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This Man Was The Last True Wizard Of Soccer

In 2006, at the age of 15, my love for soccer had a growth spurt. This could be attributed to a lot of things, but in my mind it came down to two: finally playing on a traveling club team with a coach that I liked and teammates I knew, and watching my first skills compilation online:

This isn’t the exact same video, but the one I watched was remarkably similar, down to Bloc Party’s “Helicopter” and the classic highlights. In fact if you put a gun to my head I would say that whoever made this video ripped the original one and just added some titles and funny parts to it. Regardless, that grainy, was-this-recorded-with-a-potato video blew my mind; I had no idea any of this was possible in a soccer match. 

Like a lot of Americans my age, I grew up playing soccer, but I had never really watched all that much of it. I hadn’t even watched a World Cup, and wouldn’t until that summer. So when I saw these mind-bending pieces of skill pulled off in rapid succession, cut with some jaw dropping goals, I had found visual crack that I couldn’t help but watch again and again. I began to practice some of the moves I saw: tirelessly, futilely, but tirelessly none the less. 

When I practiced with my team, I would try to show off what little I could do, and my teammates and I would talk about how cool and crazy these skills were. I remember during one such talk someone eventually said something along the lines of, “I can’t believe that people actually pull this stuff off in a game. Who could possibly do all these moves?”

To which another teammate responded, “Only Ronaldinho.”

This, more than anything else, embodies what made Ronaldinho so special. Of course, at the time, I had no idea who Ronaldinho was, nevermind the fact that he featured prominently in the very video I had watched over and over again. The classic clip of him pulling off an elastico in slow-motion had been what had truly sent me over the edge, made me say “what!” out loud. Who does that? Who created that? He seemed to be defying the laws of physics in ways that seemed even more egregious in slow-motion. My mind was blown, but I still didn’t appreciate what I was seeing until years later. 

I watch soccer now and see that the game is unequivocally dominated by two greats: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Both, unarguably, are greater players than Ronaldinho. They score more goals, provide more assists, and have broken more records than Ronaldinho ever did. But their games both put flair on the back burner in the name of utility.

Ronaldo, in his early days at Manchester United, was a player that would take more joy in embarrassing a defender than scoring a goal, but soon he recognized that in order to reach his full potential, to be the player he was meant to be, he needed to turn into a goal-scoring machine. He still embarrasses teams, but it is more often today with his power and athleticism than with pieces of flair. And Messi, the greatest player of this generation, has always been this way, too. He doesn’t do anything that he doesn’t need to do. There are no fancy step overs. He would only do a bicycle kick if it were the best way to score a goal. His creativity is limited by how ruthlessly clinical he is. Even though "limited" is the last word that most would use to describe Messi, it is true. These two have reached their final forms as players. They are perfect, they are efficient, but they are not Ronaldinho. 

Ronaldinho’s calling card was flair. His entire game was devoted to the wizardry with which he could command the ball. When he was at the peak of his powers, he made you constantly question the values preached by coaches around the world. Play simple, you say? This was a man that had reached the peak of the footballing world by laughing in the face of simplicity. He would force the issue all of the time, and answer defensive riddles with the physical equivalent of dominating a rap battle. He pulled off the feat of somehow simultaneously remaining calm, cool, and collected while utterly loosing himself in the glory of making every moment his own:

It is incredibly hard to deal with the adrenaline rush of beating a player, of knowing a defender is liable to succumb to your every whim, and keeping composed enough to do it again and again. Ronaldinho somehow never got lost in the spectacle of his own actions, which is absolutely unbelievable considering he was often surrounded by a hundred thousand people losing their collective sh*t at the sight of them. But that was Ronaldinho, he lived for the frenzy, for going over the top, it was where he was meant to be. The crowd melted for him when he got comfortable.  

A volatile star, Ronaldinho’s career burned bright and died young. In 2008, his tendency to live in the moment got the better of dedication. Sidelined by injury, his rehab was hindered by a lack of professionalism, and he failed to make the recovery that he should have, both physically and mentally. That marked the end of the level of play for which this article was written, and with it any hope that we will ever see anything like it again.

Photo: planetabola011 | Twitter

It takes courage, flair, and technique to reject the gold standard of production that Messi and Ronaldo have set. The world is populated with all three, but nowhere are they all present at the same level found in Ronaldinho. Modern footballers are split between valuing scoring and assisting, and valuing how they score and assist. 2014’s World Cup was won by the former, Germany, and along the way they decimated the country known for proselytizing the latter, Brazil. 

Some may say Neymar is meant to succeed Ronaldinho. He has the same creative spark, the same passion for flair, and the same lightening speed and agility; however, his relative lack of power holds him back. He will never be able to physically force the issue as Ronaldinho could, so he will never be able to implement his creativity in the same way. He himself may end up being a greater player than Ronaldo, but if he does it will be because he followed closer to the footsteps of Messi and Ronaldo than to his Brazilian compatriot’s. 

Ronaldinho is now a shadow of his former self. All we have left of his glory days are what clips we can find on the internet, most of them grainy and dated. In the age of instant highlights and semi-annual, player-specific compilations, these might as well be black and white silent films. Here was a man whose style peaked just before the internet was taken over by social media; a wizard that created magic before it could get the kind of universal attention and praise that we regularly shower on Ronaldo and Messi. But what he lacks in appreciation, he now makes up for in mystique. He is not made to look boring by the grain of history. He is made to look all the more magical.

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