Ronaldinho was an enabler.
Above all the things that we remember this incendiary footballer for, who announced his official retirement from the game that he brought incalculable joy, it will be this — his qualities as an enabler.
He made so much possible, and ultimately asked so little. He wanted our indulgence, our patience, our glee. In return, the player who is one of the most important figures in FC Barcelona history, Ronaldinho just wanted to play.
Ronaldinho was supposed to be David Beckham, one of the promises made by an ambitious Joan Laporta as he sought power in the FC Barcelona structure. Real Madrid deemed him too unattractive to be a galactico. As with the Chicago Bulls draft pick that was supposed to be Sam Bowie and ended up being Michael Jordan, Barça transferred Ronaldinho from Paris St.-Germain, not the player they wanted but the player they settled for.
At that time, Barça was playing a different kind of football. Louis Van Gaal was coach. The team ended that season sixth in Liga, and was ousted early in European competition. Patrick Kluivert was the star and top scorer, Luis Enrique captain of a squad that included the likes of Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta. Ronaldinho came to the club and had an immediate effect, one that we can only see now, in the clarity of hindsight. He made football a game again, in a way that no player did before and no player has since.
Football talks about a great many “nexts,” but there is never a “next Ronaldinho.” In the debate about Messi vs Ronaldo, and throwing in Right Ronaldo, Ronaldinho was more talented — even if nowhere near any of them statistically — than any of them. He made the impossible seem normal, made the improbable just another day’s work. What other player could destroy Real Madrid in their house and receive a standing ovation in the wake of his savagery? That was Ronaldinho, a player who was impossible to dislike. He would eviscerate a defender and in the next second, be laughing with his arm around that player’s shoulders as they shared a moment. Because how can you be mad at someone for whom everything contains such joy? It was never personal with Ronaldinho. Joy and beauty were his muses, teammates and opposition the agents to realizing it all.
Today, Neymar does some of the same tricks, but there is a butcher’s hardness to his eyes. He often does them because there is no other option, but he often does them to send a message. The foundation is one of cruelty. Messi is an assassin. He loves the game and plays it with unfettered joy, but his visage is that of an accountant, a straight-line path of destruction that isn’t interested in anything except winning.
Ronaldinho was different. As a player, he didn’t really have a position as Frank Rijkaard liberated him. Midfield, forward, winger, it didn’t matter. His powerful base — hips, butt and thighs — enabled him to have the power and ball control of a midfielder. He had the acceleration and overall pace of a forward and the flair of a showman. His smile was as perpetual as the destruction he left in his wake. Sometimes he would shrug off a tackle like a colossus rolling through mere mortals. Other times he would throw an array of tricks at the defender, who had just set his feet in anticipation of a feat of strength. Other times he just ran past them like yet another obstacle to be surmounted.
Football is a game. In the massive millions and desperation of the modern iteration of this sport, we forget that it is a contest that has its roots in a game, a contest of sport. Ronaldinho captured the attention of the world by making football a game, while playing that game better and differently than anyone had seen.
He came at a time when football was just sprouting global wings on the club level, as teams such as Barça became real for people outside of Spain, via satellite and cable broadcasts. Small, third-party broadcasters such as GolTV brought the exploits of him and other stars to devoted U.S. audiences who squinted at oft-grainy images in the quest for their fix. Ronaldinho lit up that world like a rocket, the exact right player for the exact right time. He enabled Laporta, enabled Rijkaard, enabled countless goal scorers. He enabled Messi and Ronaldo, players who wouldn’t be as massive without the structure laid by Ronaldinho, a player who made people follow a football club just to be in some way associated with his genius. He enabled Neymar and the Brazilian flair as Ronaldinho was the epitome of the storied joga bonito, the joy and beauty in the beautiful game.
He catapluted Barça in the ranks of football powerhouses, creating a hunger for victory impelled by the Liga titles and Champions League victory that became an expectation for a hungry fanbase for which the lean years weren’t all that long ago. You tell a contemporary culer that there was a time when making the Champions League set off a delirious celebration, or that the team finished sixth in Liga — they will look at you like you’re from Mars.
