La Liga Lowdown
A Unique Rhythm: The Night Ronaldinho Seduced The Bernabéu
Written by Alan Feehely
“Samba, like many other Afro-Latin music forms, propels and ignites the lower body - the hips, the butt, the pelvis - by letting the downbeat float,” David Byrne, a respected voice on Brazilian music, wrote. “By de-emphasising the first beat of each measure a rhythm becomes more sensual and ethereal - one floats outside the time and space of earthly existence. Repetition creates a tireless, communal otherworld, a floating ethereal cycle that is both rooted in biological rhythms and in the beyond or the meta-biological.
“Any activation of the hips-sex-butt-pelvis relates to the source of all life, the womb. This music is definitely a respectful prayer in honour of the sweet, the feminine, the great mother - the sensuous life-giving aspects of ourselves and our lives - and to the earth, the mother of us all. To shake your rump is to be environmentally aware.”
Ronaldinho knew how to shake his. He played football like a man environmentally aware, without effort or struggle, connected to the earth. He played football to the rhythm of samba and funk from the favela, content to let the downbeat float and live on the periphery of games until his moment arose. Ronaldinho could create a place outside the time and space of earthly existence and build an almost otherworldly connection with spectators, never more so than on a November evening in Madrid back in 2005.
Barcelona were on enemy ground, locking horns with Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. They went into the game second in LaLiga, a point ahead of Madrid but three behind Osasuna. They were a different proposition to Pep Guardiola’s juggernauts. Víctor Valdés started in goal, with a back four ahead of him consisting of Oleguer, Carles Puyol, Edmílson and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Rafael Márquez started as the sole pivot, with Xavi and Deco on either side of him. Samuel Eto’o led the line, flanked by Lionel Messi on the right and Ronaldinho on the left.
Real Madrid were between two eras, aged from the Champions League run of victories in the late 1990s and early 2000s but not yet ready to welcome Cristiano Ronaldo into the fold. Iker Casillas started between the posts, with Sergio Ramos and Iván Helguera at centre-back and Míchel Salgado and Roberto Carlos as the full-backs. Pablo García, David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane made up the midfield three, with Ronaldo Nazário up front, Raúl inside-right and Robinho inside-left.
The game was a world away from the violent battles between the two when Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho were in opposite dugouts. There was evident mutual admiration and respect shared between the players, the pace was a touch slower and the pressing that little less intense, more space gifted to the individual talents to weave their magic. Despite the plethora of ability on the pitch, there was no doubt who was the man all eyes were on. Ronaldinho was in the form of his life at Barcelona, having joined from Paris Saint-Germain two years earlier.
Ronaldinho shone sporadically in Paris but was ultimately distracted by off-field activity. He still enjoyed the good life in Barcelona, but the presence of better players and a coach he trusted in Frank Rijkaard helped him remain focused enough to momentarily live in balance and get the best out of his ability. “It was the right choice,” Ronaldinho said of joining Barcelona ahead of Manchester United, who had been close to landing him. “Brazilians have always loved Barcelona. We have a history there. Off the pitch it’s like nowhere else in Europe, so we’re always happy playing there. I miss Barcelona a lot.”
The best Barcelona teams have been built in La Masia but led by a foreign star. This was the case with László Kubala, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Rivaldo, Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho. The Brazilian was their rainmaker, the man who made things happen. Culturally, he was the architect of the early days of the Joan Laporta era, helping Barcelona regain their self-respect after a number of years of domination at the hands of Los Blancos. What’s more, he did it with a big smile and a cheeky wink. “Ronaldinho was responsible for the change at Barcelona,” Messi said. “It was a bad time and the change that came about with his arrival was amazing.” Xavi agreed. “He changed our history,” he said.
Ronaldinho wasn’t a relentless machine, like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. He was imperfect, far from pristine, a genius as opposed to a god. This is perhaps underlined by his first few touches that November night - he turns Salgado only for the ball to spin out of play, then lets a simple pass run under his foot before smiling by way of apology. He doesn’t berate himself when he made a mistake. Playing football just to play it.
