Remembering The Greats: Ronaldinho – Entertainment Personified

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.

Orlando City’s Kaka key in battle of the stars against New York City this season

He may have won the Champions League, Serie A, La Liga and even the World Cup, but Kaka is prouder of few moments in his career than this. When New York City FC travelled to the Citrus Bowl, a 70,000-seater stadium, to face Orlando City Soccer Club in both sides’ inaugural Major League Soccer match 12 months ago, it was an engulfing watch. The game finished as a 1-1 draw, Mix Diskarud’s strike for the visitors being cancelled out by the Brazilian’s freekick, netting the Floridians’ first top flight goal.

Not many have played football more gracefully than Kaka over the past ten or twenty years, and his smooth style was one of the first to redefine the position of the ‘number 10’. Gone are the days of the second striker, the little, pacey man darting to reach his partner’s flick on. Thanks, in part, to the quiet, unassuming, humble Christian turned world superstar, a deeper, more effective attacking midfield role has become fashionable.

After years playing for Milan, Real Madrid and, in two spells, hometown club Sao Paolo, Kaka took a huge step in his career last year. It is nothing new to see a household name play out his final years in the States, in fact he followed on from a long line. Gerd Muller, George Best and Johan Cruyff all headed over for at least a semi-retirement before American soccer was even as well marketed as it is now in the shape of MLS.

Interest in the sport has blossomed since David Beckham made the step across to LA Galaxy in 2007. The importance of the former England captain moving to the club was paramount, not only because of his standing in both football and showbiz, but because he joined at the age of 31, rejecting much more high profile offers to head to Hollywood.

Beckham sacrificed his European football career for a few years, before joining Milan and Paris St Germain. He helped raise the profile hugely, opening the league up as an ideal place for big names to leave their mark. Former England teammates Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole recently joined the Galaxy, while Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and, David Villa are residing in New York’s latest franchise.

It is Kaka, though, who has taken the biggest risk. Still only 32 when he signed for Orlando, he admits he spoke to Beckham about the pros and cons of the league before signing for what he describes as a “baby” team. Orlando a club which did exist prior to their debut campaign in MLS last year, but unlike the Manchester City-funded New York, they look like taking a much longer route to the top. Kaka is not just the marquee man, he is captain, chief motivator and central to everything they do.

When the two sides met a year ago, Lampard was on loan at cross-pond partners Man City and Pirlo’s deal from Juventus was not yet in the pipeline. The game was billed as the clash of two former heavyweights of the game, Kaka vs Villa.

There was little to separate both teams, proven by the final East Conference standings. Orlando edged it by a place, finishing seventh, but neither could do what has only been done once before, reach the playoffs at the first time of asking.

In an interview with Sky Sports last week, Kaka made it clear that Orlando’s aim this season has to be a top-six finish, reaching that end of season party. The same is probably true for New York, but despite former Milan and Juventus midfielder Antonio Nocerino’s summer move to the home of Disneyland, the Lions, as they are nicknamed, could be eating dust from the Big Apple.

The links with the biggest ‘City’ in England, and all the money their owners bring, gives New York a huge advantage long term. No new signings have yet been announced, but Kaka’s former partner in crime at San Siro Pirlo, Lampard, and Athletic Bilbao’s former stalwart fullback Andoni Iraola, will all have settled in much better this season. The man tasked with moulding this impressive constellation of stars into a team is none other than Patrick Vieira, making his first-team management bow.

Pressure is something that he, and those big names at his disposal, are used to dealing with, but they will have to this season. Much like in Manchester, where Pep Guardiola will be coaching next season, Sheikh Mansour, the mega-rich man behind everything, expects results.

That star quality is clear and seems to be a permanent fixture for NYCFC. Kaka has had to shoulder most of the responsibility in his early days at Orlando, and while Nocerino can offer some valuable experience, the men in purple will have to galvanise a real team spirit if they are to once again better their new found adversaries.

Orlando Soccer Club could well be a big hit in future. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier Hernandez are just two of the names linked over the closed season, but there are stronger vibes coming from New York this season. Kaka, Nocerino and co. will have their work cut out if they are to compete at the top this coming season.

 

Arsenal’s rose-tinted glasses slowing progression under Arsene Wenger

There is a sense of entitlement that surrounds Arsene Wenger, only replicated once in England before. Many see him as managerial royalty, in the same way as Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, meaning he should have complete control over the destiny of both himself and Arsenal.

Comparisons between the pair, though, do Ferguson a huge disservice. The Scot is unrivalled in terms of both success and longevity, an anomaly in the modern game, which has seen a rise in the quick fix culture. By the time he retired in 2013, he was part of the Old Trafford furniture, making every decision. He had been successful for so long it was too late to call him on any failure, proven by exiting the Champions League at the group stages and surrendering the Premier League title to Manchester City in hid penultimate season.

