Ronnie's rollercoaster grinds to a halt
"It will end in tears," was the reaction of most Brazilian football fans and journalists when the news broke in June 2012 that Ronaldinho Gaucho had signed for Atletico Mineiro, a well-supported but terminally unsuccessful team from the unglamorous south-eastern city of Belo Horizonte. After all, Ronaldinho's spell at previous club Flamengo, which began with 25,000 delirious fans turning up at his welcome ceremony and ended bitterly 18 months later amid listless performances, unpaid wages, and court cases, had a distinct "Twilight of the Gods" feel to it. So when Atletico's blowhard chairman Alexandre Kalil announced that "our new No. 10 is coming from Rio de Janeiro," the consensus was that Ronaldinho, who had been on a seemingly terminal downward slide for years, was all washed up, and more trouble than he was worth.
In a way the naysayers were right -- at least when it came to the end of his time with Galo (Atletico's nickname, meaning Rooster). The last 12 months of Ronaldinho's stint in Belo Horizonte have not been particularly happy. A serious thigh injury in September last year meant that he was hopelessly off the pace during the Club World Cup in Morocco in December, when Atletico were humiliatingly eliminated by local side Raja Casablanca.
He has been out of shape and out of sorts for most of 2014, too, subbed off in the second-half in the majority of his sporadic appearances. Worse, when taken off in both legs of the Recopa Sudamericana final (a playoff between the winners of the previous year's Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana) this month, Ronaldinho refused to join his teammates on the bench.
Perhaps the most serious incident, however, came last weekend, when the erstwhile global superstar had been given permission to play in his pal Deco's farewell game in Porto, but allegedly missed his plane to Portugal. By the end of Atletico's match away to Sport Recife on Sunday, his whereabouts were still unknown. "I don't know where he is," said Galo striker Jo after the game. "But from the way he said goodbye on Wednesday (after Atletico's second-leg Recopa victory over Lanus at a packed Mineirao), it felt like it was his last appearance."
Even before The Mysterious Affair of the Disappearing Ronaldinho, it had looked like the player's days in Belo Horizonte were numbered. Atletico boss Levir Culpi has been using him sparingly, while at the same time there were rumours of contract offers from a rather surreal variety of teams (including QPR, Boca Juniors, Fluminense and Egypt's Zamalek). On Saturday, the local O Tempo newspaper reported that Ronaldinho intended to rescind his contract with Galo, which runs until the end of the year, and that he had returned the keys of the house he had been renting.
Another of Brazilian football's undignified ends, then, much like that of his former Flamengo teammate Adriano. For Ronaldinho, it has been a case of too much excess -- oddly he famously ran into trouble at Flamengo for creaking the floorboards in the dimly lit corridors of a training camp hotel and his ambitions to become a pagode singer are well-known -- and not enough dedication to his career and his health. It is a combination that makes the slow slide into premature footballing oblivion almost inevitable.
Yes... and no. There is no doubt that a player blessed with as much ability as The Artist Formerly Known as Ronaldinho could arguably have achieved much, much more. Not many, after all, are crowned FIFA World Player of The Year twice. And not many can claim to have reinvented a position and a style of play -- before Messi there was Ronaldinho, but before Ronaldinho there was, well, no-one quite like Ronaldinho. For a player so exquisitely gifted to miss out on selection for the 2010 World Cup when he was just 30, and then to be effectively exiled to the Elba of the Campeonato Brasileiro (which, with respect to its unruly, often dramatic competitiveness, is a long way from the star-studded world of the UEFA Champions League) just a year later is surely evidence of a talent terribly squandered.
RONALDINHO - KEY FACTS AND FIGURES
Full name: Ronaldo de Assis Moreira
Born: March 21, 1980, Porto Alegre
Clubs: Gremio, PSG, Barcelona, Milan, Flamengo, Atletico Mineiro
Major Honours: La Liga (2), Champions League, Serie A, Copa Libertadores, Recopa Sudamericana, Copa America, World Cup
Individual: Two-time FIFA World Player of the Year (2004,2005), South American Footballer of the Year (2013)
International: 97 caps and 33 goals for Brazil
Furthermore, in the context of the globalisation of football, where the final of said Champions League is arguably the biggest game not just in Europe but in much of South America too ("Enjoy the match!" ESPN's Paulo Vinicius Coelho exhorted Brazilian fans earlier this year "you're citizens of the world! It's Brazilian football that isn't!"), and of Ronaldinho's stellar glory years in the Velho Continente, it is possible that his short, two-year stretch with Atletico will be seen as not much more than a footnote in his career, perhaps even listed alongside Flamengo and wherever his next destination may be in the "he drifted unhappily from club to club" stage of his glamorous biography.
