It was 4 June 2012 and Bernard was feeling a little bemused as he arrived at the Cidade do Galo, Atletico Mineiro’s training centre. Usually a quiet place, it was anything but on this particular occasion.
“There were two helicopters there and a lot more press than usual,” the young attacker told FIFA.com. As he explained, it was only then that he realised what all the fuss was about. “And there he was standing before me.”
The 'he' in question was Ronaldinho Gaucho, who had just completed a speedy and typically high-profile move from Flamengo to Atletico. Though his new club had yet to announce the deal, their star signing was already on the training ground, enjoying a kickabout with his new team-mates and causing quite a stir.
“I felt really happy when I saw him for the first time,” said Bernard. “He gave the whole team a huge lift.”
Atletico knew exactly what they were getting when they signed the former Barcelona star. It was a deal that shook Brazilian football to the core and attracted no shortage of attention around the world, generating huge expectations of what the team might achieve with such a vaunted player in their ranks.
A little over one year on from his arrival, Atletico’s investment has proved to be a sound one. Ronaldinho and his team-mates find themselves in the Copa Libertadores final and are preparing to make one last comeback, their hopes of overturning a 2-0 defeat to Olimpia in last week’s first leg hinging to large extent on their leading player.
“I’ve got more confidence in him than anyone,” said Atletico coach Cuca. “He’s the one who can give me the title. Wednesday’s game is set up perfectly for him.”
Shortly after completing his first training session with O Galo, the new arrival gave a press conference in which he set out, in very concise terms, what his objectives were in moving to the club: “In football winning titles is the only thing that shows you’ve done your job properly. I want to fight for titles and help Atletico qualify for major tournaments.”
His new team staked a compelling claim to the Brasileirao title last season, pushing Fluminense all the way before settling for second. This finish at least secured the ambitious Atletico one of their objectives for the season: a coveted Libertadores place.
Boasting a talented and well-drilled side under the command of a coach committed to attacking football, the Minas Gerais outfit swept all before them in the group phase, reaching the last 16 with the best record of all the qualifiers. Cuca’s men kicked off the knockout rounds with a convincing defeat of Sao Paulo before being made to work a good deal harder in seeing off Tijuana in the quarter-finals and Newell’s Old Boys in the semis.
The Argentinians were eventually overcome in a nail-biting penalty shoot-out, thanks in no small part to the heroics of goalkeeper Victor and the cool head of Ronaldinho, who held his nerve to convert the winning spot-kick.
Once again, however, the Brazilians find themselves in a tight situation. With a two-goal deficit to make up, it is only natural that they should be looking to their most talented performer to help them turn the final around.
“We’ve become so much stronger since [Ronaldinho] arrived," said Brazil striker Jo. "When the time comes, we’ll have every confidence in him." Diego Tardelli added: “He knows he’s the star. That’s why everyone respects him.”
While there is no question Ronaldinho has taken Atletico to a new level, the fact that he is surrounded by some talented team-mates has allowed him to sparkle anew. “I don’t know if he’s made Atletico better or Atletico have made him better, but things have been fantastic since he came here,” said Cuca. “He’s a wonderful player and our go-to man.”
Quest to join the duel-continent quintet
Ronaldinho’s return to something like his brilliant best has come exactly ten years after one of the high points of his glittering career. It was back in July 2003 that he signed for Barcelona, the club with whom he would win two FIFA World Player of the Year awards, a UEFA Champions League and two La Liga crowns, having by that time already won the FIFA World Cup™ and the Copa America with Brazil.
It is a record few players can match, though there is one accolade missing. “The Libertadores is the one title I don’t have,” said Ronaldinho in recognition of that fact.
Should O Galo pull off a comeback against the Paraguayans on Wednesday and secure the title, the Brazilian ace will join a select band of players to win both Europe and Latin America’s leading club competitions, a group made up of Dida, Cafu, Carlos Tevez, Roque Junior and Walter Samuel.
At this moment in time, however, Ronaldinho is more concerned with the bigger picture, with achieving the goal he set for himself and Atletico on joining the club. And should that happen, the noise at the Mineirao will be far greater than the whirring of helicopter blades and the clicking of cameras that greeted him at the Cidade do Galo a little over a year ago.