It took Stamford Bridge a good few minutes to catch its breath. Chelsea were stunned into silence, Jose Mourinho could only watch on. A small pocket of Barcelona fans could be heard roaring with joy at the outrageous act that had just occurred. The 2004/05 Champions League quarter final wasn’t over yet, Ronaldinho had reminded the watching world he was the best player on the planet.
The Catalans travelled to West London for the second leg with a 2-1 lead thanks to goals from Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o at Camp Nou. But an incredibly fast start, typical of that Blues side, saw them take an early 3-0 lead. It was the season that Chelsea really announced themselves on the European stage, with a particularly strong defence. Petr Cech broke the English record for the longest amount of time without conceding a goal that season, but not even he could do anything about the piece of vintage Brazilian magic that was to come.
A bad tempered first game had set the tone for the return. Mourinho, whose bad blood with Barça is well documented nowadays and goes back many years, accused referee Anders Frisk and Frank Rijkaard of conspiring together at half time after a Didier Drogba red card 10 minutes after the break. Death threats resulted in the Swedish official quitting the game for good. Rijkaard, understandably, didn’t take too well to it either.
Barça were desperately looking for a way back into the tie. Despite their nightmare start that evening, they still felt they could go through. Ronaldinho, reigning World Player of the Year, picked the ball up on the edge of the area. What probably struck the most fear into the hosts’ hearts was his lack of motion, but with one swift flick of the outside of his right boot, he curled the ball, with no back lift, past a blindsided Cech. The bewitched look on Ricardo Carvalho’s face on the slow motion replays tells its own story.
Ronaldinho then netted a penalty and looked like leading them through, only for a John Terry header to knock them out late on. That goal, though, a moment that brings shock, awe and joy in equal measure with every viewing, sums him up. The animosity, unfortunate circumstances, and even Barcelona’s defeat, are just secondary story lines, compared to arguably the greatest show of individual brilliance of his career. He has quite a show reel, so take your pick.
You’ll have to go far to find a more naturally talented person to have ever donned a pair of boots. He combined an ability to do things that few could do if they dedicated their lives to trying without a second thought, with the most intoxicating enjoyment for just playing the game he loved. Particularly at the height of his powers, when he inspired Barcelona to back to back La Liga titles and the Champions League in 2006, there was no one more entertaining player to watch than him.
Unfortunately, the lack of longevity and consistency in his performances throughout his career have tainted his reputation. Now 35, and after failing to settle after spells in his native Brazil, despite winning the Copa Libertadores with Atletico Mineiro in 2013, and Mexico, he is a free agent. The rather anticlimactic end to life in Spain in 2008, after his lack of work rate failed to impress the winning obsessed Pep Guardiola, has set the tone for his later years. He moved to AC Milan in the hope of recapturing his best form but couldn’t, not doing so since.
There are more defining moments in Ronaldinho’s reign at the top than most, but his impact at Barça is what he should be most remembered for. His sour finale and rise of successor Lionel Messi mean he has, to some degree, drifted from the very height of Barça folklore. But when he walked through the door, signing from Paris St Germain in 2003, he found a world renowned institution on its knees, proving the catalyst for the most remarkable resurge. FC Barcelona would not be such a fo in the modern era if it wasn’t for him.
Even the achievements of his replacement as talisman may not have happened without him. Messi came into the first team at Barça as a 16-year-old in 2004, looking to learn from the star attraction. Ronaldinho saw the greatness before the majority, but instead of taking a selfish route filled with petty jealousy, he put his arm around and befriended a young, slight, timid youngster, giving him the confidence and belief to grow. Fittingly, he set up the Argentine’s first goal, against Albacete, with a delicate through ball.
That goal against Chelsea is just one example of the unique ability of Ronaldinho. He could do anything with a football, see a move before anyone, play a pass that would even bamboozle his team-mates. He hit world fame with that stunning, some say fluke, goal against England in the 2002 World Cup before winning the trophy and being named Midfielder of the Tournament. If that doesn’t define him, then receiving a standing ovation from the Santiago Bernabeu for an audacious brace in El Clasico against Real Madrid definitely should.
It is sad to see what has become of Ronaldinho in many ways, and it may take a number of years to see just what he did for football during his remarkable career. He captivated creativity, recognised the world over for his ponytail and buck-toothed grin, which showed just how he thought when a ball was at his feet.