Ronaldinho: The happy hero

As captivating as what he can do with a football is that he so manifestly enjoys himself doing it
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For Ronaldinho, there are only two ways in which 2006 can turn out to be a better year than 2005, the year in which he was officially declared the best footballer on the planet. One is by Brazil winning the World Cup; the other by Barcelona winning the European Cup.

The odds against the toothy Brazilian getting his slender fingers on both those coveted trophies in the next 12 months yesterday stood at 13/2.

It is a decent bet. The greatest football teams don't always carry off the most glittering prizes, but if that's the way it works out, then next summer will see Barcelona being crowned European champions for the second time and Brazil, for the sixth time, becoming champions of the world.

To do so, Barcelona will have to beat Chelsea in the next round of the Champions' League, and Brazil might have to beat England. But even for football-lovers in this country, if they can set aside all feelings of partisanship, it will be a satisfying double.

A major part of the reason why no national team plays as excitingly as Brazil, and no club side as thrillingly as Barcelona, is that no footballer plays like Ronaldinho. He has extraordinary skill, dazzling pace, almost other-worldly vision.

But at least as captivating as what he can do with a football is that he so manifestly enjoys himself doing it. The buck-toothed grin is never far away, and when it flashes it lights up the whole of Catalonia.

Indeed, for all that Ronaldinho regularly works wonders on the football pitch, his most singular achievement has been to lift the morale of the entire Catalan nation. Even though there are (a few) Catalans uninterested in football, they all feel the effect of Ronaldinho. If that reads like the hyperbole of an over-excited profile-writer, then go there and see it for yourself.

Barcelona is a unique football club in that it represents the political, social and economic autonomy of a region that considers itself part of Spain only in a geographical sense, and even then grudgingly.

At the moment, moreover, relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain are even more strained than usual. The Catalans are seeking to increase their autonomy while the government in Madrid is trying to divert Catalan wealth to poorer areas, such as Anadalucia.

This is why the world of football has nothing comparable to the enmity between Barcelona and Real Madrid, the footballing incarnation of the Spanish establishment, famously supported by King Juan Carlos. There is a religious dimension to the bitterness that prevails in Glasgow between supporters of Rangers and Celtic, and a social dimension to the hatred that burns in Buenos Aires between fans of River Plate and Boca Juniors, but Barca fans believe that the Madridistas are an affront to their very identity.

Consequently, when Gary Lineker managed to score a hat-trick for Barcelona against Real Madrid in the mid-1980s, there were serious suggestions that he should be immortalised in statue form.

By stark contrast, when the Portuguese maestro Luis Figo chose to leave Barcelona, where he had been idolised, to join Real Madrid, he virtually put his life on the line. When he returned to play in the intimidating crucible of Barcelona's majestic Camp Nou stadium, Figo was prevented from taking corner kicks for fear that a nearby Barca fan might murder or at the very least maim him.

This is the feverish atmosphere into which Ronaldinho - having played for two years in the considerably tamer French league for Paris St Germain - was plunged in 2003. Real Madrid had won the European Cup three times since 1998 and had just succeeded in adding David Beckham to their stable of so-called galacticos. It seemed as if they were going to become once more the unstoppable force in European football that they had been in winning the European Cup for five successive years following its inception in 1956.

In fact, Barcelona had tried to sign Beckham ahead of Ronaldinho, while Madrid had had an opportunity to sign Ronaldinho ahead of Beckham. This now looks like an almost comical pair of misjudgements, yet by the end of 2003 it was Real who had greater cause for satisfaction. Beckham had started well in Spanish football, whereas Ronaldinho's skills seemed lavish but ineffectual.

In La Liga, Spain's version of the Premiership, Barcelona lagged 18 points behind their great rivals. Since then, however, Real's fortunes have declined as dramatically as Barcelona's have risen - further compounding the talismanic status of Ronaldinho, whose mesmerising talent has propelled the Barca revival.

It is a paradox that the greatest heroes of so nationalistic a club should always have been foreigners, but that is the case: Ronaldinho has joined the great Johann Cruyff and, to a lesser extent his fellow Brazilian Romario, in the pantheon of Barcelona gods.

And while both Cruyff and Romario could be tricky characters, Ronaldinho is unequivocally delightful. Unsurprisingly, he is no less revered in Brazil, where, fittingly, there is a samba named after him.

It was as a 19-year-old in the 1999 Copa America that he burst onto the international stage, coming on as a late substitute against Venezuela and scoring an astonishing goal that had even old-timers, among them Ronaldinho's childhood hero Zico, purring with delight.

