It’s often said that first impressions are lasting. It’s hard to disagree when you look back to Ronaldinho’s first game at the Camp Nou for Barcelona in 2003.
In a game that saw the Blaugrana faithful wait until just after midnight for kick-off, it was a moment of magic from the Brazilian ace that signalled the beginning of what would be a tantalising five-year stay in the city of Barcelona.
Receiving the ball inside his own half, his thick curls bouncing with each long stride, the newest signing for the Catalan club went almost untouched as he dribbled past the defensive efforts of Sevilla’s José Luis Martí and Francisco Casquero before blasting a shot at goal from more than 25 metres out. The ball hit the inside of the bar and bounced into the back of the net. It was the goal of the season and the dawn of a new era for the club.
Things were beginning to look dire for Football Club Barcelona back in 2003. The team had finished in sixth place at the end of the season and had gone trophyless since 1999. A big-name signing was needed.
For a while it looked as though David Beckham might be that man. Club president Joan Laporta announced that the board had struck a deal to bring the Manchester United star to Barcelona but it turned out to be little more than a ruse to secure votes for the upcoming election. Beckham ended up with arch rival Real Madrid and Barcelona splashed their cash on Ronaldinho instead. What a move it would be.
In his first season with the Bluagrana, the Brazilian wowed the crowds with his mix of tricks, flicks and out of this world dribbling skills. He scored 22 goals in 45 games but despite a 17-match unbeaten streak to finish the season the team would fall agonisingly short of the title.
A lack of silverware aside, Ronaldinho had awoken a new spirit at Barcelona. It danced to a Samba beat, smiled without reservation and set the tone for the good times to come. And come they would.
Barcelona won the league title in 2004/05 and again in 2005/06, along with the biggest prize in European football, the Champions League. In addition to the team’s success, Ronaldinho took out a plethora of individual awards. He won the FIFA Player of the Year in both 2004 and 2005 and the Ballon d’Or in 2005. Ronaldinho had brought a carnival-like attitude to Barcelona and the fans adored him for it.
At times you could be forgiven for thinking he played as if he were still a boy on the streets of Porto Alegre. His artistic flair had an almost childlike enthusiasm about it. Ronaldinho played with the kind of freedom rarely exhibited in professional sport and one could do little but sit back and marvel at such virtuosity.
The Brazilian’s flair, finesse and mastery were never more apparent than against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2005. He painted a footballing masterpiece that night. His movements were as brilliant as the brushstrokes of Michelangelo inside the Sistine Chapel. Scoring twice was an impressive feat but it was more than his ability to put that ball in the back of the net that led to a standing ovation from the Real Madrid fans. He showed just how beautiful the game of football could be.
The Brazilian’s time with the Catalan club was a whirlwind love affair. He took the Blaugrana from dark days to glory and along with the emergence of one of the most potent midfields in football history, Ronaldinho signalled the creation of a winning philosophy at Barcelona once again.
The 2007/08 season would be Ronaldinho’s last for Barça and perhaps it was fitting his final goal for the club was every bit as beautiful as the first. In a losing effort against Atletico Madrid, it was the 30th minute goal from Ronaldinho that most remember. Displaying the kind of athletic prowess that few can, Ronaldinho’s bicycle kick was a monument to his brilliance. His smile reflected inthe faces of every Barça fan, then as it still does now.