He actually isn’t involved all that much in the opening stages. Messi is on the ball a lot, playing with a humility unimaginable now. The Argentine comes inside off the right early only for Eto’o to take the ball of his toe. Then, he lifts the ball over Ramos only for the Andalusian, in a precursor to their many future battles, to violently body-check him. The Blaugrana front three is beautifully balanced - Messi full of enthusiasm and creative ambition, Eto’o prowling the final third like a hungry lion, eyes full of fire, Ronaldinho patient out left, confident in his magic, letting the downbeat float. Little by little, he becomes more and more involved. He steps in off the right, firing a high ball into Eto’o whose effort flies right wide. The Cameroonian gets his goal in the 15th minute, taking the ball off Messi again before toe-poking past Casillas.
The quality of players on show is incredible. David Beckham is almost considered more celebrity than footballer these days, but he could play. He used to assume as much creative responsibility as Zinedine Zidane, picking out inch-perfect passes that were sometimes perhaps a little indulgent. At United he had Roy Keane in his ear, urging him to play the right pass ahead of the sexy one. He didn’t have that at Real Madrid - Los Galácticos were very much a collection of individuals rather than a cohesive unit.
That doesn’t take away from individual players. Sergio Ramos, despite his youth at this point, has all the makings of a top-class centre-back. Ronaldinho might give him a bit of a run-around later on, but that is as much as down to Salgado’s fallibility as his. When defending in front of him, the Andalusian is imperious. Aggressive, quick to intercept attacks, fast off the ground. Puyol, at the other end of the pitch, similarly stands out. Any time one of the midfield players plays a loose pass backwards, he’s live to the danger and quick to step up. Márquez is also a pivotal figure in this team, underrated for sure.
Ronaldinho and Eto’o start to link up more, trying one-twos. Ronaldinho plays a no-look pass - a trademark he developed after watching one of his idols, Magic Johnson, do it in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers - to Messi, clearly beginning to find his frequency. This Barcelona is more direct than Guardiola’s team, favouring quick balls into the channels rather than slow build-up. Xavi stands out as a top-class footballer, but he’s not on the ball nearly enough to showcase his full range of abilities.
Xavi begins to get on the ball more as the game progresses, however, alongside Deco. He is instrumental in a move that sees him whittle the ball to Eto’o, who in turn tees Ronaldinho up for an unsuccessful effort on goal. Ronaldinho then turns Salgado to fashion a chance for Messi that comes to nothing, before repeating the trick moments later. Ronaldinho links well with Gio down the left, and they combine beautifully to set Eto’o up for an opportunity he’d eventually sky. On the right, Messi is causing problems for Roberto Carlos and Zidane, with both having to foul him to stop him. Salgado picks up a booking for petulantly kicking Ronaldinho during a throw-in.
Then, it happened. Salgado fired a weak cross into the box, easily cleared by Márquez. Then came Beckham with another ball in, but once again the Mexican was able to intercept. This time, his clearance found Deco, who switched play to the left flank to find Ronaldinho and kick-off a counter. What followed was majestic.
“Sub-atomic particle physics shows us that matter is nothing but interlocking rhythms and energies,” Byrne wrote. “There is a common respect for the sanctity of the groove.” Byrne spoke of the Orishas, Yoruba gods beloved in parts of Brazil that managed to embody three levels of existence at once - a force of nature, like wind and lightning, a person who’s lived on this earth and a psychological archetype, whether that be a trickster, a strong woman or a warrior. They were gods who exhibited “the direct link between the ecstatic release of rhythmically based popular songs and the spirituality that is their roots.” Ronaldinho was in that space, moving with feminine beauty and masculine aggression, giving birth to ecstatic release.
He took the ball from Deco and broke, goading Ramos like a matador would a bull before effortlessly skipping past him, leaving him for dead, then stepping inside and finishing with ruthless precision, a cold-blooded move laden with tranquillity. Ronaldinho was in this moment a force of nature overcoming his human fallibility to engender this mythical, quasi-religious link between rhythm and spirituality.
Real Madrid responded. Guti took to the field and began to combine well with Zidane and Beckham, the former feeding Ronaldo to score in a smart move only for the linesman to rule it offside. Robinho arrowed a dangerous ball across goal. Andrés Iniesta came on for Messi with the idea of retaining more of the ball and protecting the two-goal advantage. Loose marking enabled Salgado a clean shot at goal, only for Valdés to come to the rescue.
