The transfer that changed football

It can be all too easy to forget Ronaldinho’s role in the creation of today’s Barcelona. Shepherded swiftly towards the exit door by incoming coach Pep Guardiola in the summer of 2008, the brilliant Brazilian would play no part in a team which would go on to become the world’s finest footballing side and be hailed by many as the best ever.Yet in the previous project, he had been the star, the man to make Barcelona believe again following a long period in the wilderness. His transfer from Paris Saint-Germain not only changed the history of the Catalan club, but also transformed the modern game. This was some story.
Almost a decade has passed since Ronaldinho swapped the bright lights of Paris for the fun and the sun of Barcelona. But the Catalan club was not a happy place to be in 2003; without a trophy since Louis van Gaal led them to La Liga in 1999, Barca were living in the shadow of Real Madrid’s Galactico team both at home and in Europe. They needed a new hero.
For a brief moment, it looked as if that man may be David Beckham. Joan Laporta announced to the press in June 2003 that his board had struck a deal to bring in the England midfielder from Manchester United that summer – providing the lawyer won the subsequent elections.
In fact, Beckham’s move to Real Madrid had long been agreed. Laporta’s announcement, however, was backed up by a statement from United. And Madrid kept quiet.
The carefully planned communique was actually a ploy to win votes from the socios in the forthcoming club elections. Laporta had not been the favourite to win – but the Beckham bait swung the vote heavily in his favour. The spin had been spun – and Laporta won.
But if that move was a smart strategy, what came next was a masterstroke. Instead of signing Beckham, who was set for Madrid anyway, Barcelona went out and splashed their cash (around €30m) on an even better player: Ronaldinho.
United, seeking a replacement for the departing Beckham, had been set on signing the Brazilian, but Barcelona’s then vice-president Sandro Rosell used his contacts from his former role with Nike in Brazil to convince the World Cup winner that he would be the flagship footballer in a fresh and ambitious project at Camp Nou – the man to lift the club from the doldrums in an exciting new side. The stage was set.
Ronaldinho marked his home debut in La Liga with a stunning strike as he cut in from the left and waltzed past two players before blasting an unstoppable drive in off the crossbar from long range in a game against Sevilla which had kicked off after midnight due to a dispute between Laporta and the Andalusians’ president Jose Maria del Nido.
But it took time. Rijkaard’s side struggled to gel and were unable to find any form of consistency in the opening months. Indeed, 2004 began with a 3-0 loss at Racing Santander which left the Catalans in 12th place and the Dutchman staring at the sack.
But Barca were energised by the arrival of Edgar Davids in January, with the Pitbull adding more mobility and much-needed bite to a vulnerable midfield, protecting the defence and allowing Ronaldinho (who had struggled with injury for a good part of the first half of the campaign) much more time on the ball in areas where he could do the most damage, setting off from his starting spot on the left. And in their last 20 games, the Catalans claimed 48 points, losing just twice; Rijkaard’s men rose from 12th to finish the season in second, behind title winners Valencia.
Ronaldinho had played a huge part, scoring 22 goals and assisting 14 more. There were several superb strikes along the way, including a wonderful overhead effort at Osasuna, but the Brazilian had captured the imagination with his astonishing all-round play – a festival of flicks, tricks, dribbles, and shimmies. He was playing for the team but also to the gallery, and fans were out of their seats, sensing that something special was about to happen.
It was. Davids departed along with compatriot Phillip Cocu in the summer of 2004 but with Mexico captain Rafa Marquez utilised in a defensive midfield role, Barca retained their balance and Ronaldinho remained rampant.
There were less goals [13] but more assists [20] as the Brazilian began a promising partnership with summer signing Samuel Eto’o. This time, there was no poor start and Barca cruised to their first league title since 1999.
In the Champions League, they were edged out by Chelsea in the last 16, despite a glorious curled effort with the inside of his right foot from Ronaldinho at Stamford Bridge which had seemed speculative at best when he lined up his shot from a standstill on the edge of the ‘D’, surrounded by defenders and with barely any space to aim at.
Revenge over Chelsea would come in 2005-06, but only after a second Fifa World Player of the Year prize for the Brazilian, a first Ballon d’Or and an ovation at the Santiago Bernabeu for a stunning show in Barca’s 3-0 win at the home of their fiercest rivals, which included two sensational solo strikes, the second of which left madridistas with nothing left to do but to applaud. Not even Lionel Messi has received such recognition in the capital.
This was Ronaldinho’s standout season at Camp Nou and in it, he hit another 26 goals, including a fine run and low strike against Chelsea as Jose Mourinho’s men were put to the sword, as well as memorable efforts against Espanyol, Udinese and Real Sociedad.
The Brazilian also assisted 22 more and ended the campaign with another medal in La Liga, plus a Champions League crown as Barca overcome Arsenal in a tense finale in Paris.
That match had not been the Brazilian’s best, yet Ronaldinho was the player who had made Barca believe in such successes. He was the inspiration, the spark which ignited an entire project. Sadly, the flame flickered out the following season.
Still brilliant for the first half of the 2006-07 campaign, Ronaldinho added more gorgeous goals to his stunning scrapbook with an audacious free kick under the wall against Werder Bremen, as well as a beautiful bicycle kick against Villarreal.
But the parties at his home in Castelldefels took their tool. The forward gained weight, lost form and confidence too as Barca missed out on La Liga on the last day to a resurgent Real Madrid.
The following season only brought more of the same and with no trophies in 2006-07 or 2007-08, it was time for a change. Laporta survived a censure motion, but Rijkaard was replaced by Guardiola and Ronaldinho was forced out as well, with the Catalans concerned that his influence on a young and impressionable Messi could lead the Argentine along the same prickly path.
So all of a sudden, he was gone – another Barca legend left by the back door and quickly confined to the past as Guardiola’s great team made their mark.
But Ronaldinho’s role in the creation of this special side should never be understated: He made Barca believe again after several tough, trophyless years; he lifted an entire club from a dark depression; he enthralled Blaugrana fans in a way no other player has managed since (not even Messi) with his audacious skills and infectious personality; he energised the dressing room and led the side to the kind of glory which had seemed so distant upon his arrival in 2003. He made the difference.
It may not have lasted long, but without Ronaldinho, none of the recent rewards may have even been possible at Barcelona: the Brazilian changed the course of the Catalan club forever, and sparked a revolution in modern football in the process. So as the two teams who made his transfer to Camp Nou possible prepare to meet on Tuesday, lest he be forgotten.

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