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Nov 28, 2006

Superstar shining bright once again

When the Ballon D'Or was handed out on Monday, last year's winner, widely agreed to be the world's best player, lagged back in 4th.

Fabio Cannavaro became the first defender to win the award since Mattias Sammer a decade ago, while European and World football's most glittering attacking talent finished behind Italy's captain.

Cannavaro's goalkeeping colleague in Gianluigi Buffon and Thierry Henry, whose Arsenal team lost 2006's European Cup Final to the Brazilian's Barcelona also both garnered more votes than the man nicknamed 'Gaucho'.

Had this award been handed out in June then perhaps Ronaldinho would have been in prime position to collect the gong that France Football first decorated Stanley Matthews with in 1956. Barcelona had collected their second successive Liga title and added the holy grail of the European Cup for only the second time in the history of a club.

Then a pallid World Cup and a slow start to the season that sees the European Cup holders needing to win their final match with Werder Bremen to qualify for the Champions League's second round looked to have dimmed the star of Ronaldinho.

But just now, the spotlight seems to suit him once again. At a time when Barca need him most, there are signs that the pre-World Cup vintage Ronaldinho is back.

Despite the presence of Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp, there is no doubting the true king of Barcelona's socios. And with Eto'o likely to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury and Messi hamstrung until the new year, Barcelona have been forced to rely on the player who is their greatest individualist since Maradona's mid-80s spell in Catalunya.

He has responded in style. The last month has seen seven goals in seven games, rounded off by an overhead kick against Villarreal at the weekend that Ronaldinho described thus: 'Ever since I was a young boy I've dreamed of scoring a goal like that'.

The 26-year-old lamented the loss of Eto'o in saying the Cameroon striker is 'a scoring machine' and now assumes some of his goalscoring burden .

'He brings a lot to the game. We have great players to replace him...but he was scoring quite a bit and we do miss that,' he said of Eto'o.

And Messi, the young Argentinian, has been lauded by his team-mate as being alongside Henry and compatriot Ronaldo in his pantheon of players 'I like to see'.

But despite losing his partners' input for the time being and suffering a troubled start to the season in which his famous dentistry had been more in grimace than its more famous toothy grin, Ronaldinho has recovered a positive outlook on the game: 'My motivation is that people want to see me at my best every time I go on the pitch. They want to see the great play, the great pass, that is my motivation.'

And those motivations have bred results of late. No Eto'o, no Messi with Henrik Larsson being replaced by an Eidur Gudjohnsen who, despite some recent goals, looks to have been enjoying his tapas, yet Ronaldinho has fired into gear under the spotlight. Barca are back at the top, holding off a strong challenge from the best Sevilla side in 60 years and a Real Madrid team flush with new arrivals.

Ronaldinho's commitment to believing in the beautiful - 'Jogo Bonito' - has seen him achieve an iconic status of such a level that sponsors Nike have seen fit to grant him his own signature line of clothing and merchandise, a standing previously only granted to US sporting icons like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

While Jordan and Woods are perhaps both best known for their dedication to results and winning, Ronaldinho is perhaps most iconic for the audacity of his skills. Other hugely skilled Brazilians, with Denilson, once the world's most expensive player, being a prime example, may have flattered to deceive with their juggling and jinking but the man from Porto Alegre has married true flair to success on the field.

At international level, he has already won both the World Cup and Copa America. Yet failure at Germany 2006 hit hard. And so 2010 remains a key objective: 'It's the competition players dream of, so after a perfect club year to not close it with the golden key was bothersome. I need to keep working hard because I have to do it again in four years.

'I've had the joy of winning it all and I want to win again. My goal is to win the next World Cup.'

Ronaldo de Assis Moreira says he lives by three watchwords - family, samba and joy. The last is self-explanatory, the latter the Brazil's traditional music. And family plays a huge part in his footballing life. Almost the entire Assis clan are resident in Barcelona. His mother, widowed 18-years ago, has described her most famous son as having to be stopped from playing football almost every night of his childhood.

While sister Deisi is in his employ, it is elder brother Roberto who runs his affairs. Roberto de Assis, a deadringer for Chris Kamara, was himself a player, like 'Ronny' beginning his career at Porto Alegre's Gremio before making a move to Europe. But a career in Switzerland was ruined by a knee injury. He now serves as major influence and guiding force of the brother nine years his junior, who has described his elder sibling as his 'idol'.

It was not until his move to Barcelona in 2003 that the buck-toothed one became recognised as the pre-eminent talent in world football. During the 2002 World Cup he played third fiddle to Ronaldo and Rivaldo, both predecessors at the Camp Nou. Having failed to settle at his first European club in Paris St Germain, many clubs considered him a gamble.

Infamously and preposterously, Real Madrid felt him 'too ugly' to feature in their now discredited line-up of galacticos while Manchester United's negotiations with PSG fell apart over the transfer fee. But in stepped new Barca president Joan Laporta to revive the then slumbering Catalan giants with an £18m deal that now represents an absolute bargain.

Since then Barca have wrested power Spanish power away from Real and other challengers like Valencia. Two successive titles and victory in Paris have revived memories of Johan Cruyff's famous 'Dream Team' of the 1990s. Though that era never had a Ronaldinho. While he must already be aware of his own worth, Barcelona and Brazil's current no.10 ('it is my face') still seeks to further enhance his reputation and trophy cabinet while playing his truly seductive brand of the beautiful game.

'I want to win it all again...One, two, even three more times...as a team and as an individual...I want to make history.'


• For further details on the Ronaldinho signature range: click on Nike football
• Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email John Brewin
• Additional reporting by ESPN Deportes.