How the best player on earth is in a so-called crisis
Posted: Tuesday October 24, 2006 11:50AM; Updated: Tuesday October 24, 2006 1:07PM
As both his high-profile teams, Barcelona and Brazil, have struggled, Ronaldinho has attracted criticism.
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I've been around soccer for 26 years, and I can honestly say the best thing about it is becoming friends with the young players who become the stars of tomorrow.
I got to know Ronaldo before his fame and riches. I became close with Roberto Carlos, Sammy Kuffour, Frank Leboeuf, Míchel Salgado, ÍkerCasillas and Javier Saviola.
But my favorite was the boy who never changed, who stayed humble through it all and still similes as wide as ever: Ronaldinho. That's why it's so hard to hear that the new king of Brazilian soccer, the two-time FIFA Player of the Year, is being called out.
Some commentators say Ronaldinho seems to be going through a dark period. So he had a miserable World Cup -- that's true. And he hasn't played well for the Brazilian national team for about a year now. Even Brazilians don't really understand why he can't display half the talent while wearing the canary and blue that he does when he wears the Barcelona jersey.
Some are saying Ronaldinho is in his "football midlife crisis," the period when a player reaches the age of 26 and fights to keep his game at the same level for his final 5-7 years of his career as a pro.
Even Ronaldinho doesn't really get it. He can't explain why the last goal he scored for Brazil was 14 games ago -- a year and four months have passed since Brazil's splendid victory over Argentina in the final of the Confederations Cup.
"It looks as if I wasn't one of the best players of last season's Champions League, and as if Barcelona won the Spanish title and all those games without me," Ronaldinho told me over the phone last week. "I think people are trying to sell papers on my back. Thank God that I have a great family, fantastic friends, a good head and top quality infrastructure and relationships at Barcelona. Without that, I think, I could get a bit disturbed -- so much criticism is coming in my direction."
To most of the world, Ronaldinho is in emergency mode. It's almost like a magic trick. He's lost a step. He can't create. He's forgotten how to score.
Some in the press say he hasn't been the same since scoring two magnificent goals last season in Barcelona's 3-0 destruction of archrival Real Madrid. But the real crisis began earlier this month, when Brazil's new tough-love head coach, Dunga, did the unthinkable: He benched Ronaldinho in a friendly against Ecuador in Stockholm.
"It was a phase, a necessary measure, to show that things at the national team aren't the same," Ronaldinho said. "I accept the bench without worries. I hope people will accept without questioning that, after I showed what I know and that I am part of that team and ready to sacrifice, I have a place among the starting XI."
Wearing No. 20, Ronaldinho entered the game in the first half and immediately changed the tempo, hitting the bar on consecutive free kicks and then setting up the game-winner to Kaká, ensuring a 2-0 Brazil victory.
A few days later, Ronaldinho had two beautiful goals in Barcelona's 3-0 victory over Sevilla, and there was even talk of him winning his third straight FIFA Player of the Year award. But then the criticism resurfaced as Barça was defeated soundly by Chelsea in the Champions League last week, then was demolished 2-0 by Real Madrid last weekend.
Ronaldinho didn't play badly in either match, and actually showed flashes of his old brilliance against Real. But two games, a combined 180 minutes without a goal from the best player in the world -- that's what stands out.
"I am sad," he admitted after the defeat to Barça's old enemy. "[My teammates and I] needed to cheer each other up after the match. I have to take a new road now. To beat that psychological pressure that is straining me daily. The result was the worst possible."
Mighty Barcelona is beginning to struggle, giving up its lone hold of first place in Spain. And it appears that Ronaldinho is the fall guy. But he recognizes it all and takes it in stride. Less than 24 hours after the defeat, he was back on TV, his regular smiling self, for a Nike promotion in the Catalan capital with none other than Michael Jordan -- a guy who knows a thing or two about bouncing back.
"It seems I am the center of the situation of Barça," Ronaldinho told me. "I feel that deeply. Words are not enough now. But I will talk back, answer everyone -- friends and foes -- with the ball. I will talk back."