Fryer: Menezes hopes for 'Dinho' magic
Joga Bonito's return: Ronaldinho is ready to make a long-term stay in Carlos Menezes' squad. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Everywhere you looked, hips swayed to the rhythm of a ruffle of drummers that had gathered outside the media entrance. It was a scene that would set the tone for the evening. Brazil had come to town, and it was party time at Craven Cottage. Nothing could damper the mood of the 25,000-or-so that ventured over Putney Bridge and under the pelting rain to take their seats inside Fulham’s humble home in southwest London.
The fans were in rapturous mood. Nothing would silence them, not even the minute prior to kick off set aside to pay respect to Alhaji Sly Tetteh, President of Ghanaian Premier League side Liberty Professionals, who sadly passed away at the weekend. Even the national anthems seemed to go largely unnoticed.
But for Brazil’s returning number 10, this was amateur night. And as the team sheets were read out, the biggest cheer was reserved for him. The evening’s star guest had arrived. Ronaldinho was back. Now the festivities could begin in earnest. Anyone whose employer is forced to set up a hotline so that the public can report sightings of him having a little too much fun on a school night is bound to crank the celebrations up a notch.
Operating on the left of a front three, Ronaldinho Gaucho was making only his second appearance under coach Mano Menezes, his first for Brazil in 10 months. His earliest contribution was to send in a free-kick that found Lucio unmarked at the back post, but the Inter defender’s weak volley was easily saved by the impressive Adam Kwarasey, who, in just second appearance for Ghana, would go on to deny Ronaldinho the icing on the 'welcome back' cake. `Dinho's next offering was also from a set piece, this time sending a curling shot safely into Kawarsey’s hands from fully 30 yards.
But it was a quiet opening 30 minutes for the Flamengo man who has suddenly found his form for over the last couple of months of Brasileirao. Having just past the halfway stage, his side sit just four points off leaders Corinthians, thanks in no small part to the former FIFA World Player of the Year. The league’s top scorer until Borges bagged a brace for Santos a few days ago, Ronaldinho is playing arguably his best football in half a decade; the apogee of his season so far arriving as he grabbed a hat-trick to inspire Fla to an stunning 5-4 victory over Santos in Sao Paulo some six weeks ago.
“Ronaldinho has been playing very well recently and this is his time to shine,” insisted Menezes at his pre-match press conference.
But as a third set piece was deflected over shortly before the break, Ronaldinho was yet to manage even a flicker.
“International football is much faster now and maybe he felt it was a little bit difficult at the beginning,” admitted his coach after the game.
To criticize the 31-year-old’s first half performance, however, would be unfair. The early loss of Paulo Henrique Ganso to injury, and subsequent introduction of Elias, left Derek Boateng with little danger to stamp out through the middle and left Brazil with no link between its flat midfield trio and the attack. As Menezes’s men looked increasingly for the diagonal ball, Ronaldinho had little to work with.
The first allusion to the genius that made him undoubtedly the World’s finest player for the two years preceding World Cup 2006 finally arrived five minutes before the break as he turned inside from his position from the left to float an inch perfect ball for Leandro Damiao. The 22-year-old's header back across goal narrowly evaded an onrushing Neymar. The dismissal of Daniel Opare – who ignored referee Mike Dean’s repeated warnings and committed his fifth foul in the opening 30 minutes – changed the game, however.
Against 10 men, Menezes withdrew Fernandinho – whose only contribution arrived when he slipped in Leandro Damiao for the game's only goal on the stroke of half-time – and introduced Porto forward Hulk after intermission.
“Then he got into the rhythm [of the game]”, Menezes said of Ronaldinho, “he showed what he’s all about in the second half.”
Brazil dominated possession, and Ronaldinho saw more of the ball. But with its three forwards repeatedly switching positions around Damiao, Brazil looked top heavy.
Ronaldinho would go close twice more from free-kicks before the end of the evening, but Kawarsey was equal to everything he could muster. “The Ghanaian goalkeeper made some wonderful saves from him,” admitted Menezes, adding, “We need to bring Ronaldinho back to the international game for the international fans.”
And it was the fans who benefited most from his appearance. Every step-over was greeted with a cheer as his adoring public leaped to their feet to wave dual-Ghana/Brazil souvenir scarves or climbed eagerly over chairs to grab the best view possible to capture the star attraction on their cell phones.
Whether Ronaldinho will prove beneficial to Menezes ahead of (or during) the 2014 World Cup, by which he’ll be 34 years-old, seems unlikely at the moment. Yet, Ronaldinho will have at least one more chance to prove his worth following confirmation of his inclusion in the 24-man squad for domestic-based players that will face Argentina next week.
Menezes admitted that the sending off meant he learned little about his team.
“It was a game of defence against attack so there wasn’t really a game at all,” he said, but the coach seemed happy with his returning star. “Ronaldinho has been playing well and is a player that we need to bring back.”
And for the overwhelming majority, it was nice to have him.
With Craven Cottage emptying last night, the last of the partygoers spilling out onto the street sporting ear-to-ear grins, the biggest smile of all waltzed past the mixed zone before locking eyes with one particularly attractive female acquaintance.
“Hey, Ronaldinho,” she said. “Remember me?”
“Of course,” he replied, chuckling quietly to himself. “It’s been a while.”
It certainly had. You couldn’t help but smile right back at him.