Gaucho can light up world stage again
Imagining what a 34-year-old Ronaldinho will look like might test whether you're an inherently positive or negative person. Or course, this test only works if you're a soccer fan with a working knowledge of the former Ballon d'Or winner. If you're merely a casual fan, we'll come up with something Hope Solo-related.
Because Ronaldinho spent a long stretch as the biggest name in professional sport, most of us have well-established impressions of him - feelings which may confound our test. But science aside, let’s try it anyway. If you're at all neutral about 'Dinho and your gut instinct conjures the 34-year-old version as a bit of a left-sided, advanced Juan Roman Riquelme, you're probably a glass-half-full type of person. You take your morning's steel cut oats with orange juice and the firm belief that those vitamins work. If you see Gaucho with 20 extra points and the mobility of somebody who lived a constant Carnival since returning to Brazil, your glass is probably half empty, filled with coffee, with an Advil sitting next to it. And every morning is a Monday.
Most of us would be lucky to age as gracefully as Gaucho, though Ronaldinho's progression is of particular importance for Brazil - hosts of the 2014 World Cup, and a country whose international successes have always been tied to the icons who lead them. Pele is the most notable - the central figure for three of Brazil's five world champions. Romario and Ronaldo led the other two, and even the times when Brazil was falling just short of the world's biggest stage, they reached World Cup finals behind Ronaldo and, over 50 years ago, Ademir.
Clearly, it would be an over-simplification to think of Brazil as defined by its best players, yet the last two World Cup cycles also illustrate this hypothesis. In the summer of 2002, Brazil left Yokohama as champions, but four years later, an overweight Ronaldo went into Germany not as the leading man but as part of the famed "magic quartet." Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano were unable to pick up the slack, when Brazil were stymied by France in the quarterfinals. In the 2010 cycle, Dunga tried to make Kaka the focal point. Although the team entered the finals as co-favorites, they were again eliminated in the round of eight.
Ronaldinho gets away from Ruud van Nistelrooy during Barcelona's clash with Real Madrid in December 2007. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Three years from now, Neymar is supposed to be the hero, but the shoulders of the lithe 19-year-old have been unable to lift the post-South Africa Brazil. Domestic results hint he can, with the Santos star leading his club to every major honor Brazil has to offer. Internationally, despite his seven goals in 13 appearances, Neymar has been unable to quell questions surrounding the Mano Menezes era - an era which began in earnest with a quarterfinal exit at this summer's Copa America. Though it's unfair to blame Neymar for that failure, Copa showed Brazil's next hero has still yet to arrive.
That's not to say Ronaldinho can be that guy. Even as he re-establishes himself with Flamengo, Ronaldinho's days of leading elite teams are gone. He can't be this cycle's Ronaldo, and for that reason, it would be unfair to instill a plan that asked Guacho to find a fountain of youth between now and 2014. Even though he sits second in the Brasileirao in goals, it's not difficult to image what the Barcelona-version of Ronaldinho could do in this year's Campeonato, a vision that only underscores the steps he's lost. The Ronaldinho of 2006 was not able to bring the World Cup back to Brazil, and any team that unduly relies on the 2014 version will meet a similar end.
What Ronaldinho can do is act as a figurehead. If he can't lead with goals and assists, he can lead by example, something which may have huge value for a team that will feature a number of players who grew up idolizing the icon. Of the 25 players called in for Brazil's upcoming matches with Costa Rica and Mexico, 10 were 16 or younger than when Ronaldinho made his World Cup debut in 2002.
Ronaldinho holds the Ballon d'Or in December 2005. (Photo by Luis Bagu/Getty Images)
While aspects of Ronaldinho's persona hint at an aloof player that can lack commitment, he has generally been a well-liked teammate. His willingness to play as one of Brazil's overage players at the China Olympics speaks to an awareness of his place within the larger futebol culture. He's willing to revisit that role for London 2012.
Ronaldinho can also be a shield. At a tournament where the home side will be under enormous pressure to end the Selecao's drought, most of the squad will be at their first World Cup. Ronaldinho has been to two, has experienced success and failure, and if he were selected to the team, would have a profile that even eclipses Neymar's. If there is pressure on Neymar to have a Ronaldo-esque breakout, he's less likely to hear about it if Ronaldinho is available for questions.
But focusing on such ephemeral factors would miss the bigger picture - the larger story of Ronaldinho playing in 2014. This is a player who remains the favorite of so many fans across the world. It's difficult to see his presence in Brazil as being anything but a boon for the spectacle. While there were questions about Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane leading into 2006, nobody thinks back on Germany and thinks, "I wish they weren't there." Despite Maradona's ill-fated place at USA 1994, which people remember for a drug test that saw him out of the tournament, he gave millions joy during the time he was there (and, ultimately, have an interesting story to tell). The splendor of the World Cup would only be amplified if it can find a place for Ronaldinho.
And it would be a mistake to assume Ronaldinho won't be a valued contributor. Yes, it's unlikely he will carry forward the goal scoring form he's currently flashing in Brazil, but there are few players better on the ball then Ronaldinho. If Juan Sebastian Veron can start at 35 in the World Cup for Argentina, Ronaldinho's unlikely to be completely out of place. By 2014, he may have lost more of his burst, and some may envisage him with a few extra inches around the waist, but he'll still be able to hit a ball. He'll still be able to drop a pass behind the line for a teammate, and if he's anything close to the player we've seen for the past eight months, he'll more than deserve a spot on the team.
And we'd all be better for it. Coming off a World Cup, Gold Cup and Copa America were few individuals demanded the spotlight, we may need heroes as much as Brazil. Gaucho gives us a chance to have one. The younger version of Ronaldinho let his play be iconic without worrying about fully filling the hero's shoes. Now, with 'Dinho willing to be more than a leader by proxy, the Selecao may be able to turn back the clock to find the icon they've always relied upon.