On 27 September, with Atletico Mineiro supporters still basking in July's Copa Libertadores triumph and eagerly looking forward to December's FIFA Club World Cup, came the kind of news that could dampen any celebration: Ronaldinho Gaucho had suffered a serious injury in training.
Hit by a torn thigh muscle, the iconic Brazilian was predicted to face around three months on the sidelines, an eternity for someone hoping to travel to Morocco at the beginning of December. True to form, however, nothing could crush the irrepressible star’s spirits.
A little after the “snap”, as he described the sensation when he felt the injury, Ronaldinho threw himself into the recovery process with his trademark good humour and enthusiasm aplenty. And when positive news began filtering out from O Galo's medical department, the support he received from the fans handed his recovery trail an air of one of Atletico’s remarkable comebacks during their successful Libertadores run.
The #EuAcredito (#IBelieve) slogan, which caught on during the semi-final against Newell’s Old Boys and then the final against Olimpia, when Atletico trailed 2-0 before eventually winning on penalties, became the #VoltaRonaldinho (#ComeBackRonaldinho) campaign. The good news was finally announced just a few days ago, when the player returned to training, practically confirming his presence at the Club World Cup.
The fact Ronaldinho will have just one Brazilian championship game to prove his fitness does not seem to worry his coach Cuca, who is delighted to be able to count on his on-pitch leader in a tournament everyone at Atletico is yearning to win. Ronaldinho’s European experience and his weighty reputation, could make all the difference against teams of the calibre of Monterrey or even Bayern Munich.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Ronaldinho discussed the upcoming trip to Morocco, the Libertadores triumph that got them there and being given the freedom to play through the middle at Atletico.
He also talked about Bayern and being reunited with Pep Guardiola, as well as his determination to play in the Club World Cup, a title he missed out on in 2006 when Barcelona lost to Internacional. Nor has he given up hope of appearing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ - clearly Ronaldinho's level of belief, just like that of O Galo fans, is in no danger of running out.
FIFA.com: Since arriving at Atletico-MG you've been playing as more central, playmaking attacker rather than a left-sided forward. What difference has this made to your game?
Ronaldinho Gaucho: It’s a role I played when I was younger, when I started out as a professional. Then when I arrived at Paris Saint-Germain I started to play out wide on the left, and I continued in the same position at Barcelona. But when I came to Atletico and Cuca explained to me what he had in mind for the team, I said it sounded great. I love being the main creator: it’s something I’ve always done. For me it works perfectly, on a practical and emotional level. It just makes sense.
Was the vision for the team that Cuca had back then reflected in the side that won the Libertadores?
No doubt about it. Cuca deserves a lot of credit. He planned it all and went after players that would fit the way he wanted the team to play. It was great. In the beginning we had Danilinho to provide the pace, and then came Bernard. There was Jo in the centre-forward role and later came [Diego] Tardelli. It was no accident that everything fitted together so well.
Will your experience in Europe make a difference at Morocco 2013, considering it will be the first international club tournament for many of the squad?
We talk a lot about the differences in strength, intensity and style. I try to explain this to the players whenever I can. I’m not the only with such experience, after all. There’s Gilberto Silva, Josue and Jo too, players who have played in the English and German leagues. All leagues and competitions are different, and I think it helps that we have knowledge of some of them.
You know Guardiola well. Do you think he has already made a difference to Bayern Munich?
Well, I don’t really analyse football that much, but I have noticed that there is a little of his style in the way they move the ball around, the passing triangles in tight spaces, the way they keep possession. I think you can see this with Bayern already, as the team gets used to playing according to his style.
Guardiola was coach of Barcelona B when you were at the club. From the contact you had with him back then, did you imagine that he would be so successful?
I did, because Barcelona's ideology is that everybody should play like the first team, starting with the juniors. This helps the coaches as well as the players. When a player comes up through the ranks he is already prepared for the first team, because all the teams in the Barcelona system play the same way. I think everybody thought he would do well, because he’d been doing a great job with Barcelona B and was using the same ideas.
When you've been given the chance to play for Brazil, since joining Atletico, how do you think you've done? Do you think you could have done anything differently?
It was great to be back with the national squad. Luiz Felipe Scolari and I have won so much together and we have a good relationship. He is a very direct person and is always open with me. I know that there are still opportunities available for those who are playing well. He seems to have the core of his squad decided, but whoever is in good form at the right time will go too.
Do you see yourself fitting well into the way Brazil are playing at the moment, considering the position you play for Atletico?
I don’t see a problem, tactically speaking. I can play any position from midfield to further forward. I’ve already played most of them in fact, that’s why I’m so relaxed about it. (laughs)
Are you still determined to play in the World Cup?
Of course. I’m always working hard to improve. If there is a chance of playing in the World Cup, I’ll be ready, and I’ll be at my peak. My goal is to always be at my best.
Could the Club World Cup be an important step towards playing in the World Cup?
Anything can happen. The plan is get back to the form I showed before the injury. My objective is to be right physically, to be able to hit the same high standards I was managing before.