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ASKING A Brazilian to name his country's most entertaining World Cup team is a lot like pressing a wine expert to choose the richest vintage of Bordeaux. Does he fancy the 1970 champions, the popular choice, led by the immortal Pel�? Or maybe the 1962 titlists, the connoisseur's pick, paced by the dribbling wizard Garrincha? If he's like the character Miles in Sideways and prefers temperamental wines, he might choose the '82 outfit, an outrageously skilled bunch (with Zico, S�crates and Falc�o) that threw caution to the wind and paid the price, losing to stolid Italy in the quarterfinals. � The finest soccer player on earth, Brazilian midfielder Ronaldinho, is also a futebol history buff, one who learned some of his breathtaking moves from watching videotapes of the swashbuckling 1970s star Rivelino. Called "the last romantic of soccer," Ronaldinho has an abiding affection for that '82 side. "They played the most attractive kind of soccer," he said last month while in a quiet corner of the Camp Nou stadium, the home field of his club, FC Barcelona. "And I think the 2006 team is comparable to the '82 team." � Therein lies the challenge for this Brazilian team entering Germany 2006: Can an attacking force blessed with gifted veterans (Ronaldo, Kafu, Roberto Carlos), emerging talents ( Robinho, Kak�, Adriano) and a superstar at the height of his powers (the 26-year-old Ronaldinho), combine the flair of the '82 dreamers with the results of the less-storied '94 and 2002 titlists? Can it transcend not only the 31 other teams in the tournament but also the 17 previous champions? Ronaldinho (or Little Ronaldo, to distinguish him from the 29-year-old Ronaldo) responded without hesitation. "I believe so," he said, "because we have been playing as a team for seven or eight years. So there's a history there."
Historic is the only way to describe what Ronaldo de Assis Moreira is attempting in 2006. If Brazil prevails in Berlin on July 9, Ronaldinho could become the first player to win soccer's unofficial grand slam--domestic league title, European Cup championship, the World Cup and the Ballon d'Or (for Europe's top player, awarded since 1956)--in the same calendar year. "His skills are incredible," says Portuguese forward Luis Figo. "It's like he can do whatever he wants in a game."
No less an authority than Pel�, known to this day as O Rei (the King), sounds ready to abdicate his throne to FIFA's World Player of the Year in 2005 and '06. "I love watching Ronaldinho play," says Pel�. "He could be the greatest ever."
THANK GOD for youtube.com. Type Ronaldinho into the video vault's search engine, and you too can see his greatness on display: the double sombrero, in which he hoodwinks two swarming Spanish League defenders by juggling the ball over their heads; the el�stica, in which he jabs the ball to his right but then snares it with his right foot and darts left in the blink of an eye; and all manner of astounding goals, from his 20-yard toe poke against Chelsea to his two jet-propelled strikes at archrival Real Madrid last November, which drew a standing ovation. (Imagine A-Rod getting a standing O at Fenway.)
A frequent visitor to the Salvador Dal� museum near Barcelona, Ronaldinho compares the imagination that produced his favorite Dal� painting--Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea, in which the artist's wife blurs into an image of Abraham Lincoln--with his own creativity on the soccer field. "Each player has an individual style," he says. "I think my best talent is dribbling and setting up goal situations, giving an assist or deceiving one of the other team's players. So I'm always seeking new ways of dribbling, new moves, so I can give my best to the team."
It's a style born of his origins in futsal, an indoor, five-on-five version of soccer that rewards trickery and improvisation under tight defensive pressure. The influence is apparent when, at full speed, he pedals his feet above the ball, daring foes to commit; or when he stands stock-still, freezing a defender before delivering a pinpoint 30-yard pass; or when he invents a move on the spot, like the aerial el�stica, in which he performs his one-footed killer crossover in midair. "I've never seen anybody else do that," he says with pride.
So innovative is Ronaldinho that he can make the seemingly impossible possible. Was he really trying to score on the 35-yard free kick that sank England in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals? (He swears he was despite the way it floated.) Is his mesmerizing aerial el�stica in one recent Nike commercial for real? (Yes.) And what about the stunning sequence in another swoosh spot-- YouTube views: 4.2 million--in which he bangs shot after shot against a crossbar from 25 yards, the ball never touching the ground? (Not on your life.)
Like any good magician though, Ronaldinho never reveals his secrets. Asked about the last clip's veracity, he feigns offense. "Of course it's real!" he says, playfully slapping his interviewer's knee. His impish grin is priceless. "Are you questioning my abilities?"
FOR A worldwide brand--with $28 million in annual earnings, he recently passed David Beckham as the world's highest-paid soccer player--Ronaldinho Inc. is, to a startling degree, a mom-and-pop operation. His older brother, Roberto, a former national-team prospect, is his agent. His no-nonsense older sister, Deisi, schedules his time with the media. And his mother, Miguelina, flies in often from the family home in Porto Alegre to cook her son his favorite rice and beans. "The woman of my life," Ronaldinho calls her. "I have the happiness of having a wonderful son [one-year-old Jo�o, from a relationship with a Brazilian dancer], but I would like to have a family and lots of children someday."
Yet nobody has had a more lasting influence on Ronaldinho than his father, Jo�o, an amateur goalkeeper who worked as a shipyard welder. "He gave me some of the best advice I've ever had," says Ronaldinho. "Off the field: Do the right thing and be an honest, straight-up guy. And on the field: Play soccer as simply as possible. He always said one of the most complicated things you can do is to play it simple." Young Ronaldinho hated his father's rule--never take more than two touches at a time--but it ultimately served as the basis for his wondrous playmaking.