Brazil: Tale of the two Ronnies

He came into the tournament heralded as the world's greatest player, but Ronaldinho has yet to impose himself on the World Cup. As the holders prepare to face Ghana tonight, James Lawton reports on growing concern for a brilliant Brazilian
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Nowhere in all of football does pressure move so swiftly, and drop more hawk-like, than here in this Brazilian camp preparing with some apprehension for today's collision with the free spirits and brave running of Ghana, the great hope of Africa.

Up until a few days day ago it weighed most heavily on the shoulders of Ronaldo, sneered at by most of the nation, including the president, for his bulging waistline and painful immobility. But then he scored two goals against Japan and he is a hero again.

So where does world sport's harshest of spotlights switch? It is to to the man who was by now supposed to have this 18th World Cup virtually in his back pocket. Now it is Ronaldinho - little Ronaldo - who hears the muttering that he knows can so quickly turn into a vengeful roar.

Tostao, a brilliantly acute acolyte of Pele when Brazil won their third and most spectacular World Cup in Mexico in 1970, fired the first hurtful shot.

"Where is Ronaldinho," asked the Brazilian legend. "Is he still back in Barcelona?" Today it is likely the pressure gauge will be turned up another notch by the Brazilian coach, Carlos Alberto Pareira. Though by Brazilian standards a deeply cautious football man, Parreira seems certain to demand that Ronaldinho claims the centre of the stage against Ghana after a befuddling series of marginal qualifying group performances.

The coach took one large stride towards revolution when he broke up the "Magic Quartet" by inserting the young and explosively quick Robinho in place of Adriano in the Japanese match and the strong word is that with the youngster injured he will move Ronaldinho much closer to Ronaldo, and keep the impressive Juninho Pernambucano in a reshaped midfield.

This is part tactics, part psychology. One Brazilian source close to the coach and the players explains the tide that is flowing against Ronaldinho.

"We look at Barcelona's Ronaldinho and we marvel at a great player, one full of adventure and belief ... then we look at Brazil's Ronaldinho and we are very disappointed. It as if he is saying: 'look, I'm playing in midfield, I'm doing my job' - but of course we want more. We are saying: 'Ronaldinho, give us all that you have, give us your heart and your talent...

"As long as Ronaldo was struggling so badly, it wasn't so difficult for Ronaldinho. He could get through his games without too much reaction - and of course he still does beautiful things. But he isn't taking over the team, he isn't saying as someone like Pele said: 'I'm the man - play through me, I'll win the World Cup. Maybe it will happen, but it has to be soon. This is a World Cup that is passing Ronaldinho by."

Certainly he is not yet a runner in any player of the tournament stakes. Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose, of Germany, Juan Roman Riquelme and Lionel Messi, of Argentina, and Fernando Torres, of Spain, have all given evidence that they could be the men of destiny on the March to Berlin on 9 July. When he is asked about his current form the 26-year-old, twice-elected world footballer of the year shrugs and smiles that disarming smile and says: "It will get better ... as a team we are moving more confidently, everyone is pleased Ronaldo has proved that he is still a great player, as I always said he was, and now the tournament is moving into its serious stage. As an individual player I am aware of my responsibilities - and so is the team."

Yet "Waiting for Ronaldinho" is without doubt the most perceptible undercurrent in Brazilian thinking as they prepare for the challenge of Ghana. It is waiting for genius, for the authority that is produced by only the very best players when the stakes are at their highest.

Tonight there is a special demand on the Brazilians, and, more than anybody, Ronaldinho, because of a quirk of their football history. Among all their prizes they do not have an Olympic gold medal and it is something that buzzes irritatingly just under their skin. Tonight it also creates another point of concern because in the last 10 years Africa has twice denied Brazil the coveted prize.

In the semi-final in '96 a Brazilian team containing Rivaldo was cruising to victory over Nigeria. They led 3-1, were controlling every phase of the play, and then something extraordinary happened. Kanu scored twice and Nigeria went on to win gold. Four years later Wanderley Luxemburgo, a victim in one of the recent Real Madrid purges, lost his job when Brazil were knocked out by Cameroon in the quarter-finals in Sydney. The defeat was considered serious enough for a change of leadership, Luis Felipe Scolari moving into the dug-out. Cameroon had been reduced to nine men but they were still able to score the golden goal that took them through.

"Those defeats linger in our memory very strongly," says the Brazilian insider. "We ask ourselves if there is something in African teams that make it so difficult for us to beat ... do they find a weakness in us. It is something that has got the team quite edgy." Says Parreira: "Nobody needs to tell us that Ghana are a threat if we are not anything like our best. They should have played in the World Cup a long time ago. They deserve to be in the last sixteen and they played very well even when they were losing 2-0 to Italy. Since then they have showed their character - and their power. Apart from anything else, they are a very good - very sound team. We will do very well to remember the pedigree of Africa football. It has the strength to surprise the strongest football nations, as we know from down the years." The Ghana coach, Ratomir Djukovic, a Serbian football mercenary who seen service in Venezuela, Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates, believes that he has caught Brazil at one of their lowest points.

He declares: "We'll miss Michael Essien, who has been playing so well, but I still think we can stop them. Yes, they have outstanding players, of course, but you always have to operate as a team to win at this level. " As far as Parreira is concerned, it is an article of faith that you must forge a team, a sense of togetherness, and for examples of this we need look no further than his faith in the rotund but still, we now know, potentially lethal Ronaldo. Parreira was almost as reluctant to drop the hulking Adriano, despite persistent claims that for all his finishing power he is simply not a true Brazilian player. One recent critical assessment could not have been more scathing. "Adriano is a little like Rivaldo, "it declared. "He has talent but he doesn't really play like one of ours. He makes a move and then stops to think. Brazilian players do not do that - not the best ones, anyway." Whether Ronaldinho, who did so much to destroy England's hopes four years ago, still has the capacity to join the greatest of them against the backdrop of the World Cup is one of the most insistent questions being posed before tonight's challenge.

"We know he is a great talent," says Tostao, "but why isn't he doing it for us?" A confidant of Ronaldinho says: "I worry that in his own mind he will always think of himself as the little Ronaldo and not a big star in his own right. Maybe there is something in his background, something he cannot shake when he comes to pull on a Brazilian shirt."

Some speculate that deep down Ronaldinho has never quite recovered from the trauma as an eight year old of seeing his father drown in the swimming pool of the family house bought with the proceeds of his brother Roberto's earnings from football. Ronaldinho, son of a shipyard worker who had his own football ambitions with the club Cruzeiro, said recently: "I don't honestly believe I'm the best player in the world - sometimes I don't even think I'm the best at Barça."

It is a failure of confidence that was not apparent last year when Ronaldinho brought the crowd to their feet for a standing ovation at the Bernabeu when his two brilliant goals ravaged Real Madrid. But then he was the star of Barcelona, an adopted home, a place so far away from the first shaping of his nature. Can he do it, truly, in the gold of Brazil? It is maybe the most compelling question of this World Cup and tonight, certainly, his sceptical nation awaits an answer.