Can Ronaldinho Be Great Again?

There was once an Aladdin who used to gently stroke the side of his magic lamp and a genii would rush out and serve him as he would ask him to. There was once a Frank Rijkaard who used to lightly pat Ronaldinho on the back before matches and the Brazilian would tie the knot between sorcery and efficiency with marvelous result.

But that gold-encrusted magic lamp has corroded to a pale bronze and even after you brush its side for hours, the only things that gallop out are a dense cloud of smoke and a rueful sense of nostalgia. Yet on Saturday night, it was slightly different. And the difference was that for one moment there was a bit of the leg of that Ronaldinho genii stretching out. And boy, wasn’t that some leg!

For much of this season, Ronaldinho has been hounded by the Spanish scribes for failing to encapsulate his old form yet again. For much of the season, Ronaldinho has failed to even thread into the FC Barcelona first team. For much of the season, the Camp Nou faithful have gladly hated the man they loved most only a season and a half ago. For much of the season, the 27-year old Brazilian has been hailed as the symptomatic emblem of the side that was (or is) rapidly generating.

But on Saturday night Down Melancholics Way at the Estadio Vicente Calderon there was a strong whisper that all is not over for Ronaldinho. Because the wonky-teethed, forever-grinning, nightclub-haunting, gym-ramping Ronaldinho conjured up the most sumptuous moment of the game. Because for one moment the Barca faithful locked in the Calderon were treated to a slice of Samba magic that the Brazilian had persistently exhibited before he went downhill after 2006. Because Ronaldinho scored one of the goals of the season against Atletico Madrid, a team that is striving to finish in the top four in La Liga this season and which eventually destroyed Barca 4-2 shoving the Catalans to 5 points behind league leaders Real Madrid.

30th minute at the Calderon and the match is at a stalemate. Barcelona have done most of the running and have over 60% of the possession. Then Xavi Hernandez crosses the ball from the right of Atletico’s penalty area for Ronaldinho to do something with the ball from 13 yards out. True, Ronnie was unmarked by a pathetically organized defense that was even worse that those Trojan warriors who willingly let the Grecian horse in but the overhead kick that he carved out with no hesitation and with instinct typical of him was a scintillating attestation that Ronaldinho still retains his God-gifted magic.

As Atletico custodian Christian Abbiati watched the ball fly past him in helpless desperation, there was a flare of spark doing the rounds in Catalonia. There in the north-east of Spain they treat football at par with religion and when their once-upon-a-time Messiah scored the best goal of the weekend anywhere in Europe, there was a wave of optimism breaking in. No, it was no surprise that Ronaldinho could conjure up such moments of sheer genius but what was more tantalizingly exciting was that Ronaldindo had accomplished it when he is stagnated at his nadir.

Last season Ronaldinho’s form fluctuated from the good to the mediocre to the downright ugly and then shot up to the ridiculously sublime. He might have missed over 50% of his training sessions last season for regular work-outs at the gym to trim his body mass but he was also Barcelona’s highest goalscorer with 21 goals. Last season he weaved an impossible moment of sheer sorcery when he scored an overhead kick against Villarreal in late November (admittedly the defender marking him was Pascal Cygan) that enforced Catalan daily Sport to splash its front cover with a massive satellite photo of the world enveloped in clouds and Ronaldinho doing his Chilean with bottom in the air and legs over his head.

This season though Ronaldinho has been less fortunate. He has started just 12 matches in La Liga for the Catalan giants out of a possible 26 and has appeared as a substitute four times. On the other 10 occasions, he has been hit with one injury or the other and suspiciously most of those injuries didn’t crop up until the mornings of the matches and that too without Barca coach Frank Rijkaard being aware of them. He has scored 8 goals in the league and just 1 in 6 matches in the UEFA Champions League and his contribution in most of the matches has been little better than nothing although he does have 11 assists in the league to his credit.

He has mostly been played on the left side of Barcelona’s midfield by Rijkaard and has often been stationary in his position. Of course the ready-to-strike-Ronaldinho media cheerleaders have denoted his immobility to the increase in his waistline yet there is an equally significant element of tactical flaw thrown into the equation. Ronaldinho has often been bereft of any service from the deeper half of the midfield and his passes have often been awry or unimpressive. Notably he played through the middle in the hole against Atletico Madrid in the first half and was somewhat decent(ish). But when Rijkaard employed the two times FIFA World Player of the Year again on the left in the second half, he was lost in his own cocoon once more.

Ronaldinho’s banana kick in the 30th minute against Atletico might have been his high point in the match but on the flipside it was the only notable point for him. He did blast the ball over the Atletico crossbar in the second half when he took a 25-yard out free-kick but that was that. Against Levante last week, all Ronaldinho did was jog around the cursed left side of the Barca midfield area and fire the ball rugby-style over the crossbar in the 16th minute from just 13 yards out with the goal at his mercy. In some of the other matches that he has featured in, Ronnie hasn’t done even half as much as he did against Levante and Atleti.

Ronaldinho reportedly is one shoe out of the Camp Nou cathedral and the Barca followers wouldn’t mind joining in the procession in black colors and walk Ronaldinho to the Barca station where the train for Milan departs in the summer. He has been persistently linked with a summer move to AC Milan in an effort to spare both himself and Barcelona the agony of prolonging a love affair that has long escaped out of the window leaving its dirty underwear behind.

These days Ronaldinho is often perceived as the albatross that eternally dangles around Barcelona’s neck and the sooner he is let off the hook and allowed to perch elsewhere the better. Honestly, Barca do not neither need nor want Ronaldinho since they have discerned a new Messiah in El Diego II (Lionel Messi) and actually play better without him. And while his one moment of unalloyed genius against Atletico Madrid would have certainly convinced Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi to scoop up the player in the summer, it certainly doesn’t persuade Barca President Joan Laporta to shelter Ronnie at Camp Nou beyond the summer.

In all probabilities, Ronaldinho’s relationship with Barca is over and he seeks and certainly requires a new environment to transform himself. That Ronnie still retains his quality and caliber in spite of his downtrodden form is evident since class is permanent and form is temporary, but he needs to leave Barcelona for good. His Brazilian international team mate Ronaldo not so much as departed for AC Milan from Real Madrid as was hurried out of the Bernabeu by Fabio Capello and Ramon Calderon in January 2007 but he did undergo a mini-revival in the second half of last season and hit the back of the opposition’s net 7 times in 14 league matches for the Italian giants.

Maybe it’s time now for Ronaldinho to take the same route and follow in his buddy’s footsteps. Oh, Ronaldo also appeared to have binned a vital chunk of his weight in Milan and Ronaldinho should take some inspiration from that.

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