A letter sent in this week to Lance, Brazil's sports daily, sums up the local response to the choice of Ronaldinho Gaucho as European footplayer of the year. "When Ronaldinho takes the field it makes people forget the problems our country is facing. A star with [FC] Barcelona and the national team, he makes us proud of being Brazilian."
If you wanted to computer generate a player to represent all that is good in Brazilian football you could hardly do better than Ronaldinho. With his quick mind, quicker feet, a huge range of tricks and captivating pleasure in his own talent, the goofy 25-year-old is a worthy representative of his country's glorious tradition. He was instantly recognised as such. As soon as he burst on the scene in 1999 former star striker Careca was singing his praises. He argued the other Ronaldo was "nothing more than a good player, with limitations. He only really plays well when completely fit. This new Ronaldinho is different. He's got great ability and strength of personality. He's the genuine article."
Zizinho, the outstanding player of the 1950 FIFA World Cup, said "Ronaldinho has the highest IQ in Brazilian football", and Zico said he would give the youngster his old No10 shirt in the national team without a second's hesitation. And Ronaldinho had only started. I interviewed him around this time, and asked him about his idols. "As an adolescent I caught the rise of Ronaldo and Rivaldo, two players I greatly admire," he replied. "And at the age of eight I remember watching the Seoul Olympics, when Romário scored a lot of goals. Then, when I was kicking a ball about I would pretend to be Romário."
The striking similarity between the three players he mentioned is that all had worn the shirt of FC Barcelona. It is hardly surprising then, that when the Catalan giants moved in to sign him from Paris Saint-Germain FC other interested clubs, such as Manchester United FC, could forget about it. There was only one place he was heading. Ronaldinho is an early example of a trend which is now becoming commonplace in Brazil, that of a kid who grew up watching his idols and compatriots turning out for European clubs, and as a result wanted to follow their example. Brazil is full of youngsters who would once have dreamed of playing only for Flamengo RJ or SC Corinthians, but who nowadays also have room in their heart and in their ambitions for Real Madrid CF and Barcelona.
A large part of the appeal of moving abroad is, of course, financial. Even eight-year-olds in Brazil hope to use their skill on the football field to buy a big car or a house for their mothers. But the pull of Europe has become more than that. These days it means going where all the great players are. Indeed, it has now become impossible to prove you are one of the greats without crossing the Atlantic. This is clear in Ronaldinho's case. By moving to Barcelona he was consciously giving himself an opportunity to place himself in the same category as Romário, Ronaldo and Rivaldo.
Reality and fantasy
Or even surpass them. Most would see him as well on the way. Some say he is already there. Former great Tostão, Brazil's most lucid football writer, believes: "Ronaldinho is already at the same level as a handful of superstars, like [Diego] Maradona, Garrincha and [Alfredo] Di Stefano, and only Pelé is above him. After watching him, the game seems charmless when he is not playing. Even the most beautiful moves come across as nothing special, as if they had been mass produced, whereas
Ronaldinho's moves are personal, unique, surprising, limitless, in a mixture of reality and fantasy like the dreams and deliriums of Gaudi, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Salvador Dali."
It could be that, unusually, patriotism has got the better of Tostão this time. Maradona and Di Stefano maintained an exceptional level of play for over a decade. Ronaldinho still has plenty to do to match them. An outstanding World Cup in Germany would clearly help. Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is counting on it. But he is concerned by the possible effects of burn out at the end of the European season. "We saw an example of this in 2002," he recalls. "France arrived with some of their most important players carrying injuries. I hope that Ronaldinho gets through the season in one piece." As do all his countrymen. So far Ronaldinho has not quite shown his Barcelona form for Brazil. A nation is waiting. If he can deal successfully with the pressures next year will bring then there can be no doubting Ronaldinho's place in the pantheon.
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