I can still remember rushing home from school in June 2002 to watch England take on Brazil. Twelve years old and deeply immersed in the World Cup for the first time in my life, it was 1-1 at half-time after Rivaldo had cancelled out Michael Owen’s opener.
And then it happened. Brazil were awarded a free kick on the right-hand side of the field, some 40 yards from goal. A young Ronaldinho stands over the ball as his teammates position themselves on the edge of the area, waiting expectantly for a cross that would never come.
He does the unthinkable – he shoots. Nobody sees it coming, certainly not goalkeeper David Seaman, who meekly stumbles backwards as the perfectly placed ball sails over his head and into the back of the net, just inside the left post.
Did he mean it? Was that a shot?
To this day, people argue about it but, in retrospect, when you consider the brilliance that the Brazilian would go on to achieve, there can be little doubt of his intent in that moment.
Ronaldinho was a relative unknown at that point, plying his trade for a pre-billionaire backed Paris St Germain in France. My only knowledge of him was as a competitor on Nike’s ad campaign “The Secret Tournament”, teamed up with his countryman Denilson and South Korea’s Seol Ki-hyeon.
But after that day in Shizuoka, everybody would know the name of the man who would come to dominate the sport, in on-field ability and off-field personality, for years to come.
Before there was Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and after Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo, there was only Ronaldinho. You couldn’t make a case for anyone else being the most popular player in the world in the time that he was at Barcelona: the face of virtually every Nike Football campaign, the cover star of the video game series FIFAin 2004, and then again from 2006 to 2009. He was everywhere.
From a statistical viewpoint, his numbers don’t jump off the page. In the modern arms race between Messi and Ronaldo, goals have been recorded at such a rate that virtually any other player in any other era seems profligate by comparison. But where Messi is slight and reserved, and Ronaldo often derided for on-field petulance, everything about Ronaldinho was just … cool.
His long flowing hair, that permanent, extra-toothy smile and the usually over-sized, untucked shirt: everything about his on-field persona was captivating. He would attempt flicks, dribbles and shots that few would contemplate. You can still type the words “Ronaldinho skills” into YouTube and be fixated for hours.
At training, we’d try rabonas, backheels, roulette turns and countless other tricks because he made them look so easy. They weren’t.
But that was the beauty of him as a player. Football, at its core, is supposed to be a simple game, and it’s supposed to be fun. He, more than any other player, embodied that ideal.
After starring in Barcelona’s Champions League-La Liga double-winning team of 2005-06 and winning the Ballon d’Or, awarded to the best player on the planet, the decline was swift. He would leave Barcelona in 2008 to join Italian powerhouse AC Milan but never again reached the dizzying heights that he did in Catalonia. And although he officially announced his retirement today, he hadn’t played since 2015.
Even if the peak of his career was shorter than most, few, if any, could say their’s was more entertaining or memorable. Even in 2017, when he travelled to the NBA’s All-Star game, a cavalcade of the world’s best basketballers lined up to have photos and exchange jerseys with him.
Here’s to you, Ronaldinho. Waking up, bleary-eyed at 4.45am to watch you in the Champions League was a privilege, and we may never see another player like you again.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.