the game with his laissez-faire approach to brilliance. But it wasn’t insubstantial stuff. He probably is one of the “flair” players your dad says “disappear” for “long periods of the game” on a Saturday afternoon, but his decorated career also included assists and goals galore and a shed load of trophies with teams and individually. Alongside the mockery of opponents and the blasé demeanour, he won the bloody lot.
His first trophy came in Egypt, as Brazil won the 1997 FIFA U-17 World Cup. This was the first time the South American country had won the competition, and with Ronaldinho yet to make his Grêmio debut, he now says that this is the tournament that “opened the door for my professional career”. Two years later, Ronaldinho was picked for the full Brazil squad as they competed in the 1999 Copa America. Coming on as a substitute in a group game against Venezuela with Brazil already 4–0 up, Ronaldinho picked the ball up on the edge of the box, flicked it over one Venezuelan defender’s head, dinked it past another, and smashed it into the back of the net. He runs off fucking laughing. Again. The side would go on to win the tournament, Rivaldo and Ronaldo scoring five each, and Ronaldinho was picked for the Confederations Cup the following week. Brazil would end that as runners-up, losing to Mexico in the final, but Ronaldinho would win the Golden Boot and the Player of the Tournament. He’d end his international career with 33 goals in 99 appearances for Brazil alongside the Copa America, Confederations Cup and, of course, the 2002 World Cup in his bag. His legacy is not one left to the vaults of intangibility: Ronaldinho brought real-life silverware to real-life people.
His time at PSG was riddled with rifts, and his move to Barça, as mentioned, provided him with the canvas to create his masterpiece. And, although his move to Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan in 2008 might not have been his most uplifting period of football, his form in the early part of his second season in Italy instigated the charge to the club’s first Serie A trophy in seven years. His final four seasons—spent at Flamengo, Atlético Mineiro, Querétaro, and Fluminense—brought goals, tantrums and lackadaisical performances, but he still managed to deliver Atlético Mineiro the Copa Libertadores in 2013. There were still flashes of his joga bonito legacy when he fancied it. An old cowboy whose creaky fingers could still draw with the best when his time came. His equalising goal for Atletico Mineiro in 2012 against Cruzeiro in a 2–2 draw looked like something Nike might try to choreograph into an advert. It was a reprise of an old refrain: the ball in his own half, a nutmeg on the halfway line, jinking past three players, passing the ball into the corner of the net. It was a song we were only too happy to hear once more.
He’s still at it now, astonishing fans with the way the ball sticks to his feet as he plays futsal for Delhi Dragons, and making us shake our heads in disbelief as he plays weird exhibition matches with the leader of Chechnya. But, more importantly, his joy has transfused to the streets, to the parks, and to luxurious carpets at the highest levels of football. Without him, would you be trying that rainbow flick with a pair of socks when you walk to the bathroom? Without him, would you hear samba music dancing around your ears every time you attempt a double-stepover? Without him, would Neymar Jr. be the most expensive player in the world? Without him, without Ronaldinho, things would be worse. Tinga, once more, talks of Ronaldinho revolutionising the game, and how the magical years of 2005 and 2006 were of particular importance: “Since then, more and more technical players have been emerging. Dribbling and playing in an artistic way.” His legacy is his influence. His smiling. His laughing. His nurturing of Messi. His ability to destabilise the routine physics of football. He did things with a ball that normal people would struggle to do without one.
If most footballers are only using one handle of the Etch A Sketch at a time, Ronaldinho was using two and creating shapes that nobody else could. An unparalleled caricature of joy in a ball pit of rule abiders, Ronaldinho made the beautiful game really fucking beautiful. The game that H.E. Bates first wrote about in 1952 is the jogo bonito that Ronaldo de Assis Moreira lived—defying its restrictions, reminding us of its unique beauty, and ruthlessly taking the absolute piss.
This piece was our Issue 12 cover story. Issue 12 is long sold out, but you can subscribe to make sure you get there first here. Jogo bonito, baby.