James Lawton: Does Ronaldinho's decline at Barcelona point to the demise of one-club loyalty?

This is bleak for fans who yearn to see a young player growing before their eyes
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The Independent Football

Later in the day when Sir Bobby Charlton celebrated the 50th anniversary of his debut for Manchester United, and handed a 500-game long-service award to his enduringly brilliant successor Paul Scholes, there was a rather more forlorn reason to think again of those days when "great" players were required to build their reputations match by match, year by year.

It was the latest evidence of a talent eroding so quickly that it is becoming almost impossible to believe that a year ago it illuminated every corner of the world game.

Last season Ronaldinho was so exquisitely effective at the Bernabeu even the most embittered Madrileño was obliged to rise to his feet to salute the scale of the Brazilian's talent. He scored two goals of football fantasy, he evoked the skills of one of the teams of the ages, the Real of Di Stefano, Puskas and Kopa. But on Sunday he inhabited the shadows, as he had at Stamford Bridge a few days earlier and as he did almost from his first kick to last in the World Cup. In Germany Tostao, a sublime contributor to Brazil's masterful triumph in Mexico in 1970, wrote scathingly, "When is Ronaldinho going to show up and by that I mean the Ronaldinho who plays for Barcelona?"

Tostao, nor any of his countrymen, would entertain such heightened expectations now, a fact which makes the angst over Ronaldinho's latest big-match failure all the more poignant. Inevitably one question runs through a Spanish League he dominated for two breath-taking seasons: what's gone wrong with Ronaldinho, why have the lights been switched off? It is too soon to talk of burn-out. Ronaldinho is just 26 and has had a mere two years as the leader and inspiration of Barça. Before that he languished in relative obscurity with Paris St-Germain, where he had a reputation for being less than an ultimately committed pro before bursting out brilliantly, if briefly for Brazil in the 2002 World Cup. Maybe the lure of the Barcelona night, one of Europe's most exciting, is making its claims. Maybe the weight of success and celebrity is taking its toll on what some say is an essentially retiring nature.

There is another defence of the sliding Ronaldinho, and it is one that has been raised again on behalf of the depressingly erratic English hero Steven Gerrard. It is that Ronaldinho is miscast on the left side of the Barça team (as Gerrard supposedly is on the right side for Liverpool). The argument is that Ronaldinho's talent should be at the heart of both his club and Brazil.

The reality is that great players set their own terms with the force of their performance. They engage the opposition, they inflict themselves wherever they happen to be on the field. Franz Beckenbauer, Franco Baresi, and Charlton, who was required to perform for the best part of several frustrating seasons on the left wing, often made it clear where and how they preferred to perform. But their stature was relentlessly expressed in the way their relevance was proclaimed in almost every game they played.

We could talk all day about new attitudes and priorities, and how the world has changed, without getting to the point of why Ronaldinho is sublime one season and in the next, without suffering any kind of significant injury, be so peripheral he might just as well park himself on the bench. We could talk about counter-measures, the loss of surprise, the dwindling of aura, but sooner or later we probably have to confront a question that is never far from the surface of today's football culture.

This one asks: has Ronaldinho had his time at Barcelona? Has he, and perhaps as pertinently, his agent, decided it is time to move on? Is it, after two years as the freely acknowledged best player in the world, the right moment to cast aside the Nou Camp T-shirt that has been done so extravagantly? The question is not so cynical when you consider the working patterns of today's game. A key factor in the workmanlike improvement of Real Madrid under Fabio Capello has been the aggression and the goals of Ruud van Nistelrooy. Last season at Old Trafford, Van Nistelrooy was a parody of the predator who so quickly became one of Sir Alex Ferguson's best signings. His play was languid. Off the field he smouldered. And some old football soldiers were sure they read familiar signs: Van Nistlerooy's body language said he was playing to get away. Whatever the strength of that suspicion, there is no questioning the result; the jaded Dutchman of Old Trafford is now pawing the ground at the Bernabeu.

There is one possible interpretation of this admittedly circumstantial evidence. It is that we are not watching the decline of a marvellous talent as Ronaldinho shuffles into the margins of the Barça effort, but the last acceleration of the disappearing tradition of consistency and enduring loyalty to one club that was marked at Old Trafford when Charlton shook hands with Scholes, and Sir Tom Finney and Denis Law looked on. Maybe in Ronaldinho we are seeing the way that from now on it will always be. Today, perhaps, it is Ronaldinho, tomorrow, maybe, it will be his astonishingly precocious teenage team-mate Lionel Messi, who becomes becalmed in a way that often quickly leads to a change of scene - and a change of contract.

This is bleak speculation for all those who yearn for the sight of an outstanding young player growing before their eyes, not for a season or two but for the full reach of his maturity.

Arsenal are excused if they take, for the moment at least, a jauntier view of the future. They, after all, have Cesc Fabregas signed up for eight years. The rest of football can only wonder how it happened. No doubt for Arsenal, especially when they look at their European Cup final conquerors Barça, it is enough that it has.

Sobering reminder for England of past challenges

As England gather themselves for the defence of the Ashes, and wonder fretfully if the cuffing they received from the Aussies at the weekend is a foretaste of potentially vicious revenge starting next month in Brisbane, they should comfort themselves that the challenge could be rather more severe.

A reminder of this lies in the yellowing pages of Jack Fingleton's Brightly Fades the Don, an account by the fine opening batsmen of the 1948 Australian tour of England.

Wrote Fingleton on the first page, "'He's on.' The call echoed along the passage-way of RMS Strathaird as the ship lay at the Fremantle wharf. It was one steward calling to another, and in his voice was unmistakable excitement. It reminded me of the call, 'It's on' that used to sweep through the far northern towns of Queensland in the war years when the thirsty troops were tramping the streets in search of beer.

"When they found it (which wasn't often) there used to be that delirious shout and it could mean only one thing. So too could the call on the Strathaird mean only one thing. It meant that Don Bradman had come aboard, en route to England."

In a foreword to Fingleton's book the great advocate Sir Norman Birkett wrote, "I can commend this book without reserve to all who love to read the brave and bright chronicle of enduring things."

We can only hope England endure longer than a bad morning at the Gabba.

Raikkonen's spot of bother at Schumacher farewell

When it was put to Kimi Raikkonen, the new hope of Ferrari, that he had appeared less than spell- bound by the presentation made to his predecessor, Michael Schumacher, by Brazil's greatest sporting son, Pele (right), he said rather bluntly that he had been somewhat distracted by his need for an extremely basic biological function.

The laconic Finn, however, did not display any great measure of regret. No more than a slight lapse in style, we may say, but if some of Schumacher's legacy is dubious, as we have been endlessly told, there was no question about the weight of Formula One's loss as the phenomenal racer drove over the horizon.

Certainly world champion Fernando Alonso's final tribute was most appropriate. He said that he felt his two title wins would always have extra significance for him because they were accomplished in the presence of greatness. Schumacher left as he began, driving to his limits and, as it happened, passing Raikkonen in a fashion which might just have provoked the idea of another trip to the lavatory.