A moment as characteristically paradoxical as the man who authored it. The announcement, inevitable to such an extent that one could be forgiven for assuming it had long since occurred, and yet somehow simultaneously unbelievable in its harshness: Ronaldinho has retired.
Now, it should be noted that the announcement, delivered via Ronaldinho’s bother and agent, Roberto Assis, was more confirmation than news, as Ronaldinho’s last club affiliation was a brief 2015 stint with Rio-based Brazilian side Fluminense. However, the former Barcelona and Brazil great had not yet made official his departure from the game he ruled, and will forever personify.
I never saw Johan Cruyff play – that’s what books, YouTube and dad’s recollections are for. My only first-hand experience with Diego Maradona’s playing career is the (increasingly less in subsequent years, but still) bizarre fever dream that was his 1994 World Cup. It was well after Ronald Koeman’s free kick at Wembley that “Dream Team” came to mean anything other than Magic, Michael and Larry to me. My first favorite football player was Ronaldo, Real Ronaldo (sorry, C-Ro), whose singlehanded shrug-off of Compostela’s attacking hoard en route to goal was the first timely non-World Cup highlight to liquefy my brain. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that it happened in a Barcelona shirt, in the 1996-97 season (ask any Laker fan about a notable debutant from this campaign), was rather fitting.
These individuals and events sowed the seeds of my future fandom. And then, somewhere around the third time Ronaldo was kicked during that run, I became – in name if not remotely close in practice – a culé. What this meant in those early-era internet days in Southern California? In between World Cups, it consisted mostly of slow and grainy GIF-length highlights, and the occasional pre-blogosphere article.
As is undoubtedly the case for many a far-flung Barcelona fan, Ronaldinho was the spark which truly ignited my fandom, from theoretical and detached, to full-blown obsession. Sure technological advancements, an ever-expanding selection of media outlets (R.I.P. Fox Soccer Channel), and an increasing appetite in the U.S. for “soccer” certainly played their parts, but it was the toothy Brazilian that inspired my ilk to take journeys into YouTube rabbit holes and make many a Saturday morning trek to Nevada Smith’s (and other establishments of its kind the world over), weather be damned.
We will, without fail, be concern-trolled by Serious Fans, lamenting Ronaldinho’s lack of discipline, and all-too-brief reign at the pinnacle of the sport. They will insist that Ronaldinho will forever be defined by his imperfections, his legacy tarnished. They will cite his, um, differing relationship with training while at PSG, his penchant for sleeping off last night – in last night’s clothes – at Barcelona’s facilities, and the club’s need to dispose of his talents before they – along with those of a young Lionel Messi – were consumed by an unwavering drive to carpe every diem.
Do not listen to these people.
Attempts have been and, for some time to come, will be made to contextualize the career of one of world football’s singular, breathtaking talents. What to make of the mercurial genius, operating on a plane inhabited only by his own imagination, possessed by a preternatural talent for conjuring laugh-out-loud euphoria from the most mundane of moments? What does history do with a man for whom the game represented, above all, the purest means of self-expression, who didn’t slave to the result… and still walked away with winners’ medals from the Copa América in 1999, the World Cup in 2002, the Confederations Cup in 2005, La Liga in 2004-05 and 2005-06, the Supercopa de España in 2005 and 2006, and the 2005-06 Champions League crown – plus a pair of FIFA World Player of the Year awards and the Ballon d’Or.
To spend significant time lamenting all that Ronaldinho did not achieve, at the expense of appreciating the pure, innocent, boundless elation that he exuded during his ephemeral prime, is to miss the point. To have had Peak Ronaldinho for longer than we did would undoubtedly have been glorious. But he was not Ryan Giggs. He was not Paolo Maldini. It’s worth questioning whether that version of this man could even have existed at all. His was not a greatness honed through the meticulous optimization of diet and fitness, combined with a workaholic’s dedication to training.
As naturally gifted a player as has ever taken to a pitch, Ronaldinho championed the cause of those whose priority is a good time on their own terms. Even at its highest reaches, in his hands the game remained a game. He played genuinely, freely, without an agenda. At the peak of his powers, as the reigning holder of the Ballon d’Or and inspiration for a renaissance at Camp Nou, he not only conceded that an ascendant 17-year-old, and not he, was Barcelona’s most gifted and potentially greatest player, but also facilitated Lionel Messi’s transition to the top flight, without pettiness or insecurity.
Ronaldinho’s is an improvisational genius that manifested on its own terms, a delivery mechanism for enthusiasm and joy that’s forever seared into our collective memories. Its brilliance lies not in the array and sheer volume of otherworldly skills and tricks – well, not only in the skills and tricks – but in the knowledge that the man from whom those skills and tricks emanated was enjoying himself every bit as much as we were. That his gifts served rather well the collective interest of the team seemed something of a happy coincidence. Summed up aptly by the man himself in the aftermath of his sublime goal at Stamford Bridge, in the 2005 Champions League: “Some goals are not about the skills; they are about the moment you’re living.”
Superstar. Rock star. Shooting star. Malandro.