Long before Lionel Messi established himself as club talisman and icon for Barcelona, mesmerising fans with his breathtaking free-kicks and mind-boggling volume of goals, the Argentine had big boots to fill when he took over the No 10 jersey for the Blaugrana in 2008.
That jersey was previously donned by Ronaldinho; the player who made fans, young and old, fall in love with the club. On July 19, 2003, the Brazilian signed for the La Liga giants in a €30 million deal from Paris Saint-Germain and his arrival would transform the Barcelona’s fortunes, at a time when they were struggling.
Ronaldinho was unique in the truest sense of the word. The playmaker enthralled fans with his creativity, executing dribbles and feints that his contemporaries could not have even dreamt of.
It’s not often that a player seamlessly adapts to a new club and a different environment in an instant, but Ronaldinho and Barcelona proved to be a match made in heaven. The former Gremio forward, too, had a point to prove. The world had already witnessed his talent and the move to Barcelona was a perfect platform for him to elevate his career to the next level.
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When Ronaldinho arrived in Spain, shortly after winning the 2002 World Cup with Brazil, Barcelona were in pieces. After Louis Van Gaal’s stint during the 2002-’03 season proved to be a disaster, former player Frank Rijkaard had taken over the club to kick-start a new project. Barcelona also had a new president in Joan Laporta and a new managerial board. This was a club that hadn’t won a trophy since 1999 and hoping to catch up with rivals Real Madrid.
Ronaldinho marked his arrival at Barcelona with a bang. Making his debut at Camp Nou in his second league match, he scored a jaw-dropping goal against Sevilla, cutting from inside and unleashing a lethal shot outside the box which went in after striking the underside of the crossbar.
Ronaldinho thrilled fans in his first season at Barca before an injury he picked up during the first half of the campaign affected the Catalans, who slumped to 12th in the league table by January. Calls grew for Rijkaard to get fired and the club was under pressure.
But the star returned from injury and led Barcelona to a 16-match unbeaten run before a defeat on the final day of the season saw them miss out on the La Liga title to Valencia. However, Barcelona had finished above Madrid.
A promising end to the season saw Barcelona stick with Rijkaard and with Ronaldinho at the helm, the Dutchman added reinforcements to the squad which included the signings of Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Edmilson, Ludovic Guily among others, while promoting Messi from the B team. Rijkaard also got rid of players who were ageing and built his team around Ronaldinho.
The Brazilian continued to deliver, forming a lethal partnership with Eto’o and Messi in a trio that spearheaded Barcelona’s attack. Ronaldinho’s goal tally shrunk that season but supplied 16 assists from 42 games that season, becoming one of the chief orchestrators for his side. The fleet-footed midfielder would end Barcelona’s six-year wait for the league title before scooping the Fifa World Player of the Year.
Ronaldinho’s influence at Barcelona was growing. “The greatest compliment I could give him is that he’s given Barcelona our spirit back. He has made us smile again,” club legend Carles Puyol had said.
The following season was even remarkable. The Brazilian was at the peak of his powers and lived up to his reputation, making a difference in crucial moments for his team. He enjoyed his best season in Barcelona colours, scoring 26 and assisting 24 goals from 45 games. The result? Barcelona retained the La Liga while winning the Champions League and the Supercup.
Ronaldinho dished out one of the best performances of his career during that season, single-handedly helping Barcelona beat Madrid during an El Clasico game at the Santiago Bernabeu, receiving a standing ovation from opposition fans. He was the first player after Diego Maradona two decades earlier to receive a standing ovation from the Real Madrid faithful. And two months later, he lifted the Ballon d’Or.
For a club that was once struggling to win trophies, the achievement was unbelievable.
“Ronaldinho was responsible for the change in Barca,” Messi earlier said in an interview to Barca TV. “It was a bad time and the change that came about with his arrival was amazing. In the first year, he didn’t win anything but people fell in love with him. Then the trophies started coming and he made all those people happy. Barça should always be grateful for everything he did”, he added.
In what would prove to be his final season at the club, Ronaldinho continued to be heavily involved in the team’s goals although Barcelona only managed to clinch the Supercopa de Espana in what was an underwhelming season.
Rijkaard’s departure ahead of the 2007-’08 season also signaled the end of Ronaldinho’s stint at Barcelona, with the Brazilian’s lifestyle as a frequent partygoer gaining more attention than his talent.
Ronaldinho couldn’t rediscover his best form once he left Spain, making headlines for the wrong reasons off the pitch.
However, for joy and excitement he brought to Barcelona and football fans worldwide, inspiring young children to fall in love with the beautiful game, Ronaldinho is still regarded as one of the greatest to grace the football pitch. It even hard to imagine if Barcelona would have become what they are today, had he not been there.
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