If there is one player still capable of re-inventing the game of football it has to be Ronaldinho. The Brazilian's prescience, deft touch and uncanny goalscoring knack bring to mind the great Pele, another proud bearer of the golden number 10 shirt. This modern genius has shown us the entire arc and span of his talent in 2004, both for FC Barcelona and the Seleçao. Perhaps even more importantly, 'Ronnie' has been enjoying himself on the pitch this year, where his omnipresent smile disarms both opponents and spectators.
Anyone who witnessed his goal against Venezuela in the Copa America back in 1999 knew in an instant that another sublimely talented Brazilian striker had emerged. Since that day, it has simply been a case of just how great this likeable young man would become.
Ronaldinho began on the bench that night, before coming on to change the face of the game in the second half. Picking up the ball at full speed without breaking stride, he lobbed a defender, ran around him and controlled the ball before it touched the ground. He then back-heeled the ball over his own head, turning a second defender in the process, before burying a powerful shot into the back of the net from a tight angle. Now that was not something you see every day on a football field!
By virtue of this one exploit, the cheeky youngster with the pronounced teeth and even more pronounced schoolboy grin had the whole of Brazil in his pocket, reviving memories amongst the older generation of the likes of Vava, Didi, Garrincha and Jairzinho. Since then, Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, born on 21 March 1980, has teased praise from some of the greatest players of all time. "He operates on a higher level than everyone else," affirms Diego Maradona, while 'O Rei' Pele considers him "an artist on the ball."
If there is a secret to Ronaldinho's rise to prominence, it has to be his work ethic. "In every profession all over the world, it's difficult to become a success. When virtually everyone has the same technical ability, as is often true in Brazil, you have to keep on trying and never give up. Above all, you have to work and keep working," he says.
Ronaldinho's progress also has a lot to do with his brother Roberto Assis, to whom he is very close. "He's my idol. He's been through a lot and has helped me every step of the way. He has encouraged me never to stop trying. Even after training or on the way to the stadium, or even at home or in bed, I live, eat and breathe football 24 hours a day. Like a lot of Brazilians, I was born with a ball at my feet and grew up with it until turning professional at the age of 17. After that, everything fell into place quite naturally. My whole life revolves around football. I suffer and work for football. Give me a ball and I'm the happiest man alive. Matches are a pure pleasure for me, it's like everything becomes magical all of a sudden," he explains, setting out his own heart-warming philosophy of 'total football'.
After starting his career at seven years old with the Gremio Porto Alegre youth side in southern Brazil, Ronnie signed his first professional contract with Paris Saint-Germain for five years on 17 January 2001 at the age of 21. Gremio contested the move, invoking the Pele ruling that came into effect on 26 March of the same year, and the drawn-out dispute was finally resolved on 13 February 2002, when Gremio were awarded 4.79 million Euros, ten times less than they were demanding.
Ronaldinho took time to settle in the French game and initially had trouble adapting to the playing style of his new team, despite the presence of several Brazilians. "It's more difficult here. But that's why it's interesting to play in Europe. It will help me get better," he said at the time, typically looking on the bright side.
Meanwhile, he continued to collect honours and praise with the Seleçao, for whom he has scored 27 goals in 57 matches. "For me, playing for my country is the most important thing of all," he reflects. In most people's eyes he is simply irreplaceable. His unforgettable performance against England in the 2002 FIFA World Cup Japan/Korea™ is still fresh in the memory. The eccentric free-kick that left David Seaman on his backside followed hot on the heels of another trademark run. Accelerating through the middle, Ronaldinho wrong-footed Ashley Cole with a step-over and picked out Rivaldo with a pass of pinpoint accuracy. The world was watching a genius at work in Shizuoka that day.
The master of improvisation
"My game is all about improvisation. A striker has to improvise all the time. My goal is to destabilise my opponent. And there's no better way to do that than to keep inventing, which is why I'm always attempting new dribbles. I work and try things. And I've still got a lot to learn about surprising the opposition," he says with a big smile.
PSG soon became too small for this newly-crowned world champion, and Ronaldinho eventually joined Barcelona in July 2003 after most people expected him to go to Manchester United. It was a logical step that sees him following in the footsteps of illustrious compatriots Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldo, all of them former Barca stars.
"Paris wasn't wasted time for me. French football gave me the opportunity to grow up and I'm very grateful for that. But here at Barcelona everything is bigger: the stadium, the crowds, the passion," he enthuses, clearly at home in Catalonia. This season, the assiduous music lover has become the conductor of his own orchestra in a Barcelona side that evokes the heady days of Cruyff.
Ronaldinho's performance in the Champions League game against AC Milan at the Camp Nou this season was close to perfection, as he inspired his side to victory by creating a goal out of almost nothing. With the ball seemingly glued to his boot on the edge of the area, he left the defence reeling from one of his patented dribbles, before rifling the ball into the top corner of the net with his left foot. Outstanding at the heart of a cast of international stars, the influence Ronaldinho had on that game - one of the year's most exciting encounters - will have been noted by every manager, captain and technical expert on Planet Football.
"When you're lucky enough to have a player like that in your team, you give him complete freedom to do what he wants. I don't give him any instructions at all," admits Frank Rijkaard, the Blaugranas Dutch manager and former AC Milan midfielder. "It's up to him whether he wants to go left, right or down the middle. He hasn't let me down since the season started. I knew he'd be effective in front of goal, but the ease with which he creates chances for his team-mates just amazes me game after game."
Ronaldinho's ever-present smile has long since won him a place in the hearts of Barca's many supporters, and in such a welcoming environment he can even afford to laugh at himself a little. "I'm ugly, but I've got charm," he jokes. Charm, unquestionably, and a surplus of talent to go with it.