Felipe Schmidt examines the circumstances surrounding Ronaldinho's return, and asks if we could yet see him again at the World Cup.
Ronaldinho is back in Brazil’s national team. The Barcelona legend played a full ninety minutes against Ghana on Monday (a match which ended in a 1-0 win for the Seleção) showing his trademark box of tricks in a consistent performance. This was the first time that the Flamengo midfielder was included in a Seleção squad since October 2010, when Brazil were defeated 1-0 by Argentina. Ronaldinho rejoined the team after an extraordinary year in his home country: Flamengo lost only four times in the entire season, whilst Ronnie scored twenty-one goals in forty games.
Although the goal of coach Mano Menezes is the renewal of the team, using the likes of Neymar, Ganso and Lucas to prepare a squad capable of winning the World Cup in 2014, recent results forced the Brazilian coach to rely on some veterans in order to keep his job and diminish the pressure on the youngsters. Ronaldinho, leader of Flamengo, the best supported team in Brazil, seemed the natural choice, in part because of the demand of both press and supporters.
As a matter of fact, the trajectory of Ronaldinho since he signed with Flamengo is a good story. Arguably one of the best footballers of all time, the Brazilian midfielder enchanted European fans in his years with Barcelona, being awarded with the Golden Foot twice, in 2005 and 2006. However, his love for the pleasures of life started to spoil his performance. Sold to Milan, Gaúcho never recaptured his magical Camp Nou form.
At the Italian club, Ronaldinho had only glimpses of the genius that he was before, but that was enough to earn him the admiration of both Adriano Galliani and Silvio Berlusconi. The sympathy of the duo was crucial to the comeback of the midfielder and his return to Brazil, in January 2011. The war for his signature was fierce. Ronaldinho was linked with Grêmio (where he began his career), Palmeiras and Flamengo. After weeks of Brazilian soap opera, he signed with Flamengo.
From the start, Ronaldinho admitted that one of his objectives was to get back to Brazil’s national team. Flamengo provided the best chance of doing so: based in Rio de Janeiro, the club has around 35 million supporters, who, consequently, played an important part in the public opinion that claimed for Ronaldinho’s Seleção comeback. The festivity that welcomed Ronaldinho to his new club was impressive: on a typical Wednesday afternoon, thousands of fans stopped the city of Rio de Janeiro to salute their new idol.
But the pressure of Flamengo’s supporters wasn’t enough to instantly ensure Ronaldinho's rapprochement with Menezes, for all that the midfielder performed well at his new club. In the Rio de Janeiro State Championship, played between January and April, he led the Rubro-Negro to a historic campaign, winning the tournament unbeaten, and scoring important goals. In total, he scored four goals in thirteen appearances. In the Brazilian Cup, the team reached the quarter-finals, but were eliminated by Ceará.
Despite this, Ronaldinho still couldn’t completely win over the fans. Frequent reports of him appearing at samba shows and other nightlife-related activities started to spark anger amongst the supporters. After a disappointing performance in the derby against Botafogo, Ronnie endured his first boos since returning to Brazil. A group of Flamengo fans even started a campaign to monitor the rampant adventures of the star as he partied all over Rio de Janeiro.
After the incident, though, Ronaldinho's skills seemed to finally flourish. The improvement of his form immediately put Flamengo in the hunt for the Brazilian Championship. The definitive proof that the legend was back happened on July 27th, when, with a hat-trick – including a clever free-kick that recalled his effort against Werder Bremen in 2006 – the midfielder assured an incredible 5-4 triumph away to Neymar’s Santos. Fla conceded three times in the first twenty minutes and managed to walk away from the Vila Belmiro with a important victory.
Tactically, Ronnie has been used in many ways at Flamengo. He started the season in his favoured spot, the left wing, dictating the flow of the game from that area. However, his initial lack of movement did force Vanderlei Luxemburgo to test him as a striker, in a role of false nine – a move which provoked criticism of the coach. Later, Ronaldinho played as a trequartista, but, once again, had subpar success. The problem seemed to be more physical than tactical as eventually he returned to the left wing and displayed the range of passes, dribbles and skills that had hypnotized fans all over the globe – in his last game before the friendly against Ghana, Ronaldinho scored an incredible Olympic goal in a 3-2 loss to Avaí.
The rise of Flamengo’s captain coincided with the failure of the Brazilian national team at the Copa America, which saw them eliminated by Paraguay, after three draws and only one victory. With the disappointing performances of the team, pressure for the comeback of Ronaldinho proved to be irresistible to Menezes, who surrendered and called the midfielder, stating that the player can be the leader of the new Brazilian generation at the 2014 World Cup.
However, the question of how Ronaldinho will fit in the national team in the long term remains. In his friendly before the match against Ghana, Ronnie did play as a false nine against Argentina and showed good understanding with Neymar. Against the African squad, the veteran started on his beloved left wing, with Leandro Damião as a central target man, and Neymar on the right of the 4-2-3-1 employed by Menezes.
On the night, the Flamengo captain was always a threat from free-kicks and fascinated the fans with his usual array of tricks. However, there is still room for improvement, something that will hopefully come naturally as he meshes with the squad, with Ronaldinho now certain to be a part of for the two friendlies against Argentina in September, when only players of Brazilian and Argentinean teams will take part.
The other question is about the future of Ronaldinho in the squad. Many Brazilian journalists believe that his call-up was a solution hit upon by Menezes to soothe public tensions and reduce the criticism being heaped upon the national team. However, recent months have proved that not only is Ronaldinho still one of Brazil’s finest footballers, but that if he can maintain his current level of performance, he has what it takes to be the leader of Brazil at the World Cup.
Felipe Schmidt is a journalist living and working in Brazil.