Every generation of football fan has that one player who made the game look like the easiest and funnest thing in the world.
Today’s youth have had the pleasure of watching Lionel Messi ruin defences all over the planet with incredible simplicity, but before him, Barcelona had another world beater laying claim to the much coveted GOAT tag.
Ronaldinho was already a World Cup winner by the time he joined the Catalan giants in 2003. He had announced himself to the world in South Korea by royally mugging off England goalkeeper David Seaman with a long and looping free kick before being sent off in that same quarter final clash.
His first season went well, scoring 21 goals in all competitions, though trophy glory evaded Barça as they fell short in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Cup.
He was named the FIFA World Player of the Year for 2004, showing he was at the peak of his powers before he retained the title a year later alongside his only Ballon d’Or. He was fully deserving of France Football’s prize too, finishing comfortably ahead of closest competitors Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
While he didn’t always rack up the goal and assist numbers we swoon over in this day and age, the Brazilian was still clearly ahead of the pack. And what’s more, he always had a smile on his face.
He could do everything with the ball at his feet. Beat players easily with a feint or a trick, play incredible passes and score the most extraordinary goals.
One of those strikes was his brilliant shimmy and strike against Chelsea in the Champions League, where he made a fool of world class players like John Terry and Petr Cech from the edge of the box.
He thrived under the tutelage of manager Frank Rijkaard, calling him “the best coach I ever had and also he’s a good mate”. Barça had been struggling before Ronaldinho’s arrival and he helped them win their first La Liga title since 1999 in 2004/05.
He even got a standing ovation at the Bernabeu when Barça went and beat Real Madrid 3-0 on their own patch. At that time, the only Blaugrana player Los Blancos players had shown their appreciation towards in such a way was Diego Maradona.
He was rightly given the 2005 Ballon d’Or as his incredible performances set Barcelona on their way to a historic treble in 2005/06, running riot alongside Samuel Eto’o, Henrik Larsson and a fledgling Lionel Messi.
There was also more success on the international stage as Brazil won the 2005 Confederations Cup. Ronaldinho scored three goals in the tournament – including one in the 4-1 final victory against Argentina – as the Selecao swept aside the competition, even though they surprisingly lost to Mexico in the group stages.
Showboating isn’t as universally adored as it was in Ronaldinho’s heyday, but he was a player incredibly hard to dislike. Whenever he was playing, eyes were glued to the pitch in stadiums and to screens in homes across the world.
Ballon d’Or winners will continue to come and go, but future winners may never be as iconic, flamboyant and authentic as Ronaldinho.
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