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50 Greatest Players in World Cup History: #44 Ronaldinho

Anirudh Menon
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Feature
1.42K   //    01 May 2018, 11:08 IST

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It's the year 2002.

A young man's taken the no.11 shirt for Brazil and made it his own. No one really knew what quite to expect of him for he was just 22 - old enough to have an army of Twitter followers and reams of digital newsprint demanding he be played every day in today's world, young and unknown back then - and had just been transferred out from his hometown club Gremio to PSG.

It's World Cup Year.

The astute footballer observer, and that species of beings really had to work to keep up his hobby back in the day, knew about him, of course. He'd been brilliant in the 1997 World Youth Cup and even better in the 1999 Confederations Cup (top-scoring there).

He'd made his place permanent when Rivaldo had suffered an injury during the World Cup qualification campaign and even the return of the great man had not disrupted the starting berth of the playmaker who was slowly coming into his own in the senior side.

It's the Quarterfinals. It's David Seaman in goal. Ready to bat away the freekick that he's sure will get lumped into the mixer.

His name was Ronaldo, but the back of his shirt didn't say that. That honour went to the man in the no.9, the Original, O Fenomeno. The Brazilians being who they are, added a 'little', an 'inho', to his name, put it on the back of his shirt... and it stuck.

He'd ripped through the World Cup, combining brilliantly with Ronaldo and Rivaldo up top, the three Rs reminding the world why Brazil were Braaaasil, the most loved sporting entity on the planet and he was at the heart of it all - their playmaker in chief.

He'd scored twice already and created numerous chances along the way, and he'd been tormenting the English all afternoon in the baking heat of Shizuoka. Nutmegging them. Doing little rainbow flicks. Dribbling at them.

He'd set up Brazil's equaliser with one of those bendy-legged, tango-hipped, head-shaking runs of his, and when Paul Scholes put in one of those impeccably timed tackles of his on future Manchester United teammate Kleberson in one of those harmless areas to give a foul away in - a good forty yards away from goal, somewhere near the touchline - he stood over it.

England kept a high line, confident in the aerial superiority that having Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell in your side naturally brings with it. David Seaman, naturally then, stood a few metres off his line.

He shouldn't have.

While the whole of England slammed the "flukey b***ard" for that slice of "luck" and the English commentators on TV announced it with a sense of stunned disbelief that mirrored their population's general sentiments, the rest of the world cried "Ronaldinhoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo"

"I knew David Seaman came off his line quite a lot, and I knew if I put the ball where I did that it could cause him problems. So I meant it. It was not luck." he would say years later - and having seen him perform at his absolute peak, who are we to disagree? Of course, he bloody meant it.

A red card for a silly foul later would mean he missed the semifinal, but he was back to his string-pulling best in the final against Germany.  

Read, Also - Ronaldinho: Football, Love, and the Discovery of Joy

That freekick - the skill required to imagine it, the audacity required to pull it off - would define Brazil's fifth World Cup win almost as much as the story of Ronaldo's redemption. Ronaldinho's joy was important in helping define the World Cup success for Brazil.

In 2006, he'd have a nightmare - the much-hyped magic 'Joga Bonita' quartet of 'Dinho, Ronaldo, Adriano and Kaka failing miserably - and while he was still kicking a ball around professionally in 2010 and 2014, he'd started enjoying his life way too much to bother with the nitty-gritty of staying fit and training every day. Neither Dunga nor his ol' mate Scolari deemed him good enough to make the squad.

His later year disappointments don't quite matter, though.

For the magic in 2002, for the dribbles, the goals, the assists, and that freekick, for the joy, the laughs and the smiles... for introducing (re-introducing?) the world to the concept that you are allowed to be happy while doing what you love for a living... Ronaldinho deserves a place in our list of 50 Greatest Players in World Cup History

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Anirudh Menon
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Believes Sport makes the world a better place :)
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