In the 2002 World Cup in Japan he scored an even more significant goal, this time breaking English hearts. He has since admitted that there was in fact a somewhat fluky element to the free-kick that caught the England goalkeeper David Seaman off his line and gave Brazil an unassailable lead in the quarter-final. However, not even the most ardent England fans could claim that the team had been hard done by; Ronaldinho's genius is such that it makes its own fortune.

It is a genius that was once expected to illuminate the English Premiership. Following the World Cup, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson identified Ronaldinho as his main transfer target, and even the player himself thought that Trafford Old, rather than Camp Nou, was destined to be his new home.

He started learning English and in early June 2003 some English newspapers reported the move as a done deal. The Sun quoted Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the Dutch striker with whom Ronaldinho would surely have formed a devastating partnership (and the mind boggles at the thought of Wayne Rooney then being added to the mix), as saying: "It's perfect, just perfect. It's fantastic news, both for the club and for me."

However, Ferguson had left the deal in the hands of his chief executive Peter Kenyon, who reportedly did not pursue it energetically enough, and in the end Ronaldinho was wooed by Barcelona, who in turn had failed to land Beckham. Kenyon, ironically, is now chief executive at Chelsea, one of the main beneficiaries of Ronaldinho's decision not to sign for United - except, of course, that they keep having to play Barcelona in the Champions' League.

As for United, it could be argued that the failure to sign Ronaldinho was as pivotal in the recent history of the club as the controversial takeover by the Glazer family. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the man at the centre of all this excitement is still only 25. He was born, in the southern Brazilian town of Porto Alegre, Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, and given his nickname, meaning "little Ronaldo", to distinguish him from Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima, his older compatriot and predecessor both as European and World Footballer of the Year.

A career in football always beckoned; his father was a professional, and so was his older brother. Ronaldinho joined the local club, Gremio, when he was just seven, and even at that age practised endlessly under his father's watchful gaze.

His main inspiration other than Zico was the Argentinian Diego Maradona. "When I first saw Maradona juggling with an orange I knew I wanted to be like him," he has recalled.

Like Maradona, and almost all top-class South American footballers sooner or later, Ronaldinho in due course left to ply his trade in Europe, signing for Paris St Germain in 2001.

It was not a particularly happy experience. The PSG coach Luis Fernandez disapproved of his fondness for night-clubs, and only the intervention of the directors stopped Fernandez from dropping Ronaldinho when - horreur! - he was eventually found in bed with a woman at the team hotel late on the eve of a match against Lens.

In fairness to Fernandez, it is a well-established tenet of football management that sex on the eve of a game is not a good thing.

The great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly used to tell his players to wear boxing gloves in bed, and if that didn't work he used to advise them to "send her to her mother's".

Whatever, the night life of Paris - and in particular the Montecristo club on the Champs Elysees, which was his favourite hangout - proved irresistible to a young man from small-town provincial Brazil.

For two years, in and out of the team and at loggerheads with the manager, the only potential Ronaldinho seemed likely to fulfil was as a playboy.

During that period it was for Brazil rather than PSG that he glittered most. Now he seems to glitter all the time on the field, and has settled down off it, although he is still known to enjoy the company of beautiful women. That much is made of his own degree of pulchritude - or lack of it - is best ascribed to envy.

England's own talisman, too, is used to being teased for having a face that, in the recent words of the 1970s footballer Stan Bowles, "only a mother could love". The actual truth is that neither Ronaldinho nor Rooney has film-star looks, but nor are they exactly ugly.

For Bowles and his ilk, unfortunately, there has to be some punishment for being able to do such exquisite things with a football.And exquisite is what it is, hence the altogether thrilling notion that these two men might line up against one another in next year's World Cup final. Ronaldinho, for one, thinks it will happen.

"I respect all sides, but I think England will make the final," he said last month. "They are very strong and have a very good trainer, and I don't agree that they have inferior technique. I like Rooney, too. He is very promising and I think things will get better for him."

And then he grinned. "But Brazilian football is different."

With Ronaldinho as its heartbeat, there can be no argument with that.

A Life in Brief

BORN Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, 21 March 1980, in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

FAMILY Father and brother professional footballers.

TRAINING Joined home-town team of Gremio de Porto Alegre at six and played in youth squad before signing in first team at 17.

CAREER Selected to play for Brazil's under-17 in 1997, makes international debut with the national team at 18. Moves to Europe first with St Germain in France, 2001, then with Barcelona in 2003.

RECORD 61 international caps and 23 goals for Brazil. 172 professional appearances and 64 goals since the age of 17.

HE SAYS "I'm the happiest man on earth - I play for a great team, I have lots of friends, people appreciate the way I play, and I want to continue to give happiness."

THEY SAY "He's on another level to the rest." - Diego Maradona

"He is a true artist with the ball." - Pele