Such a writing of history would be unfair, though, to both Ronaldinho and Atletico. For rather than forming part of his football dotage, most of his spell in Belo Horizonte was a rollicking, magical ride. Signing Ronaldinho immediately put Galo on the footballing map -- not just internationally, but also, curiously, in Brazil. Before his arrival, despite boasting around four and a half million fans (according to Brazilian football's rather dubious practice of basing supporter numbers on market research data) and regularly winning the local Minas Gerais state championship, Atletico had not won a major title since claiming the first official Brazilian championship in 1971.
Belo Horizonte also lies outside Brazil's Rio-Sao Paulo axis of footballing, media and economic power, which means that despite the club's local popularity, a team like Atlético would normally barely feature on national TV coverage. "This will show Brazil that there's a professional, well-run club on this side of the mountains," blustered chairman Kalil when announcing the signing. "This isn't just any old player. It's Ronaldinho Gaucho," he added.
He was right -- for a while anyway. Ronaldinho hit the ground running in 2012, forming part of a blistering attack featuring Jo and exciting young winger Bernard, who is now at Shakhtar Donetsk. Atletico, who had flirted with relegation in the previous two seasons, were often irrepressible, most notably in a 4-1 victory at Sport Recife and an epic 3-2 home win over eventual title winners Fluminense at a rowdy Independencia stadium. Galo's winner that day came when a perfectly flighted Ronaldinho cross landed on the head of giant centre-back Leo Silva in the last minute.
Then there was his thrilling scamper through hated rivals Cruzeiro in a Belo Horizonte derby to secure a 2-2 draw, a slow-motion throwback to his Barcelona pomp. Atletico eventually finished second in Serie A that year and, for that moment at least, it felt like Ronaldinho was back.
The Galo fans certainly thought so. This was a reciprocal love affair: as Ronaldinho's mother Dona Miguelina battled cancer in 2012, Atletico's torcida organizada, the Galoucura, unveiled a huge "get well soon" banner at a home game. Visibly moved, the new hero of Horto (the neighbourhood where the Independencia is located) applauded the fans before and after the match. When a "stay Ronaldinho" campaign began at the end of the year (his initial contract with the club was for six months) the outcome was predictably romantic. Ronaldinho signed up for another season.
It was the right choice, for even better was to come in 2013. Coming second meant Atletico had qualified for the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 13 years, and Ronaldinho was ready to enjoy himself on the big stage. Galo tore through the group phase, scoring 16 goals in six games (Ronaldinho's "water bottle" goal against Sao Paulo will live long in the memory, as will his sublime chip in the 5-2 destruction of Arsenal de Sarandi), until things got decidedly tougher in the knockout rounds.
In retrospect, perhaps the warning signs were already there -- after thumping Sao Paulo in the round of 16, Atletico suffered mightily, crawling past Tijuana of Mexico thanks to a last-minute penalty save from goalkeeper Victor, before beating Newell's Old Boys on penalties in the semifinal. In both ties, Ronaldinho was suddenly reduced to a bit-part actor, unable to find that extra second, that extra yard of space, that he needed to work his magic. In the end it didn't matter, as Atletico lifted the trophy, their first major title for more than 40 years, after a preposterously dramatic penalty shootout victory over Olimpia of Paraguay in front of 60,000 delirious fans at the Mineirao. "I came here to this club to make history, and that's what I did," Ronaldinho would say a year later, and no Atletico fan would argue with him.
Since then, however, it has been a precipitous decline, culminating with that (non-)trip to Portugal. "It's time for him to go," former Galo star Paulo Isidoro told O Tempo this week. "It's the right moment, if he doesn't want to leave a bad impression of himself as a person, or his football. It's obvious that he isn't focused on Atletico anymore... When he didn't make the Brazil squad for the World Cup, his motivation dropped off... It's time for the club to take its hat off to Ronaldinho, but not to let him take advantage."
And so another chapter in the Ronaldinho story comes to an end. In all likelihood it will be one of the last. But for a few glorious months in Belo Horizonte, the old sorcerer rediscovered the spring in his step and, in doing so, made a few million long-suffering football fans feel happier than they had for a long, long time.
James Young writes about Brazil and its football. His collection of short stories and blog writings, "A Beer Before Lunch," is available on Amazon.