Ronaldinho played football with a wide, buck-toothed grin, the world’s most infectious smile.
It was also the game’s deadliest.
If you were the opposition, that smile meant bad news. Ronaldinho had scored an incredible goal, or elastico-ed a defender of yours onto the ground. Ronaldinho had scooped the ball over one of your team-mates, then flicked it back over his head, and then again.
He played with a smile because he embodied a simple philosophy. Express yourself. Do what you love. Enjoy doing it. He also smiled because he knew, with all his tricks and flicks, he wasn’t just beating you. He was embarrassing you, and he was loving it.
Ronaldinho also loved to dance. Juke one way, jerk another, twist his hips, then his feet. Watch his famous goal against Chelsea, the way he contorts his body, and you can just about imagine the figure of someone at a nightclub, trying out a new move. No? Too far-fetched? Well, then, just see some of his goal celebrations.
This was Ronaldinho. Smiling, giggling, dancing. Childlike innocence meets spirit of samba.
There’s no “Ronaldinho and…”. There’s no one to compare him with. At his best, he had no rival. He was, for that short time, better than any footballer we’ve seen.
He was a rising star as his compatriot Ronaldo hit his peak, forming the “Three Rs” with Rivaldo to lead Brazil to glory at the 2002 World Cup – where he provided his first global display of jaw-dropping brilliance, the free-kick against England that left goalkeeper David Seaman stunned.
After that, the stage was Ronaldinho’s.
Ronaldinho at Barcelona was a marketer’s dream. Arriving in a team that had finished sixth the previous season, Ronaldinho rejuvenated the club. His first goal: dribbling from the halfway line, beating two Sevilla players, then crashing a thunderous shot in off the crossbar, leaving his manager, Frank Rijkaard, with hands on head in disbelief.
He finished that campaign winning his first FIFA World Player of the Year award. The next season, in 2004-05, he’d go one better, winning it again while also collecting the Ballon d’Or, and leading Barcelona to their first league title in six years. 12 months later and they were champions of Europe, Ronaldinho finishing as the Champions League‘s second-highest goalscorer and joint-top assist provider for the season.
Along the way, Ronaldinho reminded Real Madrid exactly what they’d passed up. In 2005, Barcelona travelled to Madrid, to take on Ronaldo, Zidane, and, of course, Beckham. They humiliated Madrid. By the end, the Santiago Bernabeu was on its feet, giving an ovation to their bitterest rival’s best player while their own team suffered a 3-0 loss.
Not marketable enough?
As if proving a point, a couple months earlier, Nike made Ronaldinho the first YouTube star. All it took was handing him a pair of white-and-gold boots and a football.
Ronaldinho laces up, grabs the ball, and sets off. What followed was a jaw-dropping display of skill. Keepy-ups while walking to the top of the box. Then a crossbar challenge. On the volley. He hit the bar four times, pausing to do more keepy-ups and balancing the ball on his head. Until Ronaldinho decided he wanted to dribble, from the moment he started juggling, through the walking and the crossbar challenge and the balancing, the ball never touched the ground.
Beckham couldn’t have done that.
At a time when no one really knew what YouTube was, Nike and Ronaldinho’s video became the first to hit one million views.
That ad, that Bernabeu ovation, the Champions League trophy, was the beginning of the end. The 2006 World Cup saw Ronaldinho’s first big disappointment, as a tournament he was supposed to dominate got away from him. Real Madrid wrestled back the La Liga title the following May. A year later, having passed the baton to Messi, Ronaldinho and Barcelona parted ways.
He was never the same again.
AC Milan caught glimpses of his best, enough to be forever revered by Milan fans. When he returned to Brazil, there were still a few sparks of genius. Flamengo saw his epic duel with Neymar, when Ronaldinho brought his side back from 3-0 down at Neymar’s Santos for a 5-4 win. At Atletico Mineiro he fulfilled a lifelong dream, winning the Copa Libertadores. South America’s Champions League equivalent – and arguably harder to win – had been the trophy Ronaldinho dreamed of holding as a child.
He played football in Mexico, futsal in India. All the while, grinning, dancing, always making it look like having a ball at your feet was the best way to live.
We can wonder at the “what ifs”. If he’d partied less in Paris and Barcelona. If he’d trained harder. If he’d stayed at Barcelona when Pep Guardiola arrived. If he’d used the disappointment of the 2006 World Cup as fuel for 2010 (he didn’t even make Brazil’s squad). Would we be talking about him as the greatest ever?
But we were talking about him as the greatest ever, if only for a brief while. In that period, what Ronaldinho did changed football. That wizardry on the ball. Those magical, dancing feet. That joyful samba spirit. That smile.
Joga Bonito. The beautiful game. That was Nike Football’s tagline, and they found a glorious way to showcase it. Ronaldinho as a child, floating past defenders, scoring outrageous goals, all with that famous grin. Ronaldinho as an adult, doing exactly the same.
Because he never did grow up. That’s why we loved him. He was always the child in love with football. Playing with wide-eyed, frenzied glee. As if the only thing worth doing is playing football.
