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Ronaldinho was the soul of soccer

Ronaldinho expanded what was thought possible on a soccer field. His career is a reminder that the soul of soccer is more than goals.

2017 Football Friendly FC Barcelona v Manchester United Legends Jun 30th Photo by Pedro Salado/Action Plus via Getty Images

Everyone has a Ronaldinho moment, an instant where he did something with the ball that changed the reality of what you thought was possible. Not a bending or twisting of reality, but an expansion of it.

There’s nothing surreal about Ronaldinho toe-poking the ball against Chelsea from outside the box while being cornered by multiple defenders except that he, unlike almost every other player before and after him, had the presence of mind, vision, and audacity to try it. Then the ability to accomplish it. The same with assisting Lionel Messi’s first goal with a no-look scoop pass over the defensive line. Or the long free kick in the 2002 World Cup.

Most of these moments weren’t goals, and sometimes they were inconsequential in the grand scheme of the game: The controlling of the ball with his back, the passing of it with his butt, the elasticos, double nutmegs, flicks, and sombreros. He played professional soccer with the abandonment and wonder of a street soccer player.

That’s not to say that he was ineffective like many players who choose tricks over productivity usually are. Ronaldinho could and did single-handedly win games. Yet his performances were always a show. He entertained. He went against the projection of the game as a very serious and gladiatorial battle, against the gritted teeth and crunching tackles, against the super efficiency and grand narratives. All of those things were nonsense. He made soccer silly and unserious.

One of the most obvious Ronaldinho moments is when he was applauded at the Santiago Bernabéu, when his show was so great that even his harshest critics were compelled to clap and attest to the greatness that they witnessed. The scene was a symbol of how transcendent his skills were. Even a rivalry that involved the throwing of a pig’s head at Luis Figo didn’t stop fans from giving their appreciation.

There was the overhead kick against Villareal in November of 2006 — when he was out of shape, and beginning what would be his rapid decline — that reminded fans of what he was. He was what managers call a difference maker, the cliche of making something out of nothing, the type of player that drives Ray Hudson mad with excitement, what many people call creativity then declare as magic when that creativity is on full display.

One of my personal favorites is the original viral soccer video: The Nike ad where Ronaldinho hit the ball against the crossbar from outside the box, controlled it and repeated the action several times. For so long there was no question that the video was real. He did things during the run of play that were just as, if not more, impressive. Other videos of him on the training ground were as exciting, and even clips of him playing futsal as a child were unbelievable. Of course he hit the crossbar and controlled it and did it again.

Then it was revealed that it didn’t happen, the video was doctored. Yet the truth of the video was confronted by the fact that he was capable of such things. People wanted to believe that he actually did it, because it was within his power, so they did. He had warped the possible to include what would be condemned as fake for anyone else.

The possibilities of what Ronaldinho could do were endless. Diego Maradona once said that it was only a matter of time before he would make the ball talk. And that, like the crossbar video, wasn’t that far-fetched.

That video is an example of what made Ronaldinho one of a kind. He appealed to the imagination and the heart. He played for the child in everyone. His genius was inviting, even when there was an insurmountable distance in talent between him and anyone else. There was no need for him to put up countless videos of his gym work or diet to show just how hard he works to be great. He was a natural talent combined with a love for the game and fearlessness in the face of failure. He used that talent to make himself happy, and that happiness was so pure that it was infectious. He smiled, even after a failure, and you were compelled to smile along with him.

It’s hard to categorize Ronaldinho in the discussion of best players ever these days. Even though his prime was short, he was still the best in the world for two years and won everything there was to win. But as we grow more obsessed with reducing influence and the designation of greatness to goals and assists, after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi destroyed the norms of those two stats, it is imperative to understand that he was more than those numbers. He could score and assist but that wasn’t what made him special.

Ronaldinho was the soul of soccer. All of his moments were different examples of the joy that is the engine of the game. He didn’t have to destroy Real Madrid at their home stadium to be great, though he did. His big moments came because he approached even the smallest action on the field with an eagerness to make it special. He was great because what made him happy was to be unpredictable, and that made the game fun for everyone watching.