We say goodbye to the most joyous and fulfilling footballing career of the 21st century. With Ronaldinho, you remember how you felt more than how he played.
In the seventeenth century, enslaved workers of African American descent living in the southern states of America, their lives dripping in sweat and despondency, began playing around with tools of dialogue amongst themselves. They came up with a call-and-response pattern where the leader of the pack would shout out a line, and the others would respond to them in perfect rhythm.
It soon took the shape of free-form poetry. Leaders had the license to improvise the melody as long as they stayed in rhythm. The fields of Louisiana and Texas, where the seeds of modern American xenophobia were sown, saw the birth of blues music. Improvisation and emotion were its pillars.
In February 2002, two of the finest exponents of blues music came together for an album. One was an African-American born in the cotton-fields of Mississippi, the other an Englishman from Surrey.
A few months later, a Brazilian playmaker was standing on top of the Adidas Fevernova ball, waiting to take his free-kick. The game was in the balance at 1-1 and half-an-hour of regulation time left. He looked up to spot his marksmen among the sea of Englishmen protecting their goal.
It was an age where football, as indeed the world, was moving out of the rampant 90s to a more pragmatic and cynical approach to life in the new century. Millions of dollars were spent on nuclear warheads as means of return-fire, George Bush won two consecutive elections, Greece defended their way to a European Championship, Jose Mourinho built a fortress at Stamford Bridge and Fabio Cannavaro won the World Cup and Ballon d’Or. The world wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams with joy, love and light.
Whenever the balance of football has tilted towards those hues of grey, Brazil has been the answer, in streaks of canary yellow, cobalt blue and green. The country been at the forefront of football’s movement towards an art form, ever since Leonidas hip-twisted his way into world consciousness in the 1930s. Brazilian footballers carry the back-breaking weight of that legacy every time they set foot on grass.
For Ronaldinho, this legacy was a license to paint football in his favorite colors. And it was art of the all-inclusive kind. The audience were as much part of the show as the jelly-legged defenders trying to anticipate his next move. Most times, both were left wide-eyed in awe, like they had just watched Oscar Peterson play Makin’ Whoopee live.
“When you have the ball at your feet, you are free. It is almost like you’re hearing music. That feeling will make you spread joy to others. You’re smiling because football is fun. Why would you be serious? Your goal is to spread joy.”
Years before its advent into everyday life and football, Ronaldinho was made for YouTube and highlight reels. A recording of him trying out new boots by repeatedly hitting a ball onto the crossbar and trapping it without letting it hit the ground was the first to hit a million views on the platform.
There was another video which emerged during Nike’s Joga Bonito campaign that showed Ronaldinho as a kid scoring 21 goals in a futsal match, with sudden flashes of the present day version wearing the same clothes doing the same things, and samba percussion for background music. Time and again, when elite defenders breathed down his neck, Ronaldinho turned to his roots of music and dance to wriggle his way through.
When John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho stood between him and Petr Cech’s goal, it wasn’t a problem, but an opportunity to try out that new dance move he learnt the other day. Two hip-twists and a swing of the toe later, he went reeling away in celebration to the corner flag of another masterful goal. Stamford Bridge was still recovering by the time Ronaldinho trotted back to the centre-circle.
In the first three of the four years he spent at Barcelona, Ronaldinho was king of the world. Every single match was an exhibition, a show with the brightest, most blinding lights. He routinely did everything you would find in the skill-tutorial of a football video game today, many times over.
History will remember two kinds of modern greats. One, the colossal, the Messis and the Ronaldos. They dedicate their lives to football and build monuments of statistics. They are like trained sharpshooters, discipline and low-carb pasta makes for their dinner.
The other, well, the ones who weren’t afraid of the audacious. They live for the thrill of seeing a defender turn into jelly as they waltzed past, ball bouncing and rebounding from every part of their legs. They’ll gorge on a steak and beer the night before a match and turn up the next day to score a goal or pull off a turn that would be the highlight of the audience’s evening.
Ronaldinho, if he really focussed, could’ve walked his way to more titles and championships. But that would be the greatest injustice to the very reason he played the sport. Can you imagine him playing with a sullen face, dropping back and defending corners? Would you ever ask B.B. King to play in an orchestra?
‘Dinho played his football a lot like the late Mr. King would play on stage, full of improvised solo runs which left dropped jaws in their wake. Sure there were blips, but after the end of every show, the audience always left smiling, basking in the effervescent glow of such rare genius. For a world suffering from chronic depression, he was therapy.
Fifteen years on, as I see the recording of Ronaldinho floating the ball towards the England box, I am confident he meant it. For a kid with a football, there is nothing more joyful than chipping the keeper from a distance. That afternoon in Shizouka, with the heat reducing world-class athletes into gooey plops of blood and muscle, ‘Dinho was just having fun. Like he always did.