Copyright The International Herald Tribune
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2005
God gives gifts to everyone,” said Ronaldinho, as he collected his latest player of the year award. “Some can write, some can dance. He gave me the skill to play soccer and I am making the most of it.”
Amen to Ronaldinho.
He is the most talented, and most effective, player of the modern generation – recognized as such by all sectors of the society in which he performs.
Last year the coaches of the 200 countries affiliated with FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, chose him as the best on earth. The international players union, Fifpro, did the same this year. And Monday, for the 50th anniversary of the Ballon D’Or, the oldest trophy for a single player in a team game, 52 voting journalists handsomely endorsed that opinion.
Ronaldinho totaled 225 points in the voting. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, the two lions of England’s midfield, received 148 and 142 respectively. Thierry Henry received 41, Andriy Shevchenko 33, Paolo Maldini 23 … and so on down the long list of outstanding performers in the poll.
Ostensibly, the Ballon D’Or is a European award. In reality, given that the best players – from the Americas, from Africa and most recently from Asia and Oceania too – migrate to the honey pot of European riches, it is a recognition of the finest in the global game.
And on any score you care to judge the sport, Ronaldinho is on top of that list.
You want joy from your sport?
Ronaldinho is unquestionably the most joyous performer out there.
You want a winner?
Ronaldinho has inspired Barcelona, his Catalan club, to its first triumph in the Spanish Primera League since 1999.
You want goals or movement?
Ronaldinho scores on both counts, as a goal scorer par excellence, a mover whose innate balance and inventive quality would not be far below what Rudolf Nureyev gave to ballet.
There is music in Ronaldinho’s house and in his head. It has enriched his life from the cradle to today when, at the grand old age of 25, he performs for Brazil and for Barcelona as if he hears an invisible ear piece playing samba.
There is humility, too, because in an age of bombast he looked down from the stage in Paris on Monday and saw men he idolized in his childhood applauding him, and Ronaldinho said with that world-renowned toothy smile:
“To be here with all those great players applauding me is a dream come true. It gives me motivation to try to emulate them.”
Look in the mirror, Ronnie! Look at the video, as recent as two weeks ago, when the Real Madrid fans in the BernabÃˆu Stadium rose in a standing ovation as Ronaldinho orchestrated a 3-0 victory for Barcelona, the Catalans’ team embarrassing Real in Madrid’s own hallowed stadium.
The music of soccer can sound no more fulfilling than that.
Above partisanship, above racism, above the dire divisions that a hundred years of sporting and political divide have wrought in Spain, this Brazilian won his own special plaudit.
So when the writers gave him the Golden Ball on Monday, they acknowledged the blindingly obvious.
The two English players by his side on the podium are worthy athletes, wholehearted soldiers of the game.
Lampard recently set a record of 160 consecutive matches for Chelsea in England’s Premier League – a testimony to his heart and lungs, and to his pivotal consistency at the fulcrum of a Chelsea team that can buy almost any player it chooses.
To miss not one match in four years, to be there at the seat of combat and not incur a suspension, never mind tear a muscle or lose form, is its own testimony to Lampard’s extraordinary consistency.
And for Gerrard there has already been a prize in 2005 that he hardly dared dream would come his way. His was the leadership, the surging courage and physical example that turned the Champions League final in Istanbul last May from a 0-3 halftime embarrassment into an ultimate triumph for Liverpool over AC Milan.
In 60 or more performances, Lampard had remained solid and strong. In one half of a match, Gerrard had stunned the world.
And Ronaldinho is greater than them both?
Certainly he is. In imagination, in the courage to try the unexpected and in being given the license by Barcelona Coach Frank Rijkaard to exercise that skill, Ronaldinho is what the modern game, with its emphasis on speed and on teamwork, desperately needs.
That he is not European is absolutely beyond the point.
The winner of the first Ballon D’Or was an English winger, Stanley Matthew. The second was Alfredo Di Stefano, born and bred in Argentina and later to adopt Spanish citizenship after he joined Real Madrid.
After that, the award given by France Football magazine has known no boundaries, and no exclusions. Its winners include Eusebio, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Michel Platini, George Best, Marco van Basten, ZinÃˆdine Zidane and George Weah.
Ronaldinho belongs, now, to that clique – and if his desire is sustained he is merely at halftime in his career span.
He joined BarÃa in succession to three other Brazilian R’s – Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo. Romario, somehow, did not win the Ballon D’Or; the other two did, in 1997, 1999 and 2002.
What they brought to Europe was the known quality of Brazilian soccer. What Ronaldinho brings as an extra is happiness.
We can see it in his movement. Carles Puyol, captain of BarÃa, says it is more than the touches of Ronaldinho, more than the goals he both makes and takes. It is, the Catalan says of the Brazilian, the sense that every training session is not a chore, but a pleasure.
Ronaldinho is happy in his work; the rest would waste their opportunity not to respond to him.
It is well documented now that Barcelona actually wanted David Beckham before it signed Ronaldinho. Beckham preferred Real Madrid and has sold so many shirts around the world that those who market Madrid have no regrets.
Ronaldinho and BarÃa have had to make do with trophies.
But Monday, the proudest smile was probably not Ronaldinho’s, and not a man’s.
His mother, Miguelina, was in the hall. And she, the matriarch of a family besotted with soccer, knows exactly where the skill and the pleasure come from.
Her husband, Joâ€žo Assis de Moreira, drowned in a swimming pool when Ronaldinho, the youngest of their three children, was 8. Even by that age, the boy whose father was a shipyard welder and an amateur player in Porto Alegre was inseparable from a ball.
“Felicidade” – happiness – is the family catchword. The youngster seldom gave up his ball.
“I would dribble and dribble it,” he recalls, “but then my father made me play only with two touches at a time. I didn’t understand, but now I do.”