And it’s only worth doing if you do it with a big, deadly smile.
Norwich defender Timm Klose has admitted he fouled Willian in a decision which ignited Video Assistant Referee controversy as Chelsea were denied a penalty.
Chelsea survived a scare on Wednesday night to advance in the FA Cup, prevailing 5-3 on penalties after a chaotic replay at Stamford Bridge.
Former England captain Alan Shearer, working as a pundit for the BBC, criticised the decision of match referee Graham Scott not to consult VAR Mike Jones over Klose’s challenge on Willian early in the first period of extra time. Shearer described VAR as a “shambles”.
Klose afterwards conceded it should have been a penalty, before admonishing Chelsea’s players for diving. Pedro and Alvaro Morata were both sent off for two bookable offences, with both players’ first yellow cards coming for diving.
Credit to the ref for making two big calls on Pedro / Morata dives. Both were dives.
— Mark Ogden (@MarkOgden_) January 17, 2018
Klose told talkSPORT: “I think the first one on Willian is a pen. I’m brutally honest there. I think I caught him.
“On the pitch I was not sure because it happened so fast. When I saw it again afterwards I was like ‘ooh, that’s quite close’. I guess you can give it.
“The second one was a dive, from then on they pushed it too hard, went down a little bit too easily.
“Of course VAR would help the referee sometimes in some situations, but I’m not a big fan of it. Football is all about these situations.
“We all remember (Diego) Maradona heading the ball with his hand (against England in 1986) or Frank Lampard against Germany (at the 2010 World Cup).
“Those are things in football you need, it puts emotions on, you can write about it, the TV stations have something to talk about. I don’t know if I like it.”
Willian had no doubts it should have been a spot-kick – otherwise he says he would have scored.
The Brazil playmaker told Chelsea TV: “For me it was a penalty, 100 per cent. It was a little touch, but it was enough for me to go down. If not I’m going to score the goal.”
Pedro and Morata will now be suspended for Chelsea’s Premier League trip to Brighton on Saturday, so Michy Batshuayi may continue up front.
Everyone panicking about #VAR last night in #CHEvNOR game!
I thought they got it spot in with every decision!!👏🏻👏🏻
Willian “already” on way down before contact!
Morata “throwing” himself to floor!
Pedro……well didn’t need VAR for that 🤣🤦🏼♂️
— Dean Ashton (@Dean36ashton10) January 18, 2018
Batshuayi struggled to convince despite his second-half strike ending Chelsea’s wait of over five hours for a goal.
Goalkeeper Willy Caballero saved from Nelson Oliveira to put Chelsea in control of the shootout and the Blues netted all five of their spot-kicks.
Despite believing Chelsea were denied a penalty in the Willian incident, Caballero backed VAR and believes the system will only improve with time.
He told the London Evening Standard: “There was a little touch. If it was a penalty or even if it wasn’t, it wasn’t a yellow card.
“But we have only used VAR for a few games so everybody will improve – referees, players, supporters and the media.
“It will need time. With a run of games it will improve because it is a very good instrument.
“It is good for the game and for us.”
Caballero also defended the actions of Pedro and Morata.
“In this situation, in a fraction of seconds, sometimes they are very close to scoring. I’m not sure if they dived,” he added.
“I don’t know if using VAR would have led to a correction.”
Former England captain Alan Shearer labelled VAR as a “shambles” in his role as pundit for the BBC after referee Graham Scott chose not to consult colleague Mike Jones over a penalty claim during extra-time of Chelsea‘s FA Cup third-round replay against Norwich.
Defender Timm Klose has since admitted he had fouled Willian as the Brazilian weaved into the box, before going over and then being cautioned for diving by Scott.
Chelsea eventually prevailed 5-3 on penalties to set up a fourth-round tie with Newcastle, after Jamal Lewis’ late header had cancelled out Michy Batshuayi’s opener in the 55th minute.
The home side finished with nine men following red cards for Pedro and Alvaro Morata, who was shown a second yellow by Scott for protesting at the referee’s decision not to award a penalty when he took a tumble under a challenge from Christoph Zimmermann.
The fall-out from the VAR controversy at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night followed on after the system had been used 24 hours earlier to award a goal for the first time in Leicester’s replay against Fleetwood.
Kelechi Iheanacho’s second effort on 77 minutes had initially been disallowed for offside, a decision which was overturned following review to the VAR by referee Jonathan Moss as the Foxes won 2-0 on Tuesday night.
Frenchman Wenger has long been an advocate of video technology, but accepts there is still work to be done on all sides as to just how it is implemented successfully.
“What you want is to improve the system that exists at the moment and we will contribute to improve it,” said Wenger, who is the longest serving manager in English football.
“There are some hiccups at the start of the functioning certainly and we need to clear up the way it works, yes I agree.
“Is that enough to renounce [the current system]? I would say no, I am still a fervent supporter of it and I believe we have to move forward with it and improve the system certainly, but we have to go with it.
“You cannot imagine that in the future it will not be used. We will have to find the proper way to do it, but it has to go that way.”