He vacated his, for lack of a better word, throne, after 27 years. Wenger has been at Arsenal for almost 20 now, which in itself is a great achievement, and the main reason for the similarities with one of his oldest adversary. Both have won trophies, built teams and are the architects of their respective clubs’ recent success, but the difference is Ferguson’s victories were consistent, Wenger has ridden the wave for about a decade.

Stability is a huge part of any club who build some sort of dynasty, as both have under Ferguson and Wenger. The former’s remarkable ability to constantly move with the times kept up his hunger and avoided him becoming stale. Wenger was incredibly intelligent man, years ahead of his time when he stepped through the doors at Highbury in 1996.

Ferguson successfully built about four teams, only failing to win trophies during bedding in periods. Wenger, on the other hand, masterminded seemingly indestructible era, blending the British steel of Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Sol Campbell, with the French flair of Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.

The beautiful thing about that team was, particularly in Vieira’s case, it had both skill and grit in equal measure. Three league titles and two FA Cups were won between 1998 and 2004, the latest with that unforgettable unbeaten season. To this day, Wenger both lives off and is judged against the success they brought.

But where he falls down when measured against Ferguson, is his inability to rebuild since the likes of Vieira and Henry departed. His commitment to a change in style, moving away from strength and power, focussing on technique and players with a low centre of gravity shows just how smart the man is, and proves he understands the game’s development like no-one else.

Yet, such a dedication to that has become detrimental, and instead of adding to the good things from the glory days, they have been forgotten. Sunday’s 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford raised questions over the leadership and mental strength of his current side, two things taken for granted before. These issues have been raised for many years, but this time it was worse.

It is not to say Wenger is all bad, and his defence is a strong one. Simply put, the club would not harbour dreams of dominating England again if it weren’t for him, and he has added back to back FA Cups to his collection, becoming the most successful manager in the competition’s history.

His shortcomings in the Premier League title hunt were down to a mixture of the rebrand of his team, their move to the Emirates Stadium in 2007 and the rise of some rather financially wealthy rivals to add to Ferguson and Manchester United. Their neighbours, City, and Chelsea, not to mention the Gunners’ fierce rivals Tottenham, have proven worthy opponents for Wenger in the past.

Now, though, it is time remove the excuses. This season, despite the inconsistent form of City, the continued post-Ferguson malaise of the Red Devils and Chelsea’s surprise slump, allowing Leicester City to top the table, Wenger and Arsenal are in the process of blowing yet another title bid.

There is a perception surrounding Arsenal that there team is young and developing, even now. The idea that Wenger is still nurturing his side has also been part of the narrative, but an average age of 26 last weekend, compared to 24 for Man United, show that, in reality, the problems lie with one man.

Every transfer window is the same for Arsenal, whether they need a striker, midfielder or central defender. Those three positions have not been convincingly filled for a number of years, meaning Wenger has neglected to properly strengthen the spine of his side to launch a real title assault.

Arsene Wenger is an intelligent man whose work has revolutionised both Arsenal and football in England. He deserves the immortality he receives when looking at his early years, but his mistakes have led to disappointments later on. Now was his time to bounce back, the excuses no longer work, but the same problems remain. A parting of the ways in the summer looks best for all parties.

 

 

Cristiano Ronaldo’s post-derbi comments show why Lionel Messi is more popular

Individual rivalries are, naturally, a phenomenon reserved for single-player sports. In Tennis, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal are a great example, while Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali defined Boxing in their era.

They are what makes those sports a great watch, keeping them alive as spectacles. Every great needs competition to push them. Football, though, has not tended to rely so heavily on players competing with one another, always looking at the bigger picture of how the teams fare. That was until Cristiano Ronaldo met Lionel Messi.

Ronaldo is arguably the most unique footballer on the planet, in that it can be argued he puts himself above the team more than any other. There are a lot of myths about the Portuguese international, who has never hidden his desire to be the greatest player to ever live. His talent is not only undeniable, but stunningly obvious, and his ego is there to match.

In a world where political correctness is monitored like never before, Ronaldo’s bullish attitude is to be welcomed, for the most part. His personality has driven him on to numerous individual and team awards, records, accolades and general adulation.

Like every other top player around, Ronaldo has been incredibly unlucky. For all of his hard work, intensity and effort with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal, he has never quite been able to escape his nemesis Messi. Yet, as with the plethora of other top rivalries, the pair really keep each other going.

It is no surprise that the duel intensified when Ronaldo joined Real in 2009 because, with Messi ruling the roost at Barcelona, both then played on each side of perhaps the most unique divide in the game. It is a hatred that runs deep and has both football and political connotations.

