Not so long ago, he was playing squeaky floorboards in the dimly lit corridors of a Flamengo training camp hotel, more focused on the pleasures of the night than on being ready for practice the next day. Then there was the night out with Adriano that led to the following morning being spent on matron’s couch, feeling “unwell”. All followed by that grubby exit from Flamengo, dripping in snipe and counter-snipe. On the field, performances had dwindled into a sorry parody of the glory days, and an attempted return to Seleção coloursserved merely to illustrate how the mighty had fallen. There was scarcely a debate to be had – Ronaldinho was as good as finished. Chalk up one more on the list of Brazilian football’s ignominious ends.
Fast forward five months or so, and the story is rather different. With all due respect to Fluminense’s Fred, the great-when-he’s-here Neymar, and others, Ronaldinho has been the standout performer of this year’s Brasileirão by a distance.
Sunday’s top of the table clash between Atlético Mineiro and Fluminense at a raucous Independência in Belo Horizonte was perhaps his Agincourt. The stakes could hardly have been higher. Galo, desperately trying to assuage their own 41 years of hurt (the last time the championship trophy dangled black and white Atlético ribbons was in 1971), had seen their form nosedive in the second half of the season, allowing Flu to first draw level, then pull nine points ahead. The Rio side, earnestly grinding out results with the only sparkle provided by Fred and Wellington Nem, seemed on a relentless march to the title. With only seven games left on Sunday morning, a win or even draw for the visitors would surely see the title on its way to Laranjeiras.
Ronaldinho, though, has been a man on a mission all year. Amidst burbling contentedly about how happy he is in Belo Horizonte, and how much he likes playing for Atlético and their downtrodden army of fans (the club´s recent history can be summed up well enough by the final day of last season, when, needing just a clássico win against neighbours Cruzeiro to send their hated, and decidedly tonier, rivals into Serie B, Atlético contrived to lose 6-1), Ronnie has stated repeatedly how much he wants to win the Brasileirão. Despite the truckload of silverware garnered elsewhere, he has never won Brazil’s biggest prize.
The drama played out on this sunlit afternoon will linger long in the memory. Atlético came roaring out of the traps, with Diego Cavalieri’s goal resembling a coconut shy in a country fairground. Tiny left sided attacking midfielder Bernard, at 20 the discovery of this year’s Brasileirão, was irrepressible, linking up with Ronaldinho much as he has done all season, a Hector to the veteran’s Priam, and the supporting cast – from imperious zagueiro Réver to tireless volante Leandro Donizete – played as though they wanted to put Flu on the canvas in the first round.
In some ways it was the perfect half of football – only without the goals. Fifteen home shots on target against a solitary squeak from the visitors, and a glorious crispness to Atlético’s passing, with Ronaldinho at the heart of it – shielding and juggling, wriggling free, looking up, and releasing ten, or fifteen, or twenty perfect balls into the Fluminense area. If it was slower than the glory days at Barcelona, it was also wiser – the old master, who’d forgotten more than anybody else on the pitch would ever learn, coolly tearing Carioca nerves to shreds. And better that way, too, for who would choose to watch the cocksure swagger of youth, when there is the grizzled veteran on view, flecks of grey in his beard, full of mistakes and regret, pulling those rabbits out of the hat one more time? There was even time to curl a free-kick past the redoubtable Cavalieri, only to have it ruled out in mysterious circumstances – something that would send the paranoia levels of the conspiracy theorists among Atlético’s fans soaring to a Bay of Pigs altitude – Fluminense have been the beneficiaries of a number of dubious high-profile refereeing decisions in recent weeks.
No matter. The goal would surely come in the second half. And it did - except it went to Fluminense. On 55 minutes Fred sent the dangerous Wellington Nem scampering free into the box, and a second later, the ball was nestling in the Atlético net. Silence – other than from the thousand or so Flu fans up in the gods. Get used to it, the breeze coming down off the hills around Belo Horizonte seemed to whisper. Happy endings are for other people.
But maybe things are different now. It certainly seemed that way as former Manchester City totem pole Jô took centre stage. First a crashing drive from Ronaldinho´s neat pass tied it up, then Bernard pelted down the wing, turned so smartly that full back Bruno’s head may still be spinning, and crossed onto Jô’s head for the second. Cavalieri sank to his knees, hollow-eyed. Galo fans bellowed their thanks to heaven, and it felt like the Independência might topple.
Until Fluminense went down the other end, and with five minutes left, scored a fine equaliser, perhaps the title winner, Fred poking the ball home from close range. As the Fluminense players jigged in the corner, the television commentators proclaimed the last rites. “That’s quietened the Atlético fans down a bit!” one giggled, showing all the impartiality for which certain monolithic Rio-based Brazilian TV networks are famous.
Only it hadn’t. As soon as the goal went in, the Galo fans went to work, hoarsely banging out another rendition of the tired old club anthem. A Strong and Avenging Rooster, runs a line, and there is no cannier old bird in the farmyard this year than Ronaldinho. Two minutes into injury time, with the whistle edging closer to the referee’s disapproving lips, the maestro found some space on the left. And suddenly, this was no longer a goofy, pony-tailed, 32 year old Brazilian footballer, but instead, to paraphrase Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter”, became “nothing more than the simple wish personified that the ball go in the net”.
As the shadows crept across the field, Ronaldinho sent a magisterial curve arcing through the warm, late afternoon air. It was a lovely thing, the flight of that ball – true and honest, tracing a line as bittersweet as the trail of a jet plane passing far overhead, heading off to an unknown, but surely better, landing spot. The landing in this case was the furious bonce of giant defender Leonardo Silva. Cavalieri never even moved, and Atlético had won it.
It was Pedro Martinez, the great former Boston Red Sox pitcher, who threatened once to “drill the damn Bambino in the ass”, a reference to the curse of Babe Ruth and the ghosts that had befouled Red Sox title hopes for near on a century. Insouciant and instinctively rebellious, there might be a little of Pedro in Ronaldinho, or a little of Ronaldinho in Pedro. Either way, any ne’er-do-well spirits hanging round the Independência had better watch their step. Ronaldo de Assis Moreira is after you.
Perhaps a groggy-looking Fluminense boss Abel Braga put it best after the game. “We didn’t play well,” he said, “though I thought we’d done enough to get away with it. But we were up against a genius.” Still six points ahead with just six games left, he can afford to be magnanimous. But on Sunday, at least for one afternoon, Ronaldinho and Atlético Mineiro felt like champions.
James is a regular contributor to both IBWM and World Soccer. He can also be found on Twitter @seeadarkness.