Sometimes certain players seem tailor made for certain clubs, almost predestined to ply their trade and showcase their skills for one specific team and its fans. This has never been more true than of Ronaldinho’s time at Barcelona.
The Brazilian forward was a magician with the ball at his feet, pulling off thrilling pieces of skill that even the most elite of players would not have dreamed possible, let alone tried.
When he moved to the Camp Nou in the summer of 2003, joining the Blaugrana from Paris Saint-Germain in a €30million deal, he found a club in disarray. Louis van Gaal’s second spell in charge had ended disastrously, and Frank Rijkaard’s rejuvenation project soon hit the skids.
By January of Ronaldinho’s and Rijkaard’s first season in Catalonia, Barça were languishing in 12th position with the board contemplating whether to discard the manager in favour of Guus Hiddink or Luiz Felipe Scolari. Defeat at home to bitter rivals Real Madrid had stung, but the 5-1 and 3-0 reverses at the hands of Málaga and Racing Santander respectively were just plain humiliating.
Barcelona decided to keep faith with Rijkaard – not least because those at the top of their list of replacements proved beyond their budget – and the Dutchman made some minor tactical tweaks that set the team off on a remarkable run.
The arrival of Edgar Davids on loan from Juventus added stability to the centre of midfield, but it also freed up Ronaldinho further forward. The then-23-year-old Brazilian had been the shining light of Barça's miserable season, but Rijkaard had yet to figure out where best to deploy his most potent weapon.
With Davids, Xavi and Phillip Cocu holding the fort in midfield, Ronaldinho found a home on the left flank, from where he would be able to move inside onto his stronger right foot. The new role also afforded the star man greater tactical freedom: if he lost the ball while trying his creative tricks in such high, wide zones, little matter.
It proved an inspired move. With Javier Saviola leading the line and Luis García – a Champions League winner with Liverpool the very next season – on the opposite flank, Ronaldinho led Barça on a 16-game unbeaten run, dragging them right back into title contention. Defeat to Celta Vigo at Balaídos in the campaign’s penultimate game gifted the title to Rafa Benítez’s Valencia, but Rijkaard’s men had managed to leapfrog Madrid into second in the table.
Ronaldinho finished the season with 22 goals from 45 games in all competitions and, although he was already a World Cup winner thanks to his role in Brazil’s 2002 triumph, his development and reputation had gone stratospheric.
In the post-season, Barça signalled their intention to end their six-year major trophy drought with the signings of Samuel Eto’o, Deco and Ludovic Giuly. Ronaldinho remained the team’s centre-piece, guiding Barça to the league title and being named FIFA World Player of the Year along the way.
The next term Ronaldinho retained his individual crown, while Barcelona added the Champions League to their La Liga title. The highlight of the 2005-06 campaign was undoubtedly Barça stunning 3-0 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. The Brazilian scored a brace of wonderful solo goals – the second of which earned the respect of the Madridistas inside the stadium, who stood to applaud the phenomenal skill of their rivals’ best player.
That season marked the zenith of Ronaldinho’s career. Despite being only 25, a party-loving lifestyle began to catch up with the infectiously jubilant star. The 2006 Champions League final, which saw Barcelona take on Arsenal at the Stade de France, was supposed to be the moment the ex-PSG man would enter the pantheon of all-time greats before going on to defend the World Cup in Germany with Brazil that summer.
That wasn’t the case, however. Almost seeming to try too hard to stamp his mark on the game, Ronaldinho struggled to make an impact; the tricks weren’t coming off, his touch was a little al dente and his passes a degree or two off kilter. Barça were instead bailed out by a stellar performance from half-time substitute Andrés Iniesta and late goals from Eto'o and Juliano Belletti to snatch a 2-1 win.
It could be argued that Ronaldinho was never able to rediscover his best form on anything like a consistent basis after that night. Brazil flopped in Germany, losing to France at the quarter-final stage while the No.10 was singled out for the lion’s share of the criticism.
Upon retuning to Barça, he would go on to score a respectable 24 goals in 2006-07 but the Catalans lost their title to Madrid as the wheels started to come off on Rijkaard’s reign.
When Pep Guardiola took charge in the summer of 2008, one of his first orders of business was to ship Ronaldinho off to AC Milan. The new coach viewed the Brazilian and his lifestyle as a troubling dressing room influence, and he did not want to risk poisoning the potential of Lionel Messi, who had established himself as the new star of the Camp Nou.
It would be a little harsh to categorise his time in Milan as a flop, but in the two-and-a-half years he spent in Serie A, the former Grêmio youngster looked a shadow of the magnificent playmaker who had lit up La Liga on a regular basis just a couple of years earlier. Carlo Ancelotti, Ronaldinho’s first coach at the Rossoneri remarked: “The decline of Ronaldinho hasn't surprised me. His physical condition has always been very precarious. His talent, though, has never been in question.”
A return to Brazil with Flamengo in January 2010 effectively called time on Ronaldinho’s career at the elite end of the world game, as he flitted from club to club before retiring after short spell with Fluminense in 2015.
The smile never left and the sparkle remained behind his eyes, but the old magic was a much less frequent visitor.
He was the undisputed best player in the world for a period of two or three years, and has won everything there is to win in the game on both an individual and team level, but it’s hard not to wonder what Ronaldinho could have become had his trajectory not been halted so soon.
Still, the joy he brought to fans around the world, inspiring youngsters to be creative and take risks, sees Ronaldinho remembered fondly. One of the game’s great entertainers.