Real Madrid had chased David Beckham all summer and had claimed that Brazilian Ronaldinho was ‘too ugly’ for their brand. He responded on the pitch.
Midway through the Clasico with Los Merengues trailing 1-0 in their own backyard, he produced two pieces of skill so sublime that Iker Casillas, that patron saint of the charmed Madrid goalposts could only watch as this buck-toothed terror slotted past him effortlessly.
He shimmied past Sergio Ramos, leaving him on the floor, dazed and confused. What chance did Ivan Helguera stand in front of this menace who merely wiggled his hips to get away from the defender?
He did it not once but twice as the partisan Madrid support felt helpless watching their team squirm, squeal and try to stop this one-man Samba party. Not since Johan Cryuff has led his team to a 5-0 demolition of their traditional rivals, had the capital outfit seen anyone take them apart as easily as the man with the headband and the goofy grin.
And then they did something completely unexpected. They stood up and applauded. Only one other Barcelona player had been ever been the subject of appreciation before. Ronaldinho had emulated Diego Armando Maradona. Nine days later, he would win the Ballon D’Or.
Barcelona team-mate Eidur Gudjohnsen had once stated that Ronaldinho was so good with the ball that the Brazilian could make it do absolutely anything, perhaps even make it ‘talk’.
The joke was so obviously on Madrid but Ronaldinho took the applause wherever he went, such was his effect on opposition fans and players. It was impossible to hate him, as it was not to admire him.
They cheered for him when he conjured up a magical pass at local rivals Espanyol, when he scored two goals away at the home of AC Milan’s Serie A challengers, Juventus. And at Stamford Bridge.
Petr Cech and John Terry must bring the goal up in friendly chats time and again because of the audaciousness of Ronaldinho. They had effectively blocked off his path to the goal, yet from 20 yards out, he merely feinted and poked it home past Cech.
It was all a blur as those trying to stop him will testify, a pointless exercise when Ronaldinho made his mind up to trouble your defence that day.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo may smash record after record, yet when Ronaldinho played the game, it was in jest, and it felt like he was amusing himself rather than behave like a professional representing a club or a country.
The scary bit, was that you could never predict what Ronaldinho would do next, or how good he was. Was he giving it his 100%, or nothing at all? Football wasn’t serious business to him; hardly anything ever was as managers who struggled to put up with his celebratory tendencies will tell you. What they cannot deny was that he was the most gifted bloke to ever play in their teams.
Yet when the occasion called for him, he wouldn’t shy away. He would bag a man of the match performance in Brazil’s 4-1 Confederations Cup final victory against Argentina. Against England in the 2002 quarter-final, David Seaman watched as ‘Dinho put the ball above his head and into the top left corner from a free-kick taken near the halfway line.
Did he mean it or did he not? Up for debate, but what isn’t is the fact that you enjoyed watching it and like everything he did, watching it over and over again.
Bag full of tricks
The feints, the switch-kicks, the pirouettes, the dummies, the heel kicks were all part of a repertoire meant to entertain and make merry while opponents tore their hair out.
Ronaldinho also represents the strongest case study for futsal introduction at an earlier age because when he graduated from the smaller, heavier ball played in tight spaces where it’s more difficult to get past your man to 11-a-side football, he was capable of doing pretty much anything he wanted with the ball.
Not satisfied with merely playing the game, Ronaldinho was a creator, a revolutionary. While others were satisfied with a win over 90 minutes, here was a man who wanted to have some fun with the ball and hopefully bag some goals and assists along the way.
Terry, Ramos, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Fabio Cannavaro, he destroyed and schooled anybody who even tried to stop him, as they were as much mesmerised by his skill as they were flabbergasted by it.
Parties were also second-nature to Ronaldinho and he never shied away from them or his intent to fully celebrate an occasion, win or lose. If it were upto him, all matches would be commemorated by a late-night binge.
After Brazil boasting a squad full of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Kaka and Ronaldo had crashed out of the 2006 World Cup, he had celebrated back at his home in Barcelona, enraging fans.
For him, it wasn’t a matter of records or titles, he had enough of those. His name will still go down in the record books, as he currently stands as one of only eight men to have won the World Cup, Champions League and Ballon D’Or.
PSG, Barcelona, Milan, Brazil, wherever he went, it was about spreading joy through the ball, doing things to it and watch people marvel. He was a 21st century showman, with a glow on his face and a smile to match. He did what he had to, as others watched and wondered at his merry dance.