Ronaldinho enabled everything, from highlight reels to shirt sales. Like the stands at any Barça match are festooned with Messi shirts, then it was Ronaldinho shirts. He was the best player in the game who was also the best showman in the game. He understood entertainment like a savant impresario, and had a knack for the right thing at the right time. Flashy? Yes. Effective? Not always. But his joy was such that we remembered the four times it came off, rather than the 12 times it didn’t.
Athletics exist in a world of unrealized possibility, defined by the moments when possibility becomes reality. Today’s exceptional athletes are created from work. Messi has ungodly talent, and is the best player in the history of the game. But he works at the game. Hard. In an effort to maximize talent, the modern athlete is at times almost joyless in a singular pursuit of excellence. You can’t dominate in this day and age without an almost monastic devotion to your craft. Ronaldinho was different.
His athletic possibility was defined by magic and beauty, by flair instead of effort in a way that belied his squat, powerful build. For him, possibility was everything as he pulled off yet another thing that nobody had done before. Against Osasuna, in a favorite moment of his, a pass came to him just as Ludovic Giuly was making the run. Control and pass? Giuly would have been offside. Ronaldinho’s back was to Giuly as the ball came to him, so he just redirected it with his backside, directly in the path of Giuly, who scored. It is, to this day, a singular moment of football: classic, showy, improvisational and above all, effective.
And the world saw it all, saw him making everything possible while wearing a Barça shirt, and the club benefited from it. In the pantheon of club legends, for what he did and enabled, he is easily in the top five. Without Ronaldinho, Barça isn’t where it is today, a club that is on course to realize a billion-Euro revenue grab.
Ronaldinho was engaging and endearing, magical and kinda nuts. Most of all, he was unpredictable and enamored of a life that was as easy as he made the game look. People often talk about what might have happened had Ronaldinho applied himself, had he worked at the game and in the gym the way modern players such as Ronaldo do. That would have ruined Ronaldinho, taken away the joy that made him one of the greatest footballers and showmen in the history of the game. Ronaldinho needed joy. Yes, that joy came in nightclubs and being surrounded by friends, excesses that began to affect his game. But that is part of it. He was the wonderful friend who you depend on for a ride to the airport, but they show up late. You would be mad, except somehow he shows up in a Mercedes, and talks you onto the next flight.
Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl told a tale of being told to be ready for a Ronaldinho interview at 11 a.m. that day. The superstar showed up at 8 p.m., but the interview was fantastic, and pique turned into a great memory and lovely copy. That is, and was, Ronaldinho. He wasn’t supposed to maximize his skills by turning a career into a long slog. He was supposed to come, light up the sky like a comet, and then fade.
It was fitting that the next era of Barça, the controlled magnificence of the Guardiola years, meant the end of Ronaldinho. Back then, people scoffed at his lack of dedication, cheered when he was deemed surplus to requirements by new coach Guardiola. But Ronaldinho wouldn’t have worked in that era of football, the modern game of obsessive attention to detail, training until actions become rote, video sessions and play-by-play breakdowns of an opponent. Ronaldinho wasn’t ever supposed to live in that era, nor would he have wanted to. His arc, like one of his remarkable free kicks, was perfectly timed.
He went to AC Milan after Barça, to treat a new set of eyes to the flair and elegant playfulness of a genius. From there it was Brazil, and then futsal courts and legends games where his magic was still apparent, just as joyful and just as effective even as that success was contextual. Not that any of that mattered to his audience, a global, grinning mass captivated by a man deemed to ugly to be a Galactico but who is one of the most beautiful players to ever grace the game.
When Messi debuted with Barça, Ronaldinho was running the show. He enabled Messi to grow, to learn from him the weight of superstardom and joy of the game, wrapped in a commitment to excellence. He handed off the baton to Messi, dusting off a ready-made throne as Messi then escalated what Ronaldinho created. It was perfect.
Football clubs hardly ever retire numbers, for those digits represent a position as much as a player. The No. 9, the perfect 10. But after Messi, who is going to be able to wear the number 10 for Barça? Ronaldinho set up the one player in the history of the game and the club who could wear the No. 10 after he made it sparkle like a diamond. From him to Messi was just another gem of a pass, another genius linkup in the grin-marked path of the ultimate enabler.