The inventor gets his due

N. U. ABILASH

COMMON sense, sometimes, can be a glorious aberration. If it were the sole guiding light, one would be led to believe that there were furious disagreements in a vote by 38,000 highly ambitious professionals — driven by excellence, succumbing to sectarian team loyalties and belonging to 40 countries of different cultures, systems and values — to identify the best among them. But, the first ever poll by FIFPro, the FIFA-backed world Professional Footballer's Association, to pick the best player of the year produced anything but a fractious mandate. In a year that has seen an extended master class in Barcelona and Brazil colours by the most perfect practitioner of `the beautiful game' this side of Diego Maradona, selecting Ronaldinho Gaucho as the best player was about as difficult as convincing a dictator as to why he should not relinquish absolute power.

The power of football in Latin America, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written, is in liberating human minds, bodies and souls from the prison of corruption, crime and poverty which politics has thrown humanity into. Seeing Ronaldinho create beauty out of sheer nothingness gives a moment of thrill to any watching human in any city or country that parochial feelings of club affiliation and nationalistic fervour are drowned for a glorious instant before they resurface in the rival fan.

Even rivals on the pitch are left gaping at the moment of heightened creativity, where mind and brain are in perfect harmony as they propel the body forward in a sudden burst of speed and in symmetric movements.

The aggregate of such golden moments would have seen Ronaldinho — the most expensive player in the world with a current buy-out clause of �82m as per his recently renewed contract with Barcelona — home easily in the inaugural FIFPro Award. By winning the award, Ronaldinho — who was voted FIFA's Player of the Year in December 2004 — has taken the first step towards unifying the official and people's honours given by FIFA to Pele and Maradona as players of the last century. The Brazilian playmaker, born into a humble working class family in the Porto Alegre district in the south of his country, plays with the joie de vivre that marked the Argentinian (for all the beauty of his game, Pele was widely known to be emotionally sterile on the field) and he is known for his conformist values, which made his Brazilian predecessor the most significant player of the last century from the point of view of officialdom.

The imagination and intellect of another great inventor has been Ronaldinho's motivation in the 2004-05 season. He admits to having visited the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres, a few miles north of Barcelona and near the French border, a couple of times. In an interview with The Guardian, he says that he is in love with the painting of `Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea', where the picture of the artist's wife naked and looking out to the sea transforms itself into the image of President Abraham Lincoln when viewed from a distance of 18 metres. "If you look at it normally you don't see anything," Ronaldinho explained. "But, if you blur your vision by pulling your eyes back you can see into it. To make such a fascinating picture, you have to have imagination, you also have to think before others. My imagination and thinking come from being with a ball and wanting to do something new as Dali. I am an inventor like him."

The awesome mixture of imagination, intellect, technical excellence and physical grace is well illustrated by Ronaldinho's goal against Chelsea, Barcelona's second, in the quarterfinal leg at Stamford Bridge in last year's Champions League, the one major trophy that he does not currently hold — Barcelona are defending their La Liga title this year and Brazil next summer are defending the World Cup, which they won in Korea and Japan in 2002 where Ronaldinho's floater past an out of position David Seaman in the quarterfinals made big news. With the ball at his feet after having advanced from the centre of the field, Ronaldinho stopped outside the Chelsea penalty area with the entire array of Chelsea's four defenders, defensive screen Claude Makelele and goalkeeper Peter Cech positioned in front of him. From there, he hit the ball with his toe — a toe punt as it is called — into the back of the net with Cech and everybody else rooted to the spot. "When I look at the goal it seems like someone pressed pause and for three seconds all the players on the pitch have stopped and I am the only one that moves. I stopped the ball, and everyone stopped. And then what happened happened," recalled the magician.

Joan Golobart, a former player who writes a technical column for Barcelona's popular Spanish daily La Vanguardia, wrote thus about the `wonder goal': "A toe punt seems the sort of thing a bad player would do. It gives much more power for a much shorter kick, and therefore surprise. But, it has got a terrible drawback. The smallest error leads to the ball going off at an angle. Only a player with almost unimaginable technical ability, attention to details and inventive flair could attempt it from that far out, leave alone get hundred per cent success out of it."

Though it is not Maradona's egotistical sublime, there is nevertheless a subtle tenor of having `played God' in some of Ronaldinho's utterances, such as the one about the goal at Stamford Bridge or his comparison of himself with Dali. Ronaldinho's self pride is infectious enough to give his Barcelona teammates "a sense of relaxed freedom" as winger Ludovic Giuly puts it. Justin Webster — who has made a television film about Barcelona — argues that the Ronaldinho ego is inextricably linked to his messianic arrival in Barcelona, a club in huge financial and footballing crisis in 2003, to single-handedly negotiate the Galacticos of Real Madrid.

In his first season, Ronaldinho, defending deep and scoring 14 La Liga goals as well, inspired his team to a 17-match unbeaten run towards the end of the season to help Barcelona to second place after a catastrophic beginning to the season. In the second season, he did not have to do defensive duties and his amazing skills helped Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o — named in FIFPro's team of the year — take the Catalan club to the league title for the first time after 1999, when fellow Brazilian Rivaldo was the hero. The arrival of Portuguese midfielder Deco from Porto last season also helped him a great deal to strike a midfield partnership for Barcelona, much in the same manner as his partnership with another superb ball player Kaka in the Brazilian midfield helped his team win the Confederations Cup in June.

Listening to samba drums, living for his family — former struggler mother who once sold cosmetics door to door to supplement the meagre income of Ronaldinho's late shipyard worker father, former aspiring footballer and now his agent brother, and "university educated sister" who plans his schedules and appearances — and doing charity work for UNICEF in many countries in Latin America and Africa make him human when he is not `playing God' in a Barcelona or Brazil shirt. Maradona's Argentinian teammate Jorge Valdano said about the great man: "Poor Diego. We told him you're our God, our salvation, for so many years that we forgot to tell him the most important thing: You're a man." Eto'o says about Ronaldinho: "Take him out of the field and he becomes the man next door, that we have to remind him sometimes when he is on the field that he is a grade or two above all of us."