Ronaldinho is back!

Roque Junior and Ronaldinho

Of all the various methods Ronaldinho is reported to have found to irritate the coaching staff at Paris Saint‑Germain during the early days of his soon-to-be stratospheric European career, my favourite is the story of Ronaldinho being spotted, in the wee hours of a weekday morning, playing the bongos on stage at the Club Bikini while dressed (of course) in a giant mask.

It is hard to think of a more Ronaldinho-appropriate way for football’s most gloriously, gratuitously brilliant talent of the past 20 years to fritter away some small percentage of his youth. In England our best players are often described as having something of the playground about them: resembling perhaps a small boy dribbling a tennis ball across the cobbles or, in the case of the best English player of the 1990s, Alan Shearer, bringing to mind – at least during the “walking backwards” years of his dotage – a man very angrily and with many pauses and remonstrations trying to inch a baby grand piano up a narrow flight of stairs.

Similarly Ronaldinho has even in his most incisive footballing moments always seemed, in some remote part of himself, to be basically playing bongos on stage at the Club Bikini, a quality that will hopefully be in evidence again when he appears for Brazil against England in what already looks like a bravura friendly at Wembley next month.

Yes: Ronaldinho. He’s back, the same perma-smiling one-man footballing band who briefly dominated the skies almost a decade ago now, and who has this week been recalled to the Brazil squad after a year’s absence. It is a most welcome return for a footballer who has only ever given pleasure and who is, on the face of it, the most obvious beneficiary of the re-enthroning of Luiz Felipe Scolari as manager of the Seleçao, the glory boys of Korea and Japan 2002 buddying up for one last job.

It is hard to think of another footballer who might have scored Ronaldinho’s second goal in Barcelona’s 2005 Champions League defeat at Stamford Bridge, product of an almost sarcastic standing double-feint that succeeded in making Ricardo Carvalho move out of the way just enough to allow a toe-poked power-punt to the corner: a brilliant joke of a goal, the football equivalent of Groucho Marx pointing over your shoulder and then stealing your drink.

UEFA Champions League: Chelsea v Barcelona

That same year Ronaldinho was crowned Fifpro World Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year. And odd as it still seems the decline began almost instantly, arriving with a sense of drift and drag and above all of distraction. Received wisdom has it Ronaldinho’s grand flaw was to become a servant to his most destructive footballing vice, that basic enthusiasm for hawking his skills about on behalf of assorted global brands, a marketability given force by the umbilical link he carries to the communal myth kitty of Brazilian football, the shadows of the street-football giants of the past.

And yet, for all this, Ronaldinho is back, and back at a time when Brazilian football must suck in its gut, adopt a hopeful grimace and prepare rather anxiously to host its first World Cup in 64 years. The fact is while Brazil itself is being furiously reworked and revamped, so its football has seemed to shift a little. There are still wonderful players – Chelsea’s Oscar, for example, a deliciously lithe and lissome wonderful talking doll of a midfielder – not to mention the diaspora of travelling worker gnomes out there staffing the world’s many burgeoning carbon start-up leagues. But this is not a great Brazil team: ranked (for what it’s worth) 18th in the world and currently a little jumpy at the prospect of a home shot of that elusive sixth tournament victory. Ronaldinho, of course, was there for the last one.

It remains a long shot. But there is at least an outside chance a tournament that promises both tiger economy flash and a sense of deep footballing soul could yet provide a moment of crowning grace for everybody’s favourite errant bongo-playing Club Bikini genius.

The full article is available at The Guardian.

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