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.

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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.

 

 

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.