Ronaldinho: The most amazing career in football history

The Rio Report

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Even before Wednesday night's Copa Libertadores final, Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho was already one of the most decorated footballers in the history of the game.

But when his current side Atletico Mineiro won the title - which is South America's equivalent of the Champions League - in a gripping penalty shoot-out, he took that career record to another level. With league titles in Italy and Spain, and continental titles in Europe and South America, the 33-year-old from Porto Alegre can justifiably claim to have enjoyed perhaps the most amazing career of any footballer in history.

That's a big claim, and we'll get back to justifying it shortly. But first a word from the man himself:

"It was the title I was missing. I came back to Brazil for this. Everyone said I was finished, let them talk now," he said after Wednesday's win, which saw Atletico Mineiro recover from a 2-0 first leg deficit against Paraguayan champions Olimpia before winning the shoot-out 4-3.

That reaction says it all: justification. A man able to hold his head up high one more time after years of being written off as a great talent who had burnt out prematurely.

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Brazil Paraguay Soccer Copa Libertadores

Ronaldinho was named by World Soccer magazine as World Player of the Decade for the first 10 years, a just award for an astonishing spell of achievement in which he won the World Cup with Brazil, the Liga title and Champions League with Barcelona and Serie A with AC Milan, as well as collecting the Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year awards. He has even had a bee named after him.

The world of football first started turning sour for Ronaldinho back at the 2006 World Cup when he failed to shine, with things only getting worse in 2007 when he was publicly criticised by Brazil coach Dunga for putting on weight. The Samba lifestyle of endless parties and late nights simply appeared too much for his body, and it seemed that his best days were already behind him despite still being in his mid-20s.

A move to AC Milan a year later started poorly as he struggled for form, fitness and goals, but he turned things round to become the Italian top flight's most prolific provider of assists in 2009-10.

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Again, however, he failed to establish a place in the first team the next season and was let go in the January transfer window, ironically after clocking up enough appearances to win a winners' medal in what was a Scudetto-winning season for Milan.

It proved another ill-fated move for the Brazilian, however: he signed a four-year deal with Brazil's biggest club, Flamengo, but ended up going to court less than 18 months later to force the club to release him after stories of repeatedly missed training sessions, endless jeering by fans and disputes over unpaid wages.

When he left he promised to "party every day" rather than get back into football, so it was something of a surprise when he ended up signing for the relatively small Atletico Mineiro. That, too, quickly seemed like a mistake - and he got the new phase of his career off to the worst possible start when he was fired from a £500,000-a-year deal with Coke by turning up at his inaugural press conference swigging from a tin of Pepsi. Not clever.

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The world's most expensive tin of cola?

Yet though the omens looked bad, something about life in Belo Horizonte clearly agreed with him. At first, the odd Youtube highlight going around the world was seen as a novelty, the washed-up legend showing flashes of his old brilliance.

But it soon became clear that Ronaldinho wasn't pulling off the odd clever trick: he was back in his best form for over half a decade, and was the key man in Atletico Mineiro's Copa Libertaores run. Not only that, he has managed to force his way back into the national team - and that is perhaps the biggest win of all, since a desire to make his national squad for the 2014 World Cup on home soil was his main reason for wanting a return to Brazil in the first place back in 2011.

Many players have won titles in several leagues, but Brazilians Dida, Cafu and Roque Junior and Argentines Carlos Tevez, Walter Samuel and Juan Pablo Sorin are the only other players to have won both the Copa Libertadores and Champions League (or European Cup) in their careers.

Add in the World Cup winners' medal and the dozens of other awards and honours that he has collected, and it's hard to think of a player who has made a greater impact on the modern game. Lionel Messi credits him with making him the player he is today, as well as insisting that it was Ronaldinho rather than any of the high-profile managers who paved the way for Barca to become the world's best club side in the 2000s.

The story isn't yet over for Ronaldinho, and with Brazil looking hugely impressive in the recent Confederations Cup a second World Cup winners' medal could yet be on the cards. Whatever happens, Ronaldinho's place in football history is already secure - and what's more, he's now ensured that he'll be remembered for the right reasons. A player who continued to contribute well into his 30s, rather than just the insanely-gifted party animal who saw it all burn away before his time.

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