They each represent their respective philosophies; Messi is the hard-working ‘boy next door’, who wins through fairness and modesty, Ronaldo the flashy king of kings who dwarfs all before him. Both players have been split by a hair over the past seven years or so, but Barcelona have dominated both Real and football in general. Most records are held by one or the other, and the coveted Ballon d’Or has been shared between them since 2007.

The sad truth of all this is each has a band of loyal followers, meaning many cannot appreciate both for what they are. Instead of admiring both in a way they deserve, taking in everything they do, each time one fails it becomes an opportunity for the other’s fans to partake in a round of unfortunate mudslinging.

The is no known issues between the pair, with mutual respect growing in recent years. The idea that Ronaldo is a cold-hearted, arrogant machine is unfair and fabricated to a degree, as is the thought of Messi strictly being a team player. He knows how good he is and wants to be the main man at Camp Nou, something Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa and even Luis Enrique found out the hard way.

It isn’t hard to see how the stereotype has developed, though, and Ronaldo certainly didn’t help himself after Real’s third straight La Liga defeat to neighbours Atletico at the weekend.

He has attempted to backtrack since, but his quotes claiming that if his team-mates were of his standard results like that wouldn’t happen, causing even close ally Sergio Ramos to come out firefighting, have shown him to be the bad loser his, sometimes unfair, media persona depicts.

The idea of him being jealous of Messi and his personal and professional relationship with both Neymar and Luis Suarez was intensified by comments made before a Champions League game at Roma, too. It mustn’t go unnoticed what an achievement it is to get that trio playing so perfectly together, given previous failed attempts with others.

Ronaldo has had a different idea of getting to the top to Messi, and has struggled to outdo the Argentine. Instead of making bad headlines with words, Barça’s number 10, who it must be stressed is not perfect, makes good ones on the pitch as often as his Madrid counterpart does. Seeing the result from the Calderon on Saturday, Messi picked Barça off the floor against Sevilla the next day, scoring a stunning free kick to inspire them to a victory from behind.

Football has been blessed by such an intense individual battle, the type it hasn’t seen before and probably won’t ever again. There are so many arguments on both sides as to who is better, but it should be remembered that, above all else, they are to be enjoyed, because neither will last forever.

Their personality differences have helped the narrative, but the frustrating thing for Ronaldo is he has not been able to shake off the stigma of being second best. Saturday evening’s events showed, in part, just why that is.

Victory for Klopp on Sunday will lift an early monkey off his back

Winning is always relative. It is, in it’s essence, the point of football, and can give validation to a style and ideology. Naturally, though, it can mean more in some situations than others, and Sunday is certainly a good example.

Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool in October carrying a weight of expectation. The club found itself in a state of flux after the sacking of Brendan Rodgers, not achieving what they wanted despite almost winning the Premier League title less than 18 months earlier. It wasn’t that Rodgers had done a particularly terrible job, but he lacked the charisma, and past record, that demanded trust from the Reds fans. It all felt as though he had just gone as far as he could at Anfield.

The German had everything, it appeared, to take the club on. His geek-like charm and toothy smile were much more than just a façade. The Borussia Dortmund side he spent seven years in charge of earned numerous admirers across the globe for a unique, if slightly odd, style of play, infamously dubbed “heavy metal football” by Klopp himself. The basic requirement is high pressure, not too dissimilar to Rodgers in a sense, but he backed it up with success, winning two Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and reaching the Champions League final in 2013.

Mixed results on the pitch since, though, have brought criticism of his appointment. His reputation and personality give the impression things will turn around, and of course he will get the time, but he will be looking for victory at Wembley this weekend when they face Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final.

It is a competition which proves that context is key behind victory, taking some stick for the lack of profile in comparison to the FA Cup. English football pays much more attention to the notion of domestic competition than most other countries who only have one. With fixture congestion the way it is these days, and the number of high profile games that need to be played, it is understandable that a pecking order of importance is formed.

With the final being played in March, allowing minimal crossover with both the FA Cup and Champions League, there should be little excuse. That, in a way, can be an advantage to the likes of Klopp. Winning silverware at the first attempt, no matter how prestigious, will be a relief and serve to show he can work his magic at Anfield in the coming years.

There is a similar feel around the opposition on Sunday, with Manchester City looking to win it for the second time in three years. His opposite number, Manuel Pellegrini, will be able to empathise with Rodgers, having announced he will leave the club at the end of the season and be replaced by the most sought after coach on the planet, Pep Guardiola.

Pellegrini matches Klopp on the charm offensive, but is much quieter, more reserved and polite. In his native Chile, he is affectionately known as “The Engineer” for his ability to get teams functioning, and winning, quickly. He certainly did that at the Etihad, winning the double in his debut season and using the League Cup as a springboard. He has not been able to shake the stigma that he is not a top-rate manager, accepting this with such grace and stepping aside nobly.

