Ronaldinho, the Brazilian forward who scored that free-kick to knock England out of the 2002 World Cup, last night reignited the ongoing feud between the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and the club's former chief executive Peter Kenyon when he admitted that his proposed move to last season's Premiership champions fell through because of "the way the talks were carried out".
Ronaldinho, whose Barcelona team play Celtic in the second leg of their Uefa Cup tie on Thursday, believes that his chances of joining Manchester United from Paris Saint-Germain last summer were greatly reduced when it was decided to bypass the French club's board when negotiating the deal. "I think PSG felt upset with the manner they were treated," he says. "Perhaps it would have made a difference if he [Kenyon] had done what Barcelona did and talked to Mr [Francis] Graille [the PSG president]."
Ronaldinho's assessment would appear to back Ferguson's claims that "mistakes were made when attempting to sign the lad". After Ronaldinho put pen to paper on his five-year, £21.25m contract with Barcelona, Graille accused Kenyon, who is now the Chelsea chief executive, of "failing to show PSG the necessary respect". "Man U were too sure of themselves," he said last July, "and they were foolish to assume they could cut the deal directly with the player."
The irony is that Ronald-inho, whose real name is Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, had agreed personal terms with United and would happily have signed for the club had Kenyon agreed a fee with the Paris hierarchy. "Manchester are a great club and it would have been an honour to play for them," says Ronaldinho, who hopes to win the gold medal with Brazil at the Olympic Games in Athens later this year, "but I have to admit that Barça were always my first choice. When I was younger, I used to watch my idols on TV - Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo - and hope that one day I, too, would be a hero of the Nou Camp."
Judging by the way the Barça aficion-ados chant his name at every opportunity, it would appear that Ronaldinho is fast attaining the status of the three previous Brazilian Rs. "I don't know," he says in a typically shy manner. "I don't feel like a star. Not yet. I still have a lot to learn and improve on. I'm not the finished product." When will he be? "I'm not sure," he says. "You know, it's one thing to be a good player, but the Maradonas, Romarios, Zidanes, Van Bastens, Rijkaards, Rivaldos or Ronaldos - they are still a long way off."
At first, Ronaldinho must have feared that his dream move might be turning into a nightmare, as Barcelona made a terrible start to their league campaign and lingered in mid-table for three months. Since Christmas, though, the club's turnaround in fortunes has been remarkable. Inspired by Ronaldinho, Barcelona have climbed to third in the table, a position synonymous with Champions' League football for next season.
"I think that we always had the players," says the 24-year-old, "but perhaps we didn't have the self-belief. It took Frank Rijkaard [the former Dutch international, who replaced Radi Antic as Barcelona manager at the beginning of the season] a while to get his ideas through to the players, but he is someone who understands us all perfectly now. Frank was one of the greatest players football ever produced, and we're learning from his experiences. Now we know we can beat anyone."
Even Celtic? There was a time when Barça would have eased past such opposition, but they trail the Scottish League leaders 1-0 following the heated first leg in Glasgow 10 days ago, and will need all their players to be at their best if they are to progress to the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup. "Celtic are tough opponents," he says, "with a fantastic, world-class player in Henrik Larsson. Celtic proved in the first leg that they meant business, but now we have the chance to show our own determination."
Ronaldinho accepts that the first leg at Celtic Park was marred by the three red cards - one for Celtic and two for Barça - but he insists his side will not lose their temper again on home soil. "We all know that Scottish football is a very physical game," he says. "We'll have to be strong, but that's OK. The Nou Camp is an unbelievable arena, probably the only stadium in the world that resembles the Maracana, and I'm sure 100,000 screaming fans will intimidate the Celtic players."
If only Barça had a team to match their imposing stadium, a team like Brazil. "I've got to say that our national team are wonderful at the moment," Ronaldinho says. "It's a very exciting set-up to be part of. We have a new generation emerging with guys like Kaka, Robinho, Diego and Luis Fabiano coming through the ranks to complement the older players such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Gilberto Silva."
Having won their fifth World Cup two years ago in Japan and South Korea, the boys from Brazil will be favourites again come Germany 2006. "Maybe," Ronaldinho says, "but it's going to be extremely tough. I know that no South American team have won the World Cup on European soil since 1958 [when Brazil triumphed against Sweden], but I do believe that we are capable of lifting the trophy anywhere in the world. Most of us have experience of the various leagues and that will stand us in good stead for any future tournament."
Ronaldinho admits that he is constantly dreaming of "doing it all over again in Germany in 2006", but must concentrate all his immediate energies on Barcelona.
With the Spanish title out of reach, the Catalan club need to lift the Uefa Cup to appease their impatient fans. "If we want to be able to consider this season a success," Ronaldinho says, "then we have to win this competition. That's why we have to beat Celtic." Do not expect any tears in Manchester if Barça fail.Reuse content