It is, I am well aware, quite difficult to claim of someone capable of eating an apple through a tennis racket that he’s the very embodiment of The Beautiful Game, but such is the case with Ronaldinho Gaúcho, the footballer who – Bo Selecta!-faced or otherwise – has managed to combine (albeit briefly) outrageous Ipanema fantasia with ‘end product’ better than anyone in the modern era. And yes, I’m including Messi in this calculus, a player whose end product is prodigious, granted, but whose devastating, tic-like zip-zappings are now more or less, well, inevitable and thus, by definition, not particularly surprising or outrageous. Mind-blowing they may still be, but slow-release: a dispassionate, cerebral appreciation of the continued rarefied genius of the wee man, like playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 for the umpteenth time, as opposed to seeing The White Stripes live, unable to take your eyes off Jack as he prowls about the stage, a ball of pure potential, capable of anything. Where Messi is a fastball, Ronaldinho was a curveball (not really sure why I’m using a baseball analogy here, by the way, but the past tense is not an accident), like going to your girlfriend’s parents’ house and having not her Mum, but her Dad come on to you… If Messi is a couple of zesty caipirinhas, then Ronaldinho is a swig of mescaline. Three parts ERANU to one part UVAVU.
I know what you’re going to say now: “show me the evidence!” right? OK, if you insist, I shall. Of several possible examples, we could start with his famous ‘triple sombrero’ against a befuddled Athletic Bilbao – the equivalent of evading a pair of determined pick-pockets in a narrow alleyway while simultaneously playing keepy-uppy. Then there’s the pañolada (a handkerchief-waving tribute) he received from the Bernabéu galleries when substituted near the end of his one-man evisceration of Real in 2005 – akin to The Pope being made Chairman of Glasgow Rangers. Or take his stupendous 25-yard arrowed toe-punt in the quarter-final of the 2005 Champions League against Chelsea – we all know the Brazilians have a propensity to combine dancing with anything (whence capoeira), but the samba hips he used to mesmerise Carvalho prior to this strike was pure, unadulterated Brazilliance. It’s a goal I would wager almost no other player in history would have been capable of scoring, simply because it wouldn’t have even occurred to them, irrespective if they’d been able to pull it off. (Oh to have had a Paris Saint-Germain season ticket in 2001-02, when alongside him in a batshit midfield was the street football sorcery of Jay-Jay Okocha, not to mention the comparatively prosaic talent of a young, sensibly-coiffeured Mikel Arteta.)
If that’s not enough, there’s the fact that he perfected a supercharged version of what is undoubtedly the most difficult dribbling move yet conceived, the elástico, the one in which he rolls the ball anti-clockwise for a nanosecond with the outside of his right foot, moving it through about thirty degrees, feigning a-starboard, then, in the same motion and without his foot leaving the ball, flicks his foot round to the other side like a cobra, jinking off left and away. Not incidentally, a very common way of translating the phrase “he thrills me” into Spanish is “me da ilusión”: literally, he gives me illusion. And that’s the thing about La Liga-era Ronnie: he was an illusionist. Even when I saw the elástico for the first time and slowed the video down, the legerdemain (legerdepied?) still escaped me. How the…? Where…? Wha–? Shit. The. Bed.
Now, if you’re already chuntering into your beard of righteousness that fantasia and ilusión are “not what football is about,” then I truly pity you – for I’d go so far as to say you’re likely a joyless, puritanical curmudgeon and champion bonfire-pisser, the unwitting personification of an ascetic-capitalist worldview (one that’s simultaneously deliriously irrational and hyper-rational) in which everything is reduced to numbers, and thus somebody who libidinously computes their OPTA stats, working out performativity, efficiency, box-to-boxery, jiggery, pokery, and other supposedly quantifiable aspects of the game, too timorous to be swept away by the unfettered imagination into a terra incognita beyond measure. Well, hear this: until they can quantify the effect on results of Freaking The Absolute Bejesus Out Of The Opposition (in which Little Ronald excelled), you can shove your stats where the sun don’t shine. (No, not Manchester.)
Anyway, despite all the jazz, pizzazz, and razzamatazz of his back-to-back-FIFA-World-Player-of-the-Year-winning extended peak, Ronaldinho was far from a circus act – well, he was a circus act, but one who also happened to win games at the highest level. As I say, end product. Even had he not won matches, you’d still (to prove yourself sane) have to acknowledge him as a unique talent, an exemplar of what that most joyous of thinkers, Spinoza, considered the whole point of being human: increasing the capacity of what a body can do, augmenting its powers (potentia), and thus the affects it is capable of transmitting. Never seen the elástico before, have you? You didn’t think you’d see that on a football field, did you? Buzz, innit? Exactly.
Yet for all the bewitching skill, this can be no crude hagiography. As students of Shakespearian (or indeed Greek) drama, not to mention the Coen brothers, know only too well, all heroes have their tragic flaws. Ronaldinho’s seems to have been that he was a fundamentally indolent and/or self-indulgent man. And much like that other inveterate idler, Jeffrey Lebowski (a.k.a. The Dude), on this score he was, at Barça under Rijkaard, the man for his time and place. He fit right in there… You see, laid-back Frank started to give him (or not punish him for taking) every other day off to attend salsa classes in an attempt to get in the boxes of foxes – much like most of the other unattached men in Western Europe, then – until such latitudinarianism and half-arsedness began to grate with the somewhat more intense Samuel Eto’o, whereupon he was duly packed off to Berlusconi’s vintage footballer Valhalla in Meeeeelan.
He was far from a spent force at this stage. Even so, it is undeniably a shame that Ronaldinho’s handlers failed to consult the controversial 1988 episode of Family Fortunes in which the 100 people surveyed were asked to “name something beginning with ‘F’ for which the Italians have shown an aptitude.” For, coming in above “football”, “fashion” and “fascism”, was “food” (the answer winning a weekend at a health spa, ironically), a fact that, combined with the obvious signs that their charge was something of an incipient epicurean, might have seen them search out a foodie backwater as a place of employment. Dagestan, maybe. Instead, Ronaldinho – evidently giving a better workout to his loyalty card at the gelateria once frequented by Ronaldo than he was to himself, his former thrust now confined to the bedroom and dancefloor – just Chris Waddled around for a while, contributing to the general air of superannuated decline at the rossoneri, before returning to Flamengo still a comparatively young man.
Recently recalled to Brazil’s colours, only time will tell whether the dying of the light will provoke some rage, some discipline, and an unlikely revival in the late autumn of his career. But even if it doesn’t, the frightening swerves from the buck-toothed boy who debuted for Luxemburgo have provided more than enough jogo bonito for one lifetime. How apt that the man who has given us these delights and highlights came from a city called Porto Alegre (‘Happy Harbour’).
Ronaldinho – they will one day recall – was so good he made you laugh.
* This is a slightly modified (i.e. error-free) version of the original article, which appeared first on The FCF.