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Courtesy of Premsa FC Barcelona
RonaldinhoImage courtesy of the departament de premsa FC Barcelona
He’s not as handsome as David Beckham nor does he sport as many tattoos. He probably sells as many club shirts as the Englishman but it’s not what defines him. Nor does he make the headlines in international gossip mags. But, Barcelona F.C.’s Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, known to fans as Ronaldinho Gaúcho, is pure marketing gold, simply because he’s the best.
Recently crowned by football's highest body, FIFA, as the world’s best player, the 25-year-old Brazilian from Porto Alegre now has the world in his hands—and at his feet. Closer to home, his on-field vision and guile have been largely responsible for lifting Barcelona to a commanding lead at the top of La Liga and well placed for the first time in many seasons to get a good crack at European glory this year.
Ronaldinho is an idol to his fans in Barcelona and the rest of the world, first and foremost because he lets his football do all the talking. His speed, creativity and dexterity make him that most special of footballer— someone who is capable of doing anything with the ball every time it comes his way. And, when it comes his way, there is a sense of dramatically rising expectation amongst spectators. Ronaldinho is a crowd pleaser, someone who gets people to come to the game because he’s a pleasure to watch play.
Then there’s that smile. The infectious grin, uncovering those buckteeth, that he wears throughout the game. No matter that he misses a goal, makes a wrong pass or gets fouled by an opponent, Ronaldinho smiles it all away. And, throughout his interview with Metropolitan he smiled and laughed most of the way too. He’s got a keen sense of humour has the man. It’s a generosity of spirit that’s rare in a game so fuelled by money and competitiveness. But, it’s that spirit that’s won Ronaldinho over to the Barcelona flock.
“I play for my team and for the love I have for football. I try to be as happy as I can. I have the luck to be doing what I love and have the opportunity to make 100,000 people happy too. There is nothing better.”
Today Barcelona fans can consider themselves lucky that they count Ronaldinho as one of theirs. Because it was far from meant-to-be. In mid-2003, Barça president Joan Laporta won the club’s elections on the basis that he would bring David Beckham to Barça. That didn’t happen, and in the meantime, Ronaldinho, who was anxious to move on from French club Paris St. Germain, had made it his clear intention that playing for Manchester United was his dream. A handshake promise to the Red Devils seemed to have sealed it. At the time, his manager, mentor and brother Roberto Assis made declarations that Ronaldinho would not become a Barça player. Real Madrid looked like a stronger possibility. Barça then upped the ante and forked out a phenomenal €43.7 million for the Brazilian. Ronaldinho was Barça’s.
Now that he’s here, Ronaldinho seems to have fulfilled Laporta’s instincts that coming from a city like Porto Alegre in Brazil, he’d be more at home in a city like Barcelona than Manchester. “Barcelona is a beautiful city,” Ronaldinho said, matter-of-factly. “The people are similar to the people in Brazil, a little different from Parisians. Paris is gorgeous, I loved living there. Here it’s more similar to Brazil, Paris is more distinct from Porto Alegre but here things are closer in feel to Porto Alegre so my adaption in Barcelona was easier.”
It has helped, too, that in the off-season, Barça made some astute signings of a string of fellow Brazilians— Sylvino, Edmilson, Belleti and the Portuguese-speaking Deco. And, there’s a precedent—fellow Brazilians like Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldo have all enjoyed highly successful seasons at Barça over the past two decades.
Does Ronaldinho speak in Portuguese to his Brazilian and Portuguese comrades? “It’s very difficult to speak to them in Spanish. If others are in our company, we look up at each other and try to speak in Spanish and if we slip into Portuguese, we then apologise for it and start again in Spanish.”
And his Catalan? “Mmmmmm (laughs). A little complicated. I can understand it very well but it’s harder to speak it. I have the option to go to classes but I learnt French and Spanish in the street, making mistakes along the way and learning from them. I don’t really like being in a classroom but I want to learn Catalan well.” His Spanish though is excellent. “How could it not be after all the mistakes that I’ve made?”
Like many poorer Brazilian boys, football was a way out for Ronaldinho. And family was always paramount. Here, he lives with his sister and three cousins. His mother still lives in his hometown of Porto Alegre but is a regular visitor to Barcelona and Spain. The death of his father when Ronaldinho was eight meant that it was his older brother Roberto who became his mentor.
Being the world’s best professional footballer brings a lot of money but also means some huge sacrifices. Like a strict daily routine and the attention he receives from so many people. Does he mind the inconvenience of being so adored? “No, I’m living the dream I’ve had since I was a young boy. I don’t stop doing things that I want to do but I’m conscious of the fact that there will always be people wanting autographs and taking photos.”
So does Ronaldinho superstar have a girlfriend? “La pelota,” he laughed out loud, then tilted his head with a hint of a cheeky grin that could have been, possibly, a coy yes. But, who knows?
Indeed, the same question could be asked of his future with Barça. He has recently made declarations that he’s keen to continue playing with Barcelona but wouldn’t count out the possibility of moving to another club in the future.
So where does he stand? “I’m very happy here,” he said, in an uncharacteristically serious voice. “I can say now that I’m certain that I chose well. I had an opportunity to join Manchester and three other clubs but I decided to come here so I could have friends who were working in the club. I wanted to continue in the line of Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldo who’ve played here and now that I’m here, I’m very happy and hope to stay for a long time.”
I can’t help but think that there’s an unconvincing tone to his voice but then again highly-paid footballers these days are somewhat coached to hedge their bets in the lucrative transfer market.
For the moment, at least, the dazzling snake-like shimmies, the mesmerising step-over, the spectacular free kicks, the overhead kicks and the defence-splitting passes remain the property of Barça. Fans will be happy enough that the ‘feo simpatico’ as he calls himself, has decided, for now, to call Catalunya home.