Before Lionel Messi, there was Ronaldinho. Like Messi today, in his prime the Brazilian was considered to be outer-worldly – simply the best, in earthlier terms. And everyone agreed, from Diego Maradona, to Real Madrid legend Emilio Butragueno.
“He operates on a higher level than everyone else,” said Argentina’s World Cup 1986 hero while the latter once opined that Ronaldinho was ‘a superior being’. For those who were lucky enough to bear witness to him at the time, certainly the same kind of thoughts would have been swarming in their minds.
However, unlike Messi, Ronaldinho did not score ridiculous amounts of goals. Rather, he scored ridiculous goals and pulled off ridiculous moves. His lofted free-kick over the head of a stranded David Seaman at the World Cup in 2002 comes to mind while his standing toe-poked effort against Chelsea in 2005 does too. And, this was Ronaldinho’s trade – his unique ability to innovate and always be creating.
“My game is all about improvisation. A striker has to improvise all the time. My goal is to unsettle my opponent. And there’s no better way to do that than to keep inventing, which is why I’m always attempting new dribbles. I work and try things. And I've still got a lot to learn about surprising the opposition,” he once said.
This teeming desire to always be original is what made watching Ronaldinho, and Barcelona, so utterly enthralling. Common criticisms of the current Barca side is that they are ‘boring’ and ‘dull’ and while such comments are difficult to understand, never were such adjectives thrown about when Ronnie reigned supreme in Catalonia.
One just never knew quite what to expect from Ronaldinho and on the field it was no different – his contorted but effective movements, flawless balance, unpredictability and pure genius saw him bewitch some of the world’s best defenders. This is what set him apart from the rest.
But, it was not all just about the show either, as had been with some of his fellow contemporaries like Denilson, for example. On the contrary, Ronaldinho was able to entertain and dazzle the masses whilst providing substance too. He was spellbindingly effective, even in the big games, indeed, particularly in the big games.
His aforementioned strikes came in the World Cup and Champions League, respectively, and there were many more. But, there is one – or two rather – that stand out more than the others. And, they both came in a match played at the Santiago Bernabeu, shortly before he was awarded the 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or awards.
Picking up the ball inside his own half, Ronaldinho raced down the line leaving Sergio Ramos for dead, cut inside and slid by a hapless Ivan Helguera before coolly slotting the ball home beyond a distraught Iker Casillas. Not a quarter of an hour later, he repeated the trick on Ramos as he notched his second of the night to round out a remarkable 3-0 victory for the Catalans over their most fiercest rival on their home turf.
It was not just the goals and the manner in which he scored them, it was his overall performance. Ronaldinho completely left Madrid’s galactico cast including Zinedane Zidane, David Beckham, Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos laying in his shadows. So much so that he was awarded a standing ovation from the highly partisan Madrid crowd. Marca’s front cover the next day summed it up: November 19, 2005, ‘the day Barcelona left the Bernabeu to applause’, and it was all Ronaldinho’s doing, in truth.
What is more, El Gaucho helped guide Barcelona to the 2005 La Liga title – their first in six years. He was the saviour, the one who inspired the Catalans’ return to winning ways. As Carles Puyol once remarked: “he was able to win games on his own for us.” The defender also praised his former teammate for his jovial demeanour: “He kept our spirits high because he was always happy”.
His Coach at the time, Frank Rijkaard, has since reflected that ‘he helped everyone to believe again’, and he probably did so even beyond the crowds at the Camp Nou as he became world-renowned.
“God gives gifts to everyone... Some can write, some can dance. He gave me the skill to play football and I am making the most of it,” Ronaldinho once rather philosophically commented, and in 2005 he certainly was making the most of it. He was simply the best.