If ever there was a player born to play football, it was Ronaldinho. The childlike pleasure he derives from the game is matched by that of his rapt audience, who are regularly treated to displays of his craft and inventiveness. His formidable array of skills - slide rule passes, slalom-like dribbles, deadly accurate shooting from both open play and dead-ball situations - testify to a natural talent that defies belief.
Regarded by some as Pele's natural heir, and by others as simply a footballing genius, the Brazilian crowned a glorious 2004 with both his club FC Barcelona and the Seleçao by picking up the FIFA World Player of the Year award. The recognition only spurred him on to greater heights with the star producing more vintage displays the following year. 2005 has seen him pick up a league title with his club in Spain, a FIFA Confederations Cup winners medal with Brazil (including the man-of-the-match award in the final against Argentina) and just recently the Ballon d'Or as European Footballer of the Year. Is it any wonder that the 25-year-old is permanently smiling?
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, the player 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."
Family man and team player
"The ball is my friend, my companion and my partner. It means everything to me. Without it, I'm nothing," the Brazilian once said. The comment shows the hugely important role football has in his life and his deep love for the game. Born Ronaldo de Assis Moreira in Porto Alegre on 21 March 1980, the player nicknamed Ronaldinho Gaúcho tragically lost his father at the age of seven, later turning to his brother Roberto for guidance. The player remains very close to his older sibling, a former professional who enjoyed stints in Brazil, Mexico and Japan before finishing at French club Montpellier. "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," says Ronaldinho, who is always surrounded by his beloved family.
Forcing your way into Brazil's starting XI has to one of toughest tasks in football, yet Ronaldinho did it with a combination of raw talent and hard work. "No matter where you go or what you do in the world, it's not easy to find an opening. When people are technically very similar, as is often the case in Brazil, then you have to want it more, fight until the death and never give in," the Barcelona player said.
"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, the bourgeoning star signed his first professional contract (a five-year deal) with Paris Saint-Germain 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 had trouble adapting to the playing style of his new team, despite the presence of several Brazilians. Nonetheless, his two seasons in France helped the youngster grow as a footballer. "Paris wasn't wasted time for me. French football gave me the opportunity to grow up and I'm very grateful for that," said the player.
In July 2003 Ronaldinho decided it was time to move on from the French capital. Though all the signs indicated a move to England's Manchester United, the Brazilian opted for FC Barcelona, thereby following in the footsteps of his illustrious countrymen Rivaldo, Romario and Ronaldo, who had all played for the Catalan giants. He quickly established himself as Barcelona's brightest star and is leading the drive to bring back the glory days enjoyed under Johan Cruyff.
"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."
Pride of the Auriverde
Firmly established as the leading goal-creator for his country, the player relishes running out for the world champions. "For me, playing for my country is the most important thing of all," says Ronaldinho, who tends to play just behind the lethal strike duo of Ronaldo and Adriano. 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.
Since then, Ronaldinho's stock has been steadily on the rise. During the recent FIFA Confederations Cup in Germany, Carlos Alberto Parreira acknowledged his growing influence by handing him the captain's armband, a decision that galvanized the player even more. He provided timely goals, crucial assists and leadership on and off the field, winning the hearts and minds of the dressing room with his humility and charm. Everywhere the Brazilian goes, he brings a smile to people's faces.
His contribution in Germany was considerable. His equalising goal against Japan and converted penalty in the final against Argentina - a game in which he won man-of-the-match - helped Brazil take the title playing incisive and attacking football. Though still only 25, he has already played 61 times for his country, scoring 27 times in the process.
The master of improvisation
"My game is all about improvisation. A striker has to improvise all the time. My goal is to unsettle 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.
Ronaldinho's latest exhibition came at the Bernabéu during the recent Real Madrid-Barcelona derby. Twice he cut loose down the left flank, where his speed and agility took him past Madrid defenders Sergio Ramos and Iván Helguera. He capped his runs with two finishes of such quality that the home crowd did the unthinkable and rose in unison to applaud the sheer skill of the Barcelona man. With last season's performances earning him the award for best Latin American player in the Spanish league, one wonders if even greater accolades await him this year.
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.