Lionel Messi may break all the records and win every individual and club trophy under the sun but, for a certain generation of football fans, he’ll never come close to Ronaldinho.
Ronaldinho was the last of a great line of Brazilian entertainers, who enjoyed themselves just as much off the pitch as they did on it.
Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo all came before him, bringing that familiar Samba mix of sublime skill and outrageous ego.
But Ronaldinho was a cut above. He was the best player in the world at a time when there was no debate. No one could do what Ronaldinho was doing in his prime for Barcelona.
A player known as much for his love of clubbing as his football while with previous club Paris Saint Germain, together Ronaldinho and Barcelona scaled new heights.
The Catalan club had been in an almighty mess prior to the Brazilian’s arrival. Club president Juan Laporta had been elected on the promise of bringing David Beckham to the Camp Nou.
He failed but it proved a blessing in disguise, clearing the way for the club to pip Manchester United to the signing of Ronaldinho.
By November 2005, Ronaldinho had established himself as the main man at Barcelona, spearheading at attack that would win multiple La Liga titles and, eventually a Champion League crown.
But one story sticks out from that period and the build-up to an El Clasico encounter with Real Madrid.
It’s a story from teammate Andres Iniesta, who remembered receiving a call from Ronaldinho on the eye of the big game with even bigger news: he was joining Real Madrid.
“A few days before the Clasico against Real Madrid, ‘Dinho’ called me at home at night,” Iniesta remembered.
“I answered and he told me: ‘Andres, I know it’s 3am, but I have to confess something. In June I will be leaving Barca. My brother has an agreement with Real Madrid. It’s an incredible amount that I can’t refuse. You’re young, you can understand… But please do not tell anyone in the locker room or the club, do not betray me, I trust you more than anyone. Andres good night.’
“He didn’t give me time to say anything. The next day, we were in training camp and I felt an awkward atmosphere around me. The whole team was silent and they were all greeting Ronaldinho like never…
“When the day of the Clasico came [November 19, 2005], in the locker rooms of Santiago Bernabeu ‘Dinho’ told us: ‘Guys, today is a very important game, they are strong, but these days I discovered that we were like a family. I called each of you during the night and I told you that I was leaving in June, but none of you spoke. After that I realised that we were ready to suffer in silence rather than betray each other. I’ll stay here for a long time… Now let’s go into the field and give a lesson to these players of Real Madrid!”
Ronaldinho went on to put in arguably his greatest performance in a Barcelona shirt, scoring twice in a 3-0 win at the Bernabeu that even earned a standing ovation from the Madrid fans.
His time on the greatest stage of all with Barcelona may have been fleeting and his career might not have had the longevity of Messi’s or Cristiano Ronaldo but those highs were incredibly high and those moments will live on forever.
Ronaldinho: smiling assassin, party animal and a once-in-a-generation talent.
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