He takes his side to Wembley under much less personal pressure than two years ago, but Klopp finds himself in a similar position. Jose Mourinho opened his trophy account in England with Chelsea by lifting it in 2005, doing so again last year. On both occasions, like Pellegrini, he accompanied it with the Premier League title. That may be out of Klopp’s short term reach. but victory would be the first step on his journey to re-establishing Liverpool as a British, and European, superpower.

The Capital One Cup certainly has its critics, and it isn’t a priority for most. If Arsene Wenger won it for Arsenal, it wouldn’t be seen as a huge statement because of his longevity in North London, but it can play a big role in some clubs’ seasons.

Since he took the job on Merseyside, there have been some moments that have felt big and defining. That includes a victory at Manchester City, and if Pellegrini shows this competition the same contempt he showed the FA Cup at Chelsea last week, Sunday could see Jurgen Klopp’s most important victory in England yet.

The Totti debate: What’s in a legend?

Every club has cult heroes, no matter how big or small. To earn such a status, a player does not to be the best, most skilful or even that important a figure, but they often symbolise how a fan feels about their club.

There is, though, a difference between a cult hero and a legend. Heroes of a certain era may never have to buy a pint in the local pub ever again, but in reality the memories don’t last, unless they do have some sort of talent. Those players who define eras with their ability, inspiring teams to trophies, or at least exciting times, as well as representing the shirt with the same love the fans would, go down in history.

But sometimes, there is a step above an ‘ordinary’ legend. Not every club can profess to having such an icon, but those who do cannot be mentioned in a sentence without the player’s name following swiftly.

Mostly, but not always, these folk are local and have grown up as supporters, experiencing that same unspoken bond with their clubs and areas that the very best of fans do. The likes of Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, Alan Shearer at Newcastle and Ryan Giggs at Manchester United are prime examples of this exact phenomenon.

Few countries have such a grasp of the concept of the eternal legend like Italy. Each of Serie A’s top sides have at least one, but it can be argued that no one has proven the living embodiment of a football team like Roma’s Francesco Totti.

Money’s stranglehold on football is growing ever tighter, and it is impacting almost every fibre of the game.  The days of the biggest clubs buying the best players could be numbered, with Chinese football the latest expensive trend to make an appearance.

It is, therefore, rare for any player to stay at the same club for their entire career, now moreso than ever. Giggs and Totti have managed it, but an increase in financial power has resulted in a severe decrease in loyalty.

Players often get the rawest deal in this argument, constantly accused of looking for a move whether it is motivated by money or playing at a higher level. In this modern day climate, clubs are also showing their propensity to move on quickly from the past, tossing aside even their most adored.

At Chelsea, Frank Lampard’s time was called two years ago, and his career at Stamford Bridge was under scrutiny well before that despite becoming the club’s record goalscorer. John Terry, club captain and the man seen as “Mr Chelsea”, also looks set for a departure when his contract runs out in the summer, regardless of consistently saying he wants to stay.

Gerrard shares similar adulation at Liverpool, a club who certainly takes care of their own. His inspirational performances in the 2005 Champions League final, and FA Cup final a year later, didn’t help when former boss Brendan Rodgers didn’t offer him a new deal in 2014, forcing him to play out his swansong years in the United States with LA Galaxy.

Even with the growing list of legendary cast offs, there has always been something about the mutual love between Totti and Roma which suggested a similar occurrence wouldn’t happen at the Stadio Olimpico.

As much as Gerrard, Lampard and Terry are all revered in Merseyside and West London, they have each either entertained the idea of, or indeed played for, other clubs. Totti, now 39 and still going strong having made his debut for Roma in 1992, has always insisted his heart and career will belong to the Giallorossi forever, despite heavy interest from a number of big hitters over the years.

Last week the striker, who has been playing with a chronic knee problem for a number of years now, accused his beloved club of disrespect by not playing him as much as he wants. He claimed his relationship with new boss Luciano Spalletti, in his second spell at the helm, was not a working one after be sat out the Champions League defeat to one of his biggest past suitors, Real Madrid.

His contract runs down at the end of the current campaign, and he finds himself in a similar situation to those aforementioned. Some may accuse him of arrogance and having overly excessive expectations given his age, but he knows he is a Roman king and understands he is not what he was. Given his loyalty towards the club, in some pretty testing times too, perhaps he deserves the same curtesy.

Francesco Totti is one of the most remarkable footballers to ever live. He is and always will be associated with AS Roma, but his situation is yet another example that loyalty is not just the player’s prerogative.