Ronaldinho acclaimed as the best of the best in football's new world order

The brilliant Brazilian has now succeeded Zinedine Zidane as the greatest footballer on the planet
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The Independent Football

It was a moment that could, under different circumstances, have been considered as defining in the course of English football. Half-time at a Manchester United pre-season friendly in Philadelphia and out in the muggy heat at pitch level, amid the murmur of a curious crowd, Ronaldinho checked his stride and stopped to shake the hand of Sir Alex Ferguson.

It was a moment that could, under different circumstances, have been considered as defining in the course of English football. Half-time at a Manchester United pre-season friendly in Philadelphia and out in the muggy heat at pitch level, amid the murmur of a curious crowd, Ronaldinho checked his stride and stopped to shake the hand of Sir Alex Ferguson.

For a second back then in August 2003, we were presented with a vision of what might have been. The greatest British manager of the last decade joining forces with the player whose unique talent has not just won him the Fifa World Player of the Year award, but who could be the greatest footballer of his generation for many years. The pity for Ferguson that hot afternoon was that Ronaldinho was wearing a Barcelona shirt.

Last year's pursuit of Ronaldinho had been exhausting for United and the end was humiliating. At the start of their 2003 America summer tour, the-then United chief executive Peter Kenyon said that the club had to accept, "the player didn't want to come to us and we didn't offer enough money". It was the first time United had been so publicly rejected by one of the world's best players and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they are still counting the cost.

Last night's award was confirmation that Ronaldinho has edged Zinedine Zidane off the stage as the world's most complete performer with a ball at his feet. Real Madrid's 32-year-old playmaker has ruled the roost for most of the last seven years, but his retirement from international football was tacit acknowledgement that his powers are on the wane. The abilities of Ronaldinho, in contrast, have finally found a stage at the Nou Camp upon which they can flourish.

Thierry Henry's second place will, you suspect, disappoint this solemn 27-year-old for whom reputation and acclaim are subjects to be taken seriously. Ronaldinho, 24, will greet the news of his victory just as he would have tackled defeat. With one of those face-splitting grins that suffices for all occasions, whether it is at a critical impasse during a defeat of Real Madrid in the Nou Camp or a kickabout with his friends in his native Porto Alegre in southern Brazil.

He does not have the studied gravitas of his rival, indeed that smile can make him appear flippant at times, but Ronaldinho lacks nothing when it comes to raw ability. His impact when he signed for Barcelona at the start of last season was immediate and phenomenal and he gave president Joan Laporta's vision of a revitalised club impetus and flair. Barcelona might not have won La Liga last season, but they finished higher than Real Madrid, and this summer there was no problem signing more of Europe's biggest names. Samuel Eto'o, Deco, Henrik Larsson and Ludovic Giuly all came willingly.

While Real sit unconvincingly in third place, Barcelona now lead La Liga by nine points and it was Ronaldinho who won (albeit outrageously) and converted the penalty that earned a 1-1 draw with Valencia on Sunday. In the 3-0 victory over Real last month, he stole the show. Amid the tension and hate spilling from the sides of the Nou Camp, that awkward grin was never far from his face. For quality, his goal rivalled an earlier dazzling strike against AC Milan in the Champions League.

Despite those performances there is a feeling in Spain that a niggling ankle injury that refuses to heal has meant Ronaldinho's contribution this season has not quite matched that of his last campaign. In fact, some would go as far as to say that Eto'o, with 15 goals to Ronaldinho's seven, has out-performed him. And rather like Henry, Ronaldinho was a contender for Fifa's award for his performances that preceded the summer.

He has built his reputation on symbolising a whole new approach to the art of goalscoring. It hardly needs to be pointed out that he is fast as well as physically strong and comes with a repertoire of tricks and flourishes that have become his signature. He has trademarked a pass that is sent in one direction while he looks the other way. The outrageous flick followed by a twisting volley that Ronaldinho smashed into the Seville goal last year is not any less watchable for its constant repetition on television.

A dip into Ronaldinho's past tells us that this has not been an effortless rise to the brink of greatness. His brother Roberto Assis, now head of the ever-shifting entourage around him, was a promising young Brazilian footballer in the 1980s and, as part of his deal with club side Gremio, was bought a new house. It was there, when Ronaldinho was 12, that the boys' father Roberto Assis senior suffered a heart attack in the swimming pool and died.

While the older of the two sons never made his mark, Ronaldinho first made his presence felt as part of Brazil's 1999 Copa America team. He regularly watches, he says, a video that his father made for him shortly before his death outlining the qualities that his son would need to succeed in professional football. They were qualities that many thought he might never develop through a difficult two years at Paris St-Germain.

The young striker endured a fraught relationship with the-then PSG coach Luis Fernandez and lingered too long, the club felt, in his native Brazil after international matches. He was also hard to track down. Over his entire doomed pursuit of the player, Ferguson never once got to speak to Ronaldinho face-to-face.

It is a source of some pride in Barcelona that the fears that surrounded the temperament of Ronaldinho, a £21.25m signing, have not materialised. In Paris, he embraced the lifestyle of the international playboy footballer wholeheartedly, infamously sneaking girls into the team hotel. In Spain now they are not even sure if he has a current girlfriend, so low has his profile been off the pitch.

At £10.5m Henry can at least claim to be cheaper than Ronaldinho, although not as cheap as when Monaco offered him to United in 1997. It will be a source of some regret at Old Trafford that with a bit more luck, and slightly more judgement, both of them could have ended up at United.

Top three and breakdown of voting

The voting

1. Ronaldinho (Barcelona & Brazil) 620 points (89 first places, 47 second, 34 third)

2. Thierry Henry (Arsenal & France) 552 points (79 first places, 42 second, 31 third)

3. Andrei Shevchenko (Milan & Ukraine) 253 points (34 first places, 19 second, 26 third)

Coaches and captains

England: Eriksson: Henry, Deco, Nedved. Beckham: Henry, Ronaldo, Zidane. Northern Ireland: Sanchez: Henry, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo. Hughes: Ronaldinho, Henry, Deco. Scotland: Vogts: Henry, Deco, Zagorakis. Ferguson: Rooney, Henry, Gerrard. Wales: Hughes: Nedved, Makaay, Larsson. Speed: Nedved, Eto'o, Figo. Rep of Ireland: Kerr: Ronaldinho, Henry, Deco. No captain's votes.

Previous winners

2003: Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid)

2002: Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

2001: Luis Figo (Real Madrid)

2000: Zinedine Zidane (Juventus)

1999: Rivaldo (Barcelona)

1998: Zinedine Zidane (Juventus)

1997: Ronaldo (Internazionale)

1996: Ronaldo (Barcelona)

1995: George Weah (Milan)

1994 Romario (Barcelona)

1993: Roberto Baggio (Juventus)

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