When Frank Rijkaard took over the reins at Barcelona, the club was struggling. In Spain, as well as in Europe, the Catalans were not anywhere near where a club that is so passionately, even feverishly supported across the globe should have been. Rijkaard and Henk ten Cate turned the team around, building it around 2003-signing Ronaldinho. Though Rijkaard’s first season wasn’t a success, he went on to win the Spanish league title twice in succession, in 2004-05 and 2005-06.
Ronaldinho was the jewel in Barca’s crown in these two seasons. He won almost every award up for grabs, including the FIFA World Player of the Year and the European Ballon d’Or awards. (The more significant achievement, methinks, is the standing ovation he got at the Santiago Bernabeu for a flawless performance against Real Madrid, when the home team was taken apart in clinical fashion.) In terms of playing the game “beautifully”, Ronaldinho was without an equal. Before the 2006 World Cup, when the buzzword was “joga bonito“, it would have been difficult to associate the term with any other footballer.
However, from that point in time, Ronaldinho’s form has been steadily on the wane. In fact, it started with a mediocre performance in the 2006 Champions League Final, followed by a near-anonymous presence in the World Cup, where he had been expected to outshine everyone else. Barcelona have had to contend with Real Madrid winning back-to-back La Liga titles. Liverpool dumped them out of last year’s Champions League, while that honor belonged to Manchester United this year.
Can you see a parallel?
Cristiano Ronaldo joined Manchester United in 2003. He had to wait (though longer than Ronaldinho) to win his first league title with United. But when it did come, he played a pivotal role in landing the title. He did miss out on the big awards, but swept the honors in England. Now, United have made it two league titles in a row. Ronaldo has had an even more impressive season. His team are in the final of the Champions League (against a London club, if you want another parallel). And Portugal start as one of the favorites in the Euro 2008.
Ronaldinho’s shocking loss of form, even class, should prove a lesson to the young winger from Madeira. In the fickle world of sport, it takes only a season to cast you aside. While everyone, including this writer, will sing paeans when you are on song, they will shift loyalties the instant they realize you are not nearly the phenomenon that you once were, or promised to be.
So as Mancunians around the world, and lovers of good football alike, wish Cristiano Ronaldo good luck for the Champions League final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow a week from tomorrow, let us also wish that, unlike the Brazilian wizard, he will continue to thrill us for the better part of the next decade.
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