Ronaldinho debuts for Fluminense and shows a glimpse of his former genius
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- "How many today, Joao? Thirty thousand?"
"They said 40 on the radio. Fifty, even. Everyone will want to be there."
Two metro stops from the Maracana and there is an energy in the train carriage that cannot merely be put down to it being game day. The Fluminense fans are out in more force than usual ahead of the battle of the Tricolors against Gremio. Indeed, it's not just any match, for there is to be a special guest; a royal visit in footballing terms. Ronaldinho is making his debut for Flu.
It's too soon after his arrival for there to be many jerseys with his name on, although Flu have no doubt banked on his profile being a huge draw in the club shop. There are visual clues to complement the excited chatter: Hawkers have been busy selling rubber masks of Ronaldinho's face in the days leading up to the game. The effect is mildly chilling.
Conversely, it's been a fair old wait to see him in action. Since he confirmed he was joining the Brazilian side via an Instagram post in which he looked more like a hostage than anything, the playmaker has been working his way to match fitness. At his age such going is slow, yet there have been swoons of delight at a few training ground flicks and tricks.
The fact that a player so patently past his best is still viewed as a potential talisman does not reflect especially well on the strength of Brazil's top flight, but it's hard not to buy into the excitement. His Greatest Hits Tour has been running for some time now. Fans of Flamengo (Flu's most bitter rivals) and Atlético Mineiro have already enjoyed the show, indulging Ronaldinho's proclivity for all things nocturnal to revel in the highlight-reel quality of his contributions on the field. This late-career romp has been entirely in his image, even if dispatches from his spell with Queretaro in Mexico were not exactly glowing.
The Fluminense fans (of which there are 33,000, sorry João) put on one of their famous mosaicos for his arrival, a giant club badge emerging from a sea of green, white and burgundy. As he emerges from the tunnel, bright green boots glinting in the falling dusk, a chant echoes around the stands: "Uh, fudeu! O Ronaldinho apareceu!" Rough translation: "Now you're screwed: Ronaldinho's here."
The 45 minutes that follow hardly support the idea that he'll lay waste to opposition defences as he once did. There is a deft clipped pass down the left touchline that draws a collective gasp, but the man of the moment spends much of the first half trudging around and falling over at the slightest hint of a challenge.
In his defence, Flu's tactics do not favour him. With Fred (his status as the undisputed darling of the crowd has now probably expired) out injured, Ronaldinho plays up front behind a trio of zippy but erratic attacking midfielders. Barcelona-bound Gerson is the most talented of the supporting actors but has a stinker, leaving Ronnie high and dry, more fall guy than false nine.
Things improve after the break with the introduction of a genuine forward, one-time West Ham non-entity Wellington Paulista. Ronaldinho drops deeper to orchestrate and is granted the freedom of the pitch when his former club are reduced to ten men. And then it is from the veteran's boot that the winning goal stems, his lofted ball flicked on and finished with atypical calmness by the fidgety Marcos Júnior. Most of the Flu players celebrate with Ronaldinho rather than the scorer. They, too, know that he is the story.
The final whistle sounds and Ronaldinho is whisked to the side of the pitch for an interview that will be repeated ad infinitum on television throughout the evening. Then, his work for the night complete, he thanks his new disciples with an enigmatic wave and slinks off into the night.
It feels like the start of a beautiful relationship.
Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football and the national team for ESPN FC.