[ronaldinho & me]

[ronaldinho & me]

The author at the Nou Camp.

The author at the Nou Camp.

IT WAS THANKSGIVING 2007 and a 14-year-old kid was on his aunt’s computer as the adults were preparing dinner. He was on nike.com checking out Ronaldinho’s new signature cleats. The kid loved them. The thin shape of the tongue; the stitching on the heel; and the fact that Ronaldinho’s name was etched over the ever-present Nike check. He made a mental note to create a Christmas List with the cleats at the very top of it.

The release of those new cleats wound up marking the point when Ronaldinho lost his crown as the world’s best player, but the kid still watched him during those final two years at Barcelona, the stint in Italy with AC Milan and the Brazilian homecoming with Flamengo and then Atlético Mineiro. Even though Ronaldinho wasn’t at his best during those post-Barcelona years, he continued to keep everyone — including the kid — on the edge of their seats, waiting for that inevitable flash of brilliance.

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WHEN RONALDINHO’S CAREER FIZZLED OUT after his time with Mineiro, the kid wasn’t surprised. It had been nearly a decade since the Brazilian was in peak form. The time had finally come to say goodbye, and even though the kid was sad to see Ronaldinho go — and even sadder that he never saw him play live — at least the kid still had YouTube…

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YOU KNOW THAT FEELING at a stadium when you catch your first glimpse of the pitch? It’s a striking moment. Imagine this: it was my first time at the Nou Camp — I was in Catalonia to see a legends match between Barcelona and Manchester United. Usually, when it’s your first time at a stadium, that “first glimpse moment” sticks with you. But I don’t remember mine. Instead, as soon as the field came into my line of sight, I squinted as hard as I could and searched for Him.

It felt like my vision switched from real life to augmented reality. I was scanning players left, right, up, down and each time I passed over one, a name popped up. There was Edgar Davids, Ludovic Guily, Patrick Kluivert, Rivaldo…but no Ronaldinho. Where was he?

I eventually settled into my seat, no longer seeing life through AR, and started checking out Man United’s warm-up. I recognized Dwight Yorke, Wes Brown, Mikael Silvestre, Park Ji-Sung and a few others. Looking back at that moment, as I caught my first few glimpses of United’s squad, I should have been much more excited. I’m a United supporter and I was barely 30 feet from a few of the guys who were in that very same stadium for the Champions League Final triumph in 1999. But even as I stared at Brown and Silvestre playing keepy-uppy, Ronaldinho was the only thing on my mind.

When he finally made his way onto the pitch, the announcer made sure the entire stadium knew it: BENVINGUT, NUMERO DEU: RONAAAAALDINHOOOOOOO!

I couldn’t believe it. He was right there. The same guy from all those YouTube videos. From that point on I only had eyes for Him.

He exchanged some long balls with Rivaldo, warmed up the keeper and aimed a few free kicks on goal. He still had that magnificent first touch, despite his body being a few ticks slower and a couple kilos heavier. 

His pre-match routine ended with focused attention on the crowd, applauding the hundreds of voices conducting the Ronaldinho! Ronaldinho! Ronaldinho! chants.

Before kickoff, the players were introduced one-by-one to ensure each had their moment to take in applause. After the announcer called a player’s name, he would make his way out onto the Nou Camp pitch and walk through a guard of honor made up of an ecstatic group of youngsters.

The order of introductions were based on shirt numbers and I wondered if Ronaldinho would be called after Kluivert, Barca’s No. 9, or whether the announcer would wait to call him out last. He was, after all, the star attraction.

Once Kluivert’s introduction finished, a hush went through the stadium. Everyone knew who the No. 10 was, but was it his turn to be introduced? Moments later, for the second time in barely twenty minutes, the announcer roared: BENVINGUT, NUMERO DEU: RONAAAAALDINHOOOOOOO!

He received the longest and loudest applause.

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RONALDINHO'S SIGNATURE MOVE wasn’t something fans attempted to replicate. It wasn’t a collection of step-overs or the iconic flip flap. It was his smile. No matter the situation, it always seemed like Ronaldinho’s instinctive reaction was to flash his famous grin. If you type his name into a Google image search, the first 19 pictures are shots of him smiling.

Even in his prime, with the weight of expectation hanging over him every match, he remained an optimist. If he missed a chance, he’d smile. If his teammate missed an opportunity he set up, he’d smile; if he was fouled, he’d smile.

It seemed impossible to dampen his mood while he was on the pitch. It was like he knew he could brush off small moments of disappointment because a moment of brilliance was right around the corner.

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BARCELONA WAS AWARDED A FREE KICK barely two minutes into the first half. The ball was placed just outside the box, and as Ronaldinho stepped up to take it I whispered to him, forgetting we don’t share a telepathic connection, and said, “you were practicing from this spot fifteen minutes ago — you better score.” The shot was on target but the keeper saved by pushing the ball out of bounds.

Ronaldinho jogged to the corner flag to take the ensuing corner with a grin etched on his face.

About nine minutes later he had the ball ten feet from the 18-yard box, scanning the options in from of him. He gave a little shimmy as a defender rushed forward before hitting a measured, no-look pass into the box that Giuly latched onto first-time with the outside of his right foot. The Frenchman skied his shot and immediately looked up to the sky while taking a prolonged inhale, preparing to exhale the frustration from missing a glorious chance. 

Ronaldinho sauntered toward his teammate, applauding the effort with clapping hands and a reassuring smile. 

