Ronaldinho could be ready for a remarkable return

The Rio Report

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Every day is the anniversary of something. And every month, it seems, brings its own milestone for a Brazilian club.

Some of these are clearly newsworthy, others less so. No one begrudged Santos or Corinthians going to town to celebrate their centenaries in recent years, for instance, but it can feel like birthdays are trotted out just for the sake of it. Flamengo win in the week they turn 116 years old! Ponte Preta wear a special shirt to mark the 109th anniversary of the first time they wore white socks!

This weekend it was Gremio’s turn. The Porto Alegre club turned 110 – a landmark apparently worthy not just of a series of retrospective articles in the Brazilian press but also its own book. (Publishers presumably love this fascination with dates. They can do this every 10 years with every one of Brazil’s 12 big clubs.)

The calendar had been kind to the Tricolor: a home fixture against Atletico Mineiro provided the opportunity to celebrate in style at the shiny new Arena do Gremio. The club shop whipped up special merchandise; a flag-hoisting ceremony took place before kick-off.

But the real intrigue of the occasion stemmed not from these fripperies but from the return of one man to his old stomping ground.

Ronaldinho Gaucho was once a deity in these parts. It was with the club that he first made his name, that trademark smile (recently reworked by cosmetic surgeons, incidentally) embedding itself in Tricolor hearts during his sparky teenage years.

His acrimonious departure for Paris Saint-Germain – masterminded by Assis, his brother/agent/puppet master (delete as appropriate) – undid much of the good work but Gremio fans were just about coming back onside by the time Ronaldinho’s career in Europe drew to a close. If he’s coming back to Brazil, ran the logic at the time, he’s coming back to us.

But he didn't. He chose Flamengo. Ostensibly for the money but actually for the beaches and nightlife of Rio de Janeiro.

The Gremio faithful fumed. His first game back at the now-defunct Olimpico in 2011 provoked a staggering display of enmity. “Don't throw coins at Ronaldinho: he'll only start collecting them,” read one sign. Some pioneering fans even went to the effort of printing fake 100-Real notes with a familiar buck-toothed face on them. He returned a year later with Atletico Mineiro and was again targeted

This year, though, the reception was a touch more forgiving. His every touch may have been booed but the whole thing had an air of pantomime about it. An anniversary is no time for real vitriol, after all.

But if there was a script, someone forgot to tell Atletico. With Victor (another former Gremio man) imperious in goal, the Galo spoilt the party, eking out a dogged 1-0 win thanks to Fernandinho’s second-half strike.

Ronaldinho played well but his real impact on the evening was still to come. He adopted a conciliatory tone in his post-match interview (“I’m pleased with the three points, especially against such a strong side”) and was later seen speaking at length with Gremio players (and former Brazil colleagues) Dida and Ze Roberto.

On Wednesday morning it emerged that, during those conversations, Ronaldinho had indicated a desire to return to Gremio. While he is certain to remain with Atletico until the end of the year (when they feature in the Club World Cup), there may be scope for a sensational switch before he hangs up his boots.

This possibility, not to put too fine a point on it, would have been almost unthinkable just a few days ago. But now? Maybe, just maybe. The ice caps are melting. It must be the birthday spirit.

Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football for the Guardian, ESPN FC, When Saturday Comes and WhoScored, among others.

Follow him on Twitter: @snap_kaka_pop

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