Fantasy Factory

THE MOMENT OF INFLECTION of Ronaldinho in global consciousness was the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal in Japan between Brazil and England.-AP

Come June, and there will be a shift from Catalan cultural assertion to Brazilian social responsibility in Ronaldinho's mental register. And what he does in the grounds of Germany, fitness permitting, will mean as much to devotees of `the beautiful game' as it does to Brazilians all over the world, writes N. U. Abilash.

"I may be ugly, but I have charm," said Ronaldinho Gaucho, in a media conference last November at Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium. Minutes earlier, wearing a Barcelona shirt, he had come off the pitch to a standing ovation from lifelong Madridistas after scoring two breathtaking goals in his club's 3-0 win over their traditional rival. On a scale of possibilities, the reception in Madrid to a Barcelona player would have to be placed as low as an audience comprising high-energy kids with sworn loyalty to pop music sitting through a Royal Philharmonic concert interrupting the silence with polite applause. Yet, it happened to Ronaldinho as if it happens every other day.

The moment of inflection of the Brazilian's charm in global consciousness was June 2002. Ronaldinho's long sinuous run from the midfield at the stroke of half-time tore the England defence to shreds and he released Rivaldo for the equaliser in the World Cup quarterfinal in Shizuoka, Japan. In four years, Ronaldinho has given the world many more of such glorious moments that he has, amazingly and dangerously, reduced the sublime to the humdrum. Chelsea and France defender William Gallas recently spoke about Ronaldinho's famously inventive `toe-punt' goal against Chelsea last year. "That goal against us in Stamford Bridge last year was awesome. It was the first time I have ever seen a goal like that. I was just off to the side slightly, I saw the ball go in and thought, `That is impossible, how did he manage to put it in there?' As a footballer, you're lucky if you get 10 years at the top, after which you are left only with the memories. Ronaldinho gives a lot of those."

Only the man who has crossed all limits of decency in burying the soul of `the beautiful game' under a mountain of Euro notes — Real Madrid's `galacticos' president Florentino Perez — could have possibly reduced all what the world's best player can offer to mere `ugliness'. In the summer of 2003, Real had the option of signing the world's best player who was disgruntled at his former club, Paris St. Germain. Perez, reportedly, had struck down Ronaldinho's name saying that he is too ugly.

Perez, deservedly, is repenting at leisure; his star-studded team finishing second to Barcelona in the La Liga last season and trailing the Catalan team by a fair distance this season. Former Manchester United and French forward Eric Cantona recently warned national managers, busy formulating tactics and strategies to counter the threat of the world's best player in World Cup 2006, that their plight could be similar after the tournament. "Ronaldinho is a great player," said Cantona. "He is an artist who plays for the team, who gives the ball as a gift, and scores 15 or 20 goals a season. You cannot be a great player without being intelligent. You need to be very quick to read the runs of team-mates. In one second, you've to imagine a lot of possibilities and decide. It is geometry in your head. Great players can read things nobody else could. Maradona was like Kasparov. He could see 10 moves ahead. Platini was like a chess player. So was Cryuff. So is Zinedine Zidane. These players can beat any defence, however efficiently it is organised."

Meet fire with fire, goes the adage. David Pleat, a former club footballer and manager, recently came up with his counter-strategy against Ronaldinho, which is all about forward thinking. Writing in `The Guardian' before Chelsea's first leg Champions League encounter against Barcelona, Pleat wanted Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho to instruct his strikers to approach the Barcelona central defenders at such an angle that they would be forced to pass the ball to the side where Ronaldinho is not playing at the beginning of a Barcelona move. Conventional techniques such as the off-side trap, man marking and the more recent trend of zonal marking have had only limited success against the speed, intelligence, inventiveness and deception of Ronaldinho whether it be in club football or the international game, and Pleat advocated a new theory. "The Brazilian tends to be on the left of a front three for Barcelona these days. So, the body position of Hernan Crespo or Didier Drogba should force a pass to the right and the Chelsea midfielders would be just to one side of their opponents for the same reason," he wrote.

But, the world soon watched how fragile the strategy is in actual play thanks to Ronaldinho's supreme positional sense, which, according to Dutch master Johan Cryuff, parallels his own amazing one, which was the bulwark of the concept of `Total Football' launched in Europe in the early 1970s. Ronaldinho changed positions throughout the match and his blistering counterattack from deep inside the Barcelona half, that too the inside right, led to Barcelona's second goal.

Both Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, in the 2005 Confederations Cup, and Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard have given the Brazilian a free reign. "He is so talented and intelligent that I do not need to tell him what to do," said Rijkaard recently.

"He reads the game, and shifts from position to position without disturbing the formation. He decides where to shift to and whom to swap positions with.

It could be with Deco, any of our talented youngsters Giuly, Iniesta, Messi or even Eto'o." Substitute that with Kaka, Adriano, Robinho and Roberto Carlos, and one gets a full picture of what awaits rivals in June. The traditional Brazilian lack of obsession with formations will help Ronaldinho all the more.

There is a bigger gap in Pleat's line of thinking. He shows an inability to grasp the psychology of the striker, who does so very little to help out his midfield men and defenders when the ball is at the other end that it is unreasonable to expect him to be driven by anything other than self-interest when the ball is in his own end albeit with the rival team's central defenders.

A former Premiership manager overlooking what is largely `common sense' in football — awareness that the striker permanently resides in a bubble of self-absorbed individualism — takes some believing. But, it happens to people who are caught in the task of framing counterstrategies to reign in Ronaldinho.

The Brazilian maestro has, like the ace practitioners of the literary genre of magic realism from his continent, made it a habit to present elements of the spectacular and the fantastic as if they were dry-as-dust reality. It is not just the boundaries between reality and fantasy that are blurred while watching Ronaldinho. Brazil's football maestros — favela boys such as Ronaldinho and those with a middle-class upbringing such as fellow attacking playmaker Kaka — perceive profession as enjoyment, fun, music ("we blend well because we play to the rhythm of the samba drums which are in us," 1994 World Cup winner Romario once said) and responsibility.

The culture of individualism in the city of Ronaldinho's previous club, Paris, led to his bohemian lifestyle and lack of focus on football.

"It was difficult to be motivated in Paris because what we did for the club did not make any difference to anybody in the city," said Ronaldinho recently. "It was different from Brazil and Barcelona, where what we do means so much to so many people."

Come June, and there will be a shift from Catalan cultural assertion to Brazilian social responsibility in Ronaldinho's mental register. And what he does in the grounds of Germany, fitness permitting, will mean as much to devotees of `the beautiful game' as it does to Brazilians all over the world. He is a hot favourite to win back-to-back World Cup titles.

Pele achieved it in 1958 and 1962, but missed a large part of the action in Chile in 1962 owing to injury. Maradona, carrying average teams on his shoulders in 1986 and 1990, nearly did it in Italy.

Can Ronaldinho nick ahead of the game's two greatest exponents?