With four minutes remaining in the first half, Barcelona were down a goal and searching for an equalizer to take into halftime. Looking to create one more chance before the whistle, Ronaldinho was fouled directly outside the penalty area after falling to the ground while trying to get on the return end of a one-two. As the defenders-in-question were helping Ronaldinho up, he was chuckling. Probably because he went down with a little too much pizzazz and knew that the call was generous. There were no ill feelings, though — the defenders couldn’t help but join in on the laughter. 

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DO YOU REMEMBER the Nike advertisements that were released before the 2006 World Cup? They were a string of segments narrated by Eric Cantona. My favorite blended highlights of Ronaldinho’s days playing futsal as both a youngster and adult. When the advert begins, Cantona explains that when we’re kids, we’re not afraid to try things, or dare — when we do something, we do it “just because we like it.”

When the ad was released in 2006, it was striking to see just how little Ronaldinho’s playing style had changed since his days as a kid. He was equally as free-wheeling as a ten-year-old as he was a 26-year-old. It became clear that his confidence — the audacity within him to even attempt a double sombrero — was somehow ingrained in him.

However, if his transcendental talent was quote-unquote God-given, his bravery to use it was fostered by his dad. He told his son that his only job was to “play with ball” — there were going to be moments of inescapable failure, but there were also going to be moments of inevitable genius. 

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THE FIRST HALF ENDED without Ronaldinho treating the crowd to one of his sparks of brilliance. Lucky for us, we witnessed one early in the second half. It was a classic Ronaldinho sequence, but one that still evokes amazement.

He received the ball about twenty feet into United’s half and Jesper Blomqvist — probably still filled with confidence after scoring the game’s opening goal — decided to volunteer for a duel. Blomqvist rushed at Ronaldinho, who dragged the ball behind his back to protect possession. Ronaldinho turned to face the ball before poking it a few inches forward. Blomqvist caught a glimpse of the ball and took the bait. He rushed to nick the ball from Ronaldinho’s control, but by the time he stretched his leg out to make a challenge, the Brazilian had already rolled the ball back in the opposite direction… through Blomqvist’s legs.

Suddenly, Ronaldinho had his newest vintage moment — something the football world would never forget because of A) the internet and B) the sport’s obsession with nostalgia. Think of all the retro videos and photos shared on social media, the #onthisday hashtags and the articles chronicling legendary matches and players of bygone eras. Ronaldinho, ever-the-entertainer, continued to feed our lust for nostalgia by performing a familiar duet with Rivaldo in the 68th minute.

Rivaldo played a ball to Ronaldinho before continuing his run toward the penalty area. Ronaldinho turned to face the opposing back four, took one small touch and slid a pass behind the United defense for his compatriot to run onto.

Rivaldo found himself in a similar position he did 15 years earlier when Ronaldinho played him through versus England in a World Cup quarterfinal. Rivaldo was able to get his hips around the ball that day in Japan to score past David Seaman, but he couldn’t do the same against United’s Kevin Pilkington. Instead of finishing with his instep, he pulled off a rabona that flashed just past the far post.

It was a mesmerizing sequence to watch; not for the execution but because of the audacity and talent that remained in the players who produced it. Rivaldo, accustomed to producing awe-inspiring goals, trudged back up the field looking frustrated for having missed the chance. Ronaldinho, ever-the-optimist, ecstatically rushed toward his fellow Brazilian as if the shot had found the back of the net.

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AS THE MATCH TRICKLED TO ITS END, Barcelona were down 3-0 but Ronaldinho continued to greet every action — whether a missed chance or a successful dribble — with a smile. The only person in the Nou Camp who dampened his mood was a linesman that held no qualms about raising the offside flag. The calls that incited the frustration weren’t wrong, but Ronaldinho didn’t want to waste a single moment of potential entertainment.

For all of the small sparks of brilliance throughout the match, Ronaldinho helped to finally treat the crowd to the home side’s lone goal in the 90th minute. He played a pass on the ground into Frederic Dehu, who dummied so the ball could reach Kluivert, who then played a one-touch pass into the path of the still-running Dehu, who eventually controlled and slotted home. Ronaldinho was the first teammate to reach the goalscorer with a congratulatory embrace. 

A few seconds before the final whistle, Ronaldinho turned his attention back to the crowd. He was eager to begin his tour around the pitch to thank the fans who screamed his name for 90-plus minutes. After his lap of appreciation, he was unsurprisingly awarded Man of the Match. More impressive was the queue of players — guys who are considered ‘legends’ in their own right — lined up waiting to take a picture with him. Even Blomqvist was eager to snap a photo with the man who nutmegged him into infamy.

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PEOPLE DESCRIBE WATCHING CERTAIN ATHLETES AS A RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. Maybe it’s true for some; like seeing Federer or Serena in their prime, Maradona at the ’86 World Cup, MJ during the 90s, Ken Griffey Jr. pre-injury or Messi whenever he has a ball at his feet. Maybe I was expecting to kneel at the alter of Gaucho before I arrived at the Nou Camp, but once the match finished I didn’t consider witnessing Ronaldinho as having been a religious experience. Maybe I was ten years too late for that.

But like most fans at the Nou Camp that day, I stayed in my seat until Ronaldinho left the pitch. My eyes stayed glued to him until he disappeared into the tunnel, and as I finally got up and made my way out of the stadium I felt a heightened sense of joy. It’d be too hyperbolic to call it divine joy, but it was a feeling I’ve never had before. As I headed back to my airbnb, I couldn’t help but think of the kid from ten years earlier. The one who incessantly watched all those YouTube videos, soaking in inspiration and motivation to go out and just play with the ball.

I never did get those cleats. But I still have YouTube, and now I also have the beautiful memory of seeing Ronaldinho — one of my heroes — play in person.