Though every cartoonist in the Iberian peninsula regularly depicts Ronaldinho as football's Bugs Bunny, there is more, much more, to the Brazilian dancing master than a buck-toothed perma-grin. All of Barcelona will be aghast, and the rest of the football community would be surprised, if the genius who has revitalised the city's premier club does not become Fifa's World Player of the Year tomorrow, thus extending the list of R-men like Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldo from his native land who have picked up the prize in its 14-year history.
Ronaldinho is 3-4 on, while of the other two short-listed players Thierry Henry rates at 7-4 and Andrei Shevchenko, newly crowned as European Footballer of the Year, stands at 5-1. No wonder the followers of Manchester United still indulge in a spot of head-shaking as they try to work out how their club finished up with the likes of Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba while Ronaldinho slipped from Sir Alex Ferguson's grasp at the start of last season to practise his special brand of magic in Catalonia. Never has £22m been better invested, not even by a club urged by supporters and media to splash out on a new star every week.
The crowd-wowing skills of this Fred Astaire in boots transformed Barcelona's woeful start to a runner-up finish in La Liga last May and this year those skills have propelled the side into the sort of clear lead even the Nou Camp faithful can scarcely credit, the highlight being the recent reduction of the old enemy, Real Madrid, to the status of punchbag. If Madrid's key personnel are galacticos, Ronaldinho is a one-man constellation.
No wonder the 24-year-old has been signed up to a new deal, elevating him to top-earner status on a reported bonus-included £100,000 a week, which will keep him at Barcelona until 2008. The club's ambitious president, Joan Laporta, said what he termed "an extra effort" had been made in Ronaldinho's case because "he is going to mark a new era at this club". That era appears well launched, what with Chelsea, led by their former assistant manager Jose Mourinho, now standing in the club's way in the Champions' League quarter-finals.
Barcelona's delighted manager, Frank Rijkaard, calls Ronaldinho "a phenomenon" and anticipates Fifa's decision by calling his left-sided star "the best in the world". Giovanni van Bronckhorst, now a regular at Barça after a less-than successful spell as Arsenal's left-back, confides: "He amazes you every day in training," and the Dutch midfielder, Philip Cocu, is agape with admiration: "His feet are so fast that he can touch the ball four times in half a second. If I tried to do what he does I'd injure myself." Ronaldinho's wholehearted, cheerful attitude has also proved infectious. "My greatest compliment is that he has given us our spirit back," said the captain, Carles Puyol, while Rijkaard considers his dressing-room influence crucial: "He's a character and likes to take the pressure off others, even though he's under so much pressure himself."
The ability to smile, frequently through adversity, was a necessary part of the upbringing of Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, who was born in the southern Brazil city of Porto Alegre on 21 March 1980. His father, Joao, a welder who earned much-needed extra income as a security guard at the city's leading club, Gremio, died bizarrely when Ronaldinho was eight, suffering a heart attack and falling into a swimming pool, where he drowned. The tragic nature of the death was heightened by the fact that the pool was part of the luxury home provided by Gremio for Ronaldinho's older brother, Roberto de Assis, who went on to play in Switzerland for FC Sion before becoming his younger sibling's manager and agent.
Ronaldinho graduated through the levels at Gremio and in 1999 scored a wonder goal on his Brazil debut against Venezuela which guaranteed a better- rewarded club stage. That stage turned out to be in France, with Paris St Germain where, after legal wrangling about the move from Gremio, he made his debut at the start of the 2001-2 season.
Although he loved Paris, Ronaldinho was not enamoured of the quality of the French League and though the club's outstanding player his commitment and love of night club life came in for criticism. Perhaps he missed the warmth of Brazil, which provokes the thought that life in Manchester might not have brought out the best in Ronaldinho, either.
His stock, and value, shot up with another wonder goal, the one lobbed over David Seaman at the 2002 World Cup, and he decided that two years with PSG was enough. Manchester United and Barcelona were the chief bidders, but when United declined to be drawn into an auction Barça's £22m bid clinched a move of which Ronaldinho himself approved. "I had always dreamed of playing in the Nou Camp," he explained. "It is where all my idols have played - Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo - and it is also important to me where I live. I have been lucky to play football in three spectacular cities, Porto Alegre, Paris and now Barcelona. I thought the climate, the city and the language would be better for me."
He was right, and now insists he would be happy to sign an even longer contract. "Barcelona needed a player like me and I needed Barcelona. We are completely right for each other and together we are very strong. But I do not want to be remembered only for making the fans happy. I want to make history by winning things." Tomorrow should offer a good start.
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