Ronaldinho, however, doesn’t do conservative. This time it was Julio Baptista, a second-half substitute, who lost the ball to enable Deco to again spring a counter by spraying a pass wide left to Ronaldinho. The Brazilian again beat Ramos with ease before slotting home with equal grace, peeling away with a wide smile. Casillas just shook his head ruefully, while a remarkable percentage of the home crowd actually took to their feet to applaud what they knew wasn’t football but a work of sublime art.
Ronaldinho changed the game with two moments of sheer brilliance. He’s often categorised as a trickster, but what’s underrated is his physicality, his strength and his speed. He didn’t touch the ball without looking forward with the intent of instigating mayhem. Disregarding mistakes, every time he received the ball it was like Pablo Picasso taking to a blank canvas.
“He transmits a lot of joy and pleasure playing the game,” Rijkaard said of his talisman. “He has individual skills that are of such a high level that everyone in the world adores him. Eiður Guðjohnsen, a team-mate of Ronaldinho at Barcelona, was similarly effusive in his praise. “When you play with him and see what he does with a ball, nothing surprises me anymore,” he said. “One of these days, he’ll make the ball talk.”
The Brazilian hit his peak at Barcelona. From 2004 to 2006 he was unplayable, winning two World Player of the Year awards as well as the Ballon d’Or. He finished third in the LaLiga goalscoring charts in 2006 with 17, as well as hitting more assists than anyone with 14. Barcelona went on to retain the LaLiga title after beating Real Madrid, as well as beating Arsenal in Paris to win the Champions League. Calling a player with these accolades, not to mention his World Cup victory with Brazil in 2002, an underachiever feels ridiculous, but that was the gravity of the man’s talent.
But to compare the Ronaldinho of today with this Ronaldinho is a depressing exercise. The man who tore Real Madrid asunder was built like a jaguar. All coiled power, lithe, ingenious, daring, in total control of his body, far from the sad, bloated figure of today. Ronaldinho’s time with Barcelona was a rare moment of synthesis, where his off-pitch galivanting didn’t impinge upon what he did when he crossed the white line, maybe even enhancing and complementing it. Ronaldinho was the first man to earn a standing ovation at their greatest rivals since Maradona, but Tostão, an astute observer of Brazilian football, sees a clear difference in his character compared to the Argentine or Pelé. “Ronaldinho lacks an important characteristic of Maradona and Pelé,” he wrote. “Aggression.” They, he wrote, “transformed themselves in adversity. They became possessed, and furious.”
Ronaldinho never did. Football was a game to him, never his north star. He wasn’t someone with fire in his eyes or a ruthless drive to succeed. He could produce moments of almost spiritual connection on a football pitch, but they came in his rhythm. He ultimately lacked the will to maintain a physical condition that allowed him to continue playing at the highest level as his body began to age.
There was also the disappointment of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He went into the tournament as part of a Brazilian national team that won the competition back in 2002 and was their star man after a career-best season in Catalonia. The Seleção were knocked out in the quarter-final, however, and his reaction to this failure has defined his legacy. “After Pelé’s disappointment in the 1966 World Cup, he fought like a lion to get himself in good shape for 1970,” South American football expert Tim Vickery wrote. “Ronaldinho took a different path - one that led to the nightclub rather than the training ground. There’s clearly more to Ronaldinho than meets the eye. In that, he perhaps stands as a symbol of his nation. Brazil sells an image of shallow happiness, which sometimes masks an inner melancholy. The very point of Carnaval, after all, is to provide temporary relief from the pressures and restrictions of everyday life. And in the case of Ronaldinho, behind the goofy grin lies an enigmatic man-child.
Football loves a caricature, and Ronaldinho was a man easier to paint than most. For many with malicious intent, he’s an example of the fecklessness of South American talent. In reality, the truth of the matter is that Ronaldinho was never a footballer. He was a man who loved to play football, someone who, for the blink of an eye, was utterly peerless. It’s wrong to project hopes and dreams on people, although it’s human nature to mourn lost potential. But if you watch back that game from November 2005, you won’t be able to stop a smile from breaking out across your face and a sense of awe to fill the room. That’s what Ronaldinho does to you.
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