By Guillem Balague
When Ronaldinho traveled to Barcelona on 21 July 2003 to complete the process of signing with the famous Catalan club from Paris Saint-Germain FC, hundreds of supporters came to greet him at the airport. It was as good a sign as any that FC Barcelona were a team in search of a hero.
And when he picked up the ball in his own half in a bizarre midnight game against Sevilla FC at the Camp Nou, left four defenders for dead and scored with a shot from 30 metres which rattled in off the crossbar, Barça's love affair with Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, to give him his full name, was consummated.
The Brazilian scored 22 goals last season to further add to the feel-good factor engendered by the arrival of club president Joan Laporta and his young, ambitious, fan-friendly regime. More than that, he has won everybody over with the innocent way he exudes happiness in his football.
"I am a happy player," is how the 24-year-old describes himself. The effect is contagious and the rest of the squad seem to have been infected by his joie de vivre, rediscovering the pleasure of playing. His ritual of hugging everybody before a match has become one of the club's healthiest traditions.
"When I touch them before a match, I transmit them energy," he said. This may sound like psychobabble but as Sebastia Serrano, lecturer of General Linguistics at the University of Barcelona, said: "Those hugs on the pitch create a space of non-verbal communication that describes a spiritual leadership."
In a season in which Real Madrid CF boasted David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Luís Figo and Raúl González, Ronaldinho became the best player in Spain. He arrived at the Camp Nou as a proven playmaker, but has now added goalscoring to his CV - he was Barcelona's top marksman last season.
"I think I am mostly a passer and I have made a few assists, but I have scored more than before," he said. "I am happy with that change. I thought things were going to change much slower, little by little, but it has been the other way round."
"The football played in Spain suits my characteristics," he added. "Before arriving, I always watched Spanish matches on television. They play very similar to Brazilians. The climate, the culture and the language are all very close, too. All that helped me to take the decision to sign for Barcelona."
Having settled in Spain, Ronaldinho's next target is to shine in the UEFA Champions League as Barça return to the competition after a two-year absence. And certainly, it seems that the player has the ambition to succeed. "I am going to work very seriously to take the name of Barcelona as far as possible," he said. "I have started something here and I plan to continue it."
He may not be beautiful - as he put it himself "I am ugly but I have charm" - but with a trophy haul that already includes the Copa America and a FIFA World Cup winners medal, Barça's hero looks like he is ready to take his brilliance on to a whole new level in 2004/05.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the current edition of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League. Click here to subscribe.
©UEFA.com 1998-2014. All rights reserved.