Brazilian legend has still got it.
When Ronaldinho left Italian Serie A giants AC Milan in January 2011, the list of potential suitors was probably less glamorous than most people would have expected for a 30-year-old former World Cup winner and two-time World Player of the Year.
Less than five years after winning the Champions League and La Liga in the same season, his fitness, attitude and lifestyle were being questioned on a regular basis in the press and the Barcelona legend found himself linked with moves to Blackburn Rovers and L.A. Galaxy before he eventually agreed to return to Brazil and join Flamengo.
It was a move which, to most European fans, seemed to finally signal the end of Ronaldinho’s reign as a genuine top level footballer. Ronaldinho, however, claimed it was far from an admission of his declining ability and instead a career move which would help him realise his remaining footballing ambitions.
“All I care about is playing football. I am still a player and there is a World Cup in Brazil in four years time, which is why I’m back,” he told the press upon arrival.
Having failed to even make the 23-man squad for the 2010 World Cup, even after resurgent form for AC Milan at the tail end of the 2009/10 season, the idea of a 34-year-old Ronaldinho representing Brazil four years later at the 2014 World Cup seemed pretty far-fetched.
Fast-forward eight months and the idea suddenly has merit and seems worthy of discussion.
Ronaldinho was recently recalled to the national team set up for the first time in almost a year by coach Mano Menezes for a friendly against Ghana, in London, on 5th September 2011. He played the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 win, earning his 89th cap in the process.
“There’s a long time to go yet [until the World Cup] but a player like Ronaldinho has got the qualities we need. He is a leader, has that technical part to his game and he is a player you can rely on to help with all the young players coming into the team now,” Menezes said.
“He played very well and is a player we needed to bring back to the team. He is showing now that he is still the same player he once was.”
In truth, Ronaldinho is not the same player he once was and the realisation of this fact has actually been instrumental in his rejuvenation. At club level his coach, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, has moved Ronaldinho into a more advanced attacking role, primarily to compensate for his diminishing pace.
The result has been a return to prolific goal-scoring form. ‘El Gaucho’ has scored 12 goals in 19 league games including a hat-trick in a 5-4 win over rivals Santos; a game in which Flamengo found themselves 3-0 down after just 26 minutes. The new role has also helped nurture the creative side of his game, with Ronaldinho using his intelligence and unquestionable technical ability to provide chances for his team-mates on a regular basis as well.
Now 31, his inability to take on teams by himself and consistently accelerate away from opponents like he could in his prime has, almost accidently, helped to make him more of an all-round team player. His first touch remains as good as any footballer on the planet, the tricks are still there when necessary but most importantly, for the first time in years, he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself on the pitch.
His change of on-field position and style of play has not been the only factor behind Ronaldinho’s career resurrection. Some observers have pin-pointed the exact date they believe the revival really began: 19th June, 2011.
At the end of a disappointing 0-0 draw against Botafogo, Ronaldinho was substituted in the 88th minute. It was probably an unnecessary substitution and in the process he was singled out by Flamengo supporters, who jeered him for a perceived lack of effort. It has since been speculated that this was a deliberate act by Vanderlei Luxemburgo to re-awaken and motivate Ronaldinho. If that is in fact true, his form in the subsequent months has proven it to be a masterstroke in man-management.
2014 is a long way away and it remains to be seen whether in the next few years Ronaldinho can legitimately challenge for a spot in the World Cup squad. Perhaps his biggest obstacle will be the lack of competitive international football Brazil have between now and then. As the host nation, they are not required to take part in the World Cup qualification process. As a result, the only semi-competitive football the full international side will play in the next few years is the Confederations Cup.
Another avenue to be explored then is a potential place for Ronaldinho in the Brazi squad for the Olympics in London next year.
“The Olympics and the World Cup are coming. These are my objectives,” he recently told reporters, indicating his desire to be included.
His experience would certainly benefit the Olympic team and it would also provide a helpful opportunity to assess Ronaldinho’s influence on a competitive international tournament in the new decade.
For now though, the best food for thought he can provide Brazil coach Mano Menezes is the continuation of his recent club form. If Ronaldinho can stay fit, keep his off-the-field lifestyle in check and maintain consistency, he may yet achieve his dream of leading Brazil out for the opening game of the 2014 World Cup in his home nation.