Apart from being a football writer who likes to analyse fixtures and stats, there’s something else I can’t help but do, something every football fan does once in a while: speculate, even dream a little.
It’s what fuels transfer rumours, it’s what makes players believe that they can get something better than what they already have. Sometimes it actually happens, other times it just stays on the back pages of the newspapers.
Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain is one example, while Lionel Messi to anywhere else is another. But speculation spreads beyond what’s happening now and what’s about to happen; it can also arise from what could have happened. What if?
This may seem like something a certain ex-Arsenal coach would talk about, but retrospective speculation in its truest sense makes you think hard. What if Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t joined Sir Alex Ferguson’s side? What if Zlatan Ibrahimovic hadn’t said “I don’t do trials” and joined Arsenal?
The football world was flourishing at the start of the 21st century. Manchester United were busy winning everything in England, while Florentino Perez was bringing the idea of Galacticos to life at Real Madrid. Speculation merged the two ideas and the United no. 7 made Madrid his new home.
Meanwhile, a certain Brazilian joined Barcelona because apparently Beckham preferred Real Madrid. But what if that didn’t happen at all? What if things had taken a different turn and Beckham had joined Barcelona instead? Let’s give it a thought.
Beckham operated through the flanks, always had an eye for his team-mates and was a class apart. His precise passing, especially his ability to deliver long balls was unparalleled. His disciplined approach also enhanced his talents. He may not have been the most naturally talented player, but he made up for it with hard work and sheer determination. A born leader, he gave his all on the field and generally led by example.
In contrast, Ronaldinho had technicality, world class dribbling and versatility, but suffered from a lack of discipline. To score world class goals is one thing but creating them with bags of flair was his forte. He could play as a winger, centre forward and also slotted in a number 10 role. His pace and agility made him unplayable and a nightmare for defenders.
Beckham’s meteoric rise to global stardom and his rift with Sir Alex Ferguson was an invitation for the vultures to scoop in.
Meanwhile, by the end of 2003, Ronaldinho was smashing it with PSG, having scored 25 goals in his 77 appearances. In truth, he was very close to joining Manchester United and it was a matter of 48 hours until the transfer was done, but a conversation with Sandro Rossell changed his decision.
Was he the replacement for Beckham at Manchester United? Probably. What if Beckham had accepted the agreement his club had made with Barcelona? Was he the only marquee signing, or was the world ready to see a partnership (Beckham-Ronaldinho) they’d never imagine?
They had their time together in Milan, albeit a brief one. But if Beckham was a Blaugrana, Barcelona would have been favourites in every match they played and could have garnered a tremendous fanbase from all around the world in a very short span of time courtesy of the England captain’s stardom.
Free-kicks would have had close to a hundred percent conversion rate. His crosses whipped in around the opposition full-backs would have been an invitation for the likes of Kluivert and Saviola to convert. He would have slotted in without much difficulty as Barcelona essentially played a three-man midfield. Maybe he would have been the best British signing for the club since Gary Lineker.
But Beckham wasn’t a possession craving midfielder and his aerial passing would have been a compromise as the team relied heavily on short passes; his style of play wouldn’t suit the tiki-taka system either.
Moreover, Barca had a promising promoted player in the form of Xavi and also handed promotion to another La Masia stalwart that very season, a certain Andres Iniesta.
Their places in the team would have been in jeopardy and the idea of losing them or even loaning them elsewhere, could have changed the course of football history altogether. Looking back, the possible move seems a gamble rather than a marquee superhit signing.
Ultimately of course the move never materialized and it was a win-win for the three concerned clubs. Manchester United kept on collecting trophies. Ronaldinho went on to become the club’s top scorer in his maiden season, and won two league titles and the Champions League during five unforgettable years at the Camp Nou. Real Madrid fell short of their galactic expectations, but Beckham was a success at the Santiago Bernabeu and did win one league title before heading to LA Galaxy in 2007.
Every moment of the transfer madness eventually pointed to this. The fact is that some matches are made in heaven, tiki-taka and Brazilian flair will forever go hand in hand, and Ronaldinho will long be remembered as one of Barca’s greatest ever players.