Despite recent controversies, there is no denying that Ronaldinho’s legacy in football is nothing short of iconic.
The Brazilian samba specialist revolutionised the game during his 17-year professional career, carving his place onto football’s Mount Rushmore with a number of sublime performances across the world. A major success in club football across the globe, he is also a World Cup winner and represented his country at every age level.
Barcelona secured Ronaldinho’s services ahead of Manchester United in 2003, and it was in Spain where the Brazilian enjoyed his most successful spell. Deployed as a winger, the versatile forward brought the Catalans back to the top with spellbinding, skilful performances and also marked his name on the world stage as an individual. He won the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, and won the 2005 Ballon d’Or on top of that as he swept up silverware with La Blaugrana.
When his time was up in Spain, he headed to Italy and continued to impress with Milan in 2008. Despite his personal life beginning to slowly take priority over football, he continued to be a joy to watch. Just thinking of him in that classic Milan shirt, donning the number 80, is enough to get the nostalgia tears flowing.
He returned to his native Brazil in 2011 as his career wound down. While at this point his personal issues were public knowledge, it was supremely difficult to dislike the tricky Brazilian, who had conquered football on both domestic and international fronts for the last decade.
Ronaldinho’s career in the limelight was a wild ride, but it all had to start somewhere. Despite many assuming he’s no more than a money chaser these days, he came from humble beginnings, and his football career deserves to stand on its own.
As with South American football players, Ronaldinho’s passion and talent for the game derived from playing in the streets as a child, before eventually playing for a local team. He first caught the attention of the media at 13 years old, when he scored 23 goals in one single game. Twenty three.
After a few more years of playing at local level, he signed for Gremio and earned his first professional contract aged 18, in 1998. He debuted that year in the Copa Libertadores against Vasco de Gama, with spectators having no idea that they’d just watched the debut of one of football’s greatest players.
While he debuted in 1998, it was in 1999 that he became a regular and enjoyed his first full year as a professional. What a year it was. The 18-year-old stepped up and became a star player for his side, making a number of top class performances in some of Gremio’s most important games on the calendar.
Ronaldinho was quick to establish himself in 1999, ripping the Brazilian top flight apart with Gremio, He showcased his superior skills, flicking and rolling the ball past opponents in slaloming runs up and down the fields in Brazil, using every inch of his body to manipulate the ball. His control was unmatched and his skill level was that of a veteran’s, but he was still just a teenager.
He scored 23 goals in 48 domestic games for Gremio in the 1999 season, and was instrumental in them winning their 32nd Campeonato Gaucho – the top flight of football in southern Brazil. The final of the 1999 Gaucho was contested between Gremio and their rivals Internacional, a derby in Brazil.
The game, played in June 1999, was one of Ronaldinho’s finest performances, in which he put his magical brain and body to perfect use. He scored the only goal, the winning strike, as Gremio beat their rivals 1-0 that day, tormenting the opposition completely. In the clash, Ronaldinho famously humiliated Brazil legend Dunga, who captained the country to their 1994 World Cup win. He didn’t care, though. Instead, Ronaldinho used the opportunity to make a name for himself and ridiculed Dunga, flicking the ball over his head and feeding it around him or through his legs with his catalogue of tricks.
It was a coming out party at domestic level, and the culmination of an incredible debut season as a regular. More importantly, however, his performances propelled him into the national team setup.
He had already impressed with the Brazil Under-20 side at the FIFA World Youth Championship – now the FIFA Under-20 World Cup – in April 1999, but earned full senior honours for the first time just three days before the start of the 1999 Copa America. On 26 June, he made his full Brazil debut in a 3-0 win over Latvia and scored a goal as his country won the tournament.
His performances earned him a regular spot with the senior side, and he made the Confederations Cup squad a week later. In a squad filled with star power, a young Ronaldinho shone brightest of all. Donning the number seven shirt, he scored in every single game except the final, including a hat-trick against Saudi Arabia in the semi-final.
The first of the three was a smart finish, slotting past the keeper in standard fashion. His second was more typically ‘Ronaldinho’, as he threw his body at the ball from a corner to score a mini-bicycle kick from close range. His third strike was outrageous. On a waterlogged pitch, he controlled the ball from a poor cross, scooped it past the defenders and finished it off by chipping it over the keeper to make the final score 8-2.
While the world was on watch, the teenager sold everyone a dream. He was the future, and it wasn’t up for debate. Following his exploits on the world stage, Gremio’s secret was out. Real Madrid made a £15m bid that August, but no move materialised, as his club stood firm and reiterated their desire to keep him for another few years.
Interest came in from clubs all over the world, with a number of unexpected names reportedly coming close to a deal for him. By the end of his spectacular 1999, there was scarcely a Christmas list he wasn’t on.
Leeds United had reportedly made an offer to secure his services, that was set to smash the then-world record fee in February 2000. When Leeds denied the offer and accused Gremio of trying to up his stock, the world was bewildered as they showed proof of a fax with Leeds’ name on it that detailed a breakdown of the transfer fee.
Eventually, it emerged that two agents using Leeds’ name were trying to force Gremio into selling Ronaldinho to them, which halted any advances. Interest from Arsenal would follow, and Ronaldinho came bizarrely close to signing for St Mirren on loan in 2001. It was Paris Saint-Germain he moved to that January though, two years on from his breakthrough year in 1999.
Laurent Blanc recalled his wizardry upon his arrival to France, saying: “I played against him when he first came to Europe to play for PSG in 2001 and even then you could tell he would one day become the best player in the world.”
Ronaldinho is a human highlights reel. No matter what has happened outside of the game that might tarnish his legacy, his influence on the way footballers play, combined with his natural ability, is phenomenal. He’s the sole reason why so many fans fell in love with the game, which can never be taken away from him.