Jamie McGregor witnesses the return of a fallen idol.
The date was 30 October 2005, the venue was the Camp Nou and he didn't disappoint. On a clear Barcelona night, under the floodlights, he scored 2 goals in a 5-0 demolition of Real Sociedad. Watching the game, you knew you were witnessing something special, something that had never been seen on a football pitch before. Barcelona had some great players but everyone only had eyes for him. You could feel the anticipation in the crowd every time he touched the ball. His flicks, his dribbles, his disguised passes. The crowd loved him, his picture was on thousands of scarves and his name was on the back of every shirt. He was the stereotypical Brazilian footballer, fast, skillful and always playing with a smile on his face.
At the time he was already FIFA World Player of the Year, a title he would go on to win again before the end of the 2005. As well as that he would help Barcelona successfully defend their league title and most importantly, win a second Champions League trophy. It was my first match in Spain and I felt privileged to have witnessed one of the greats. I never got to see Zidane play in the flesh but at least I'd seen Ronaldinho.
The date is 30 October 2011, the venue is Estádio Olímpico Monumental, Porto Alegre. I thought I'd never get to see him play again but I was wrong. Once again, the pre-match talk is about Ronaldinho who is playing for the visitors. Once again, the crowd have come to see him. His face is plastered everywhere, on banners, signs and t-shirts. However, this time his name is followed by the words traitor, mercenary and crook. It's clear the Grêmio fans, those who first saw him play, who first loved him, have not forgiven nor forgotten their one time idol.
But wait a minute, how can anyone hate Ronaldinho? The buck toothed, smiley, samba dancing genius. A player so likable that even Real Madrid fans applauded him when he tore them to bits in the Bernabeu while playing for Barcelona.
Grêmio fan Gabriel fills me in. 'When Ronaldinho was at Grêmio we received a lot of big money offers for him but he said he didn't want to go. Even when his contract was almost expired, he said he wanted to stay in Porto Alegre. Then, once it was up, he went to Paris Saint Germain, leaving Grêmio with nothing.'
The club was clearly stunned at Ronaldinho's sudden U-turn with their then president claiming only to have heard about the deal when it appeared on PSG's website. For the fans it clearly wasn't a last minute, spur of the moment decision but a calculated plot by the player and his agents to earn themselves some more money. However, that's not the end of the story, it gets worse. Gabriel goes on: 'when Ronaldinho wasn't getting a game at Milan his brother (also his agent) decided it would be good idea for him to return to Brazil. He talked about wanting to return to Porto Alegre, to Grêmio. Then, just when it looked like he was coming back, he changed his mind and signed for Flamengo. So we can say he has betrayed us twice!'
Indeed, and what probably helped change his mind was a contract worth a reported £24 million. Naturally Grêmio were not amused. They had even organised a welcome party for him at the stadium, so confident were they that he would sign. Like anyone who has to cancel a party because the main guest got a better offer at the last minute, they felt angry and humiliated and today is their first chance to show Ronaldinho what they think of him.
So the two main questions going to the game are, what do the fans have in store and how will HE react? The answer to the first question is fake bank notes featuring his face, t-shirts with Ronaldinho Prohibited sings and unflattering banners about his mother. When the stadium announcer is reading out the teams you can sense the anticipation as he gets to Flamengo's number ten and when he finally does, then an all mighty chorus of boos, whistles and every swear word in the Portuguese language rings around the stadium.
As the teams emerge it's time to answer the second burning question.
At first you can't make him out, it seems he might have had second thoughts and done a runner but in fact he's just buried under a sea of journalists, photographers, camera men and ball boys. Eventually he emerges from the crowd and joins his team mates for the start of the game.
Predictably his early touches are met with a wave of abuse but within two minutes he has a chance to silence the mob. Flamengo win a freekick on the edge of the box. The Ronaldinho of 2005 would have fancied his chances from here. Can he recreate that magic? The answer is yes, well sort of. He whips a wonderful free kick over the wall. It seems destined for the top corner until the Grêmio keeper somehow touches it onto the underside of the bar and the ball bounces behind for a corner.
It's a promising start for public enemy number one and he has another chance shortly afterwards but a desperate tackle from Gilberto Silva denies him. Grêmio's last ditch defending may be denying Ronaldinho for now but it doesn't disguise Flamengo's superiority and it's no surprise when they eventually make the breakthrough. When they do, three players jump the advertising boardings and run the 10 metres or so to celebrate with the Flamengo fans. No prizes for guessing who one of them is?
Suddenly the Ronaldinho of 2005 is back. His flicks and tricks are sending Grêmio defenders all over the place and he seems to be revelling in the attention. Flamengo double their lead midway through the half and you already fear that this could become a rout.
With half time approaching the home side pull one back but when the referee signals for the interval it's clear who is on top. Half time score, Grêmio fans 0 Ronaldinho 1.
In fact so seemingly at ease is Ronnie that he takes about 5 minutes to leave the pitch, stopping to talk with reporters, Grêmio substitutes and really anyone who comes up to him.
When the teams re-emerge it seems Grêmio have been given a lifting team talk and so have the fans. They never lost their voice in the first half but in the second they've cranked up the volume. The second 45 is not long old when the home side level the scores with a long range equaliser and stadium erupts. The hardcore Grêmio fans do their legendary avalanche and Flamengo heads visibly drop.
Apart from one man, who clearly hasn't given up. The problem is, his flicks and tricks are no longer coming off. His disguised passes are fooling the home side but they're also fooling his own players who are just simply not on the same wavelength. He's becoming visibly frustrated and for the first time, it seems the crowd are getting to him.. Every pause in play is greeted by the chant crook, crook, crook. Grêmio now have the game by the scruff of the neck and with the clock approaching 90 minutes, the inevitable happens and they take the lead.
Pandemonium. It's all too much for a certain Flamengo player who picks up a yellow card for berating the referee for not giving a foul in the move that led to the goal. That yellow card is cheered almost as much as the goal and it gets better as the hosts seal a memorable come back with a fourth goal at the end.
The final whistle follows and the reporters and photographers come flooding back onto the field. Unsurprisingly, this time Ronaldinho isn't hanging around to chat as he fights his way through the mob to get up the tunnel.
It's all over and I don't know what to think. For ninety minutes I loved him and for another ninety I hated him. Of course I don't know him personally, I'm just a fan but Ronaldinho seems to represent everything great and everything bad about football at the same time. I can't make up my mind, so lets just say we have a love-hate relationship.
Jamie is the editor of IBWM's favourite Spanish football website, Spanish Football Info.
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