Now it’s official: Ronaldinho will not play any more competitive football.
His older brother and agent, Assis, has announced that farewell matches and events will take place after the World Cup, but one of the most gifted players the game has ever seen will not be kicking any more balls in anger.
In truth, this only makes official what everyone already knew. Ronaldinho has not been seen in competitive action for more than two years. His last serious match was a Brazilian league game for Fluminense against Goias on Sept. 26, 2015. He gave a pitiful performance and was substituted at halftime. Aware that he was hopelessly off the pace physically, Ronaldinho agreed to terminate his contract with the club. He was 35, with his best days already a decade in the past.
Looking back on the career of Ronaldinho, two things are striking. The first is overwhelmingly positive: how outstandingly, almost unbelievably good he was at his peak.
It is hard to think of any one other player who has given as much pleasure to so many as Ronaldinho did in his best years. There was a wonderfully pure, childlike joy about the way he approached the game and the pleasure he appeared to derive from his own prowess. There was no aggressive bling or arrogant swagger; just a player who played, in the full meaning of the word, expressing himself, enjoying himself, recreating himself and allowing all of us to share the occasion with him.
Millions all around the world fell in love with football — or, if they were older and more jaded, rediscovered their love of the game — while watching what he got up to in a Barcelona shirt.
The second striking realisation is how quickly the good times came to an end. Ronaldinho was past his best at the age of 26 — exactly when he should have been hitting his peak.
There were still flashes of inspiration. After all, the man was a genius. Fans of Milan, Flamengo and Atletico Mineiro all have some golden memories to keep them warm — times when he controlled the ball as if he were wearing a suction pad or hit an astonishing pass, opening the game in a way no one else had seen. But he never again came near his 2004-05 heights for Barcelona.
One of Pep Guardiola’s first moves as coach of Barcelona was to get rid of Ronaldinho. He was roundly criticized at the time. In retrospect, it looks like a masterstroke.
Where once he was a bright-eyed, happy child, Ronaldinho started coming over more like a dull-eyed, sulking adolescent. However naturally talented, no one can be as good at anything as Ronaldinho was at football without loving the activity. It seems clear that he fell out of love with the game became bored with the daily battle to stay fit enough to do himself justice.
Other activities took precedence. When Ronaldinho moved back to Brazil, one of his old Barcelona teammates was asked if he would be successful. The answer: It depends whether he chooses to sleep more than an hour a night.
His career clearly turned on the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Going into the tournament, there was a consensus in Brazil that this was the moment when Ronaldinho would prove that he was even better than the great Pele. It never happened.
In fairness, it was not just his fault. The team was top-heavy and unbalanced. It did not give him the platform to perform the way that, for example, Brazil’s wonderful 1970 side did for Pele.
How would Ronaldinho react? After Pele’s disappointment in the 1966 World Cup, he fought like a lion to get himself in good shape for 1970. Ronaldinho took a different path — one that led to the nightclub rather than the training ground.
How might things have been had he really applied himself? Unfortunately, we will never know. There were no serious injuries to blunt his effectiveness. He blunted himself with his own choice of priorities. It is deeply frustrating, and it begs the question: Should we be angry with him for shining so briefly or grateful to him for shining so brightly?
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.