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Whatever happened to all the heroes? The answer to the question, posed rather too often in football's brave new world of marketing and mercenaries, arrived in the 89th minute of the Champions League fixture at Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium last Tuesday night when Ronaldinho, leaving the coup de théâtre until the very last moment, suddenly cut across three AC Milan defenders and unleashed a left-foot shot of magnificent venom into the top corner of the Italians' net.
The goal meant that Barcelona stayed neck and neck with Milan at the top of their group, but something in the crowd's ecstatic, almost cathartic reaction to the strike told you that it meant something more. It was as if the goal had been the final, decisive act in the recuperation of a patient who had been suffering from a seemingly incurable disease. For not only are Barça flying high in the Champions League, but they are also top of Spain's La Primera Liga, in which they host Deportivo La Coruña this weekend.
Since winning the domestic league title in 1999 under the unpopular coach Louis Van Gaal, FC Barcelona experienced a run of consecutive anni horribili during which memories of the wonderful “Dream Team”, assembled by Johan Cruyff in the early 1990s, seemed like something that had gone for ever. And to rub salt into the wound, the decline coincided with Florentino Pérez's conversion of Real Madrid into a collection of galactic thoroughbreds, heading a sexy new marketing empire that made Barcelona look positively menopausal. The trendy city that had dominated the 1990s, first with the Olympics and then with the Dream Team, had seemingly lost its way.
It only takes one person to restore the confidence and the self-belief in a whole community, and that person is an unlikely 24-year-old Brazilian. Unlikely because in spite of all the plaudits he is now receiving, and despite his rapid entry into the pantheon of Barcelona's gods, his first two seasons in Europe at Paris Saint-Germain failed to register on the Richter Scale. His goal in the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup against England brought him more squarely into international focus, but even then the strike was remembered more for David Seaman's misjudgment than for Ronaldinho's brilliance. There were those who maintained that he had miskicked the ball anyway. Further tales of his disputes with the lollypop-sucking, eccentric coach Luis Fernández at PSG fuelled the sensation that Ronaldinho was not as good as some had been saying. Fernández accused him of having “one eye on the ball and the other on the discotheques”, and the end finally came when the Brazilian insulted his manager in his best French after yet another second-half substitution.
The subsequent transfer tale of three cities, Madrid, Manchester and Barcelona, finally ended when Ronaldinho's agent Roberto Assis the man who had become his guardian after his father died allegedly lost patience with Sir Alex Ferguson's indecisive attitude towards his client, though Ferguson claimed that he was never given a chance to speak to “the boy”.
Meanwhile, David Beckham had snubbed Barcelona and gone to Real Madrid, leaving the Catalan door open for Ronaldinho. Besides, a member of Real Madrid's marketing team was said to have advised Pérez that the Brazilian was “too ugly”, and that his presence in the squad would blemish the Alpha-male image of the team's most prominent galácticos, such as Beckham and Figo.
If the above is true, then Real (and Manchester United) must be cursing their misjudgment. After an uncertain start at the club, which mirrored his new team's poor first half to the 2003-04 season, the tide suddenly turned after the Christmas break. Up to then, Beckham and Ronaldinho had been ceaselessly compared as players in the Spanish media, with the Englishman winning hands down. But in classic yin and yang style, Beckham's season began to wane just as Ronaldinho's began to pick up. Making up 18 points on their bitter rivals, the Catalans eventually overtook Real and qualified automatically for the Champions League while Madrid's empire seemed on the point of collapse.
Ronaldinho had been carrying a ankle injury up to that first Christmas, but once he had shrugged it off he began to show off his outrageous repertoire of tricks. Responding to his curiously goofy charisma leadership by enthusiastic example the rest of the squad woke up and became a willing support cast. In Real's Bernabéu stadium in April, with Beckham anonymous, Ronaldinho lobbed an extravagant pass over Madrid's defenders for colleague Xavi to volley home the winner. It set the seal on his deification, and his performances have remained at a consistent and heavenly level.
Romario, the player whose international career was ended by Ronaldinho, was nevertheless generous enough in 2002 to rate the young buck as the best player of his generation. Johan Cruyff, after the game in the Bernabéu, commented that the player had that precious gift that is the true mark of greatness imagination. If nothing else, he fulfils the Catalan thirst for style, whether he is ugly or not.
Barcelona FC is a wonderful but somewhat neurotic institution, secure in its position as the cultural flagship of the region but occasionally unsure as to how to go about fulfilling the role. All the evidence suggested that electing Joan Gaspart as president, for example, was not exactly a good idea. The public relations and political disaster of his reign, culminating in the re-employment of the hated Van Gaal, made Barça look more like an Almodóvar movie than a football club.
Balance has been restored. New president Joan Laporta, manager Frank Rijkaard and star-turn Ronaldinho all arrived at the same time in the summer of 2003, and the Holy Trinity has gelled. Rijkaard, with two mundane spells in management with the Dutch national team and Sparta Rotterdam, represented something of a risk. But his calm manner and his refusal to panic during the early stages of 2003-04 eventually paid off.
It remains uncertain as to whether he is tactically astute or whether he simply adheres to the Matt Busby school of management. According to Sir Bobby Charlton, this consisted of the simple phrase “Give it to George [Best]”. And just as Manchester United's legendary supporting cast gave the ball to Best whenever possible, the new Barcelona squad, cleverly assembled by Rijkaard after the European Championships in Portugal last summer, also attempts to work the ball to Ronaldinho.
When it arrives at his feet, something inevitably happens. He reminds you, as he whizzes and waltzes through confused defences, why you fell in love with the game in the first place. Opposing crowds pretend to dislike him, but it is a shallow pretence. The whole of Spain is smitten with him, not just Catalonia. If Barça win La Primera Liga this year, and come good again in Europe, they will re-christen him Jordi (after Catalonia's patron saint) and erect a statue at the top of Las Ramblas in his honour. Nothing less would suffice.
Phil Ball is the author of ‘An Englishman Abroad: Beckham's Spanish Adventure', Ebury Press