Exclusive: Ronaldinho talks retirement and how Barcelona can adapt to life without Messi

Yahoo Sport UK

“Was it a difficult decision to retire?”

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It is a question one might expect to elicit a wistful sigh or a pregnant pause, especially when put to a player who only recently called time on one of the most storied careers in modern football. They say every athlete dies twice, and a certain measure of internalised grief is usually par for the course once the first post-mortem begins.

Ronaldinho, though, has always had a knack for bucking expectations. “No, it wasn’t hard at all,” he replies, trademark grin spreading swiftly across his face. “It was something I thought a lot about, and I decided to stop, feeling fulfilled and happy.”

In truth, he has had ample time to come to terms with it. The official announcement may only have been made in January, but the 38-year-old had been retiring in instalments for a good while, his last official appearance having come fully 31 months ago, at the end of an ill-fated spell with Fluminense.

​Ronaldinho on UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken®
​Ronaldinho on UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken®

He has kept himself busy in the interim, such that the professional game appears not to have left too big a hole in his life. “I don’t miss it because I play every day,” he laughs. (Laughter is very much Ronaldinho’s mother tongue.) “I have footvolley, which is something that I love, and music…” Politics, too: he will controversially join the Brazilian Republican Party a few days after we speak.

That restlessness was evident in the second half of his playing career, which took him from Italy back to Brazil, then to Mexico, where Yahoo Sport meets him on the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken®. But while he remained a box-office draw well into his 30s and added a Copa Libertadores medal to his collection during an enjoyable Indian summer with Atlético Mineiro, there is an argument to be made that this was all but a post-script to the Barcelona years, that five-year spell when Porto Alegre’s premier stepover-deity took our hearts hostage.

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Ronaldinho spent five successful years at Barcelona
Ronaldinho spent five successful years at Barcelona

And if Ronaldinho left an indelible mark on Barça, the reverse is also true. “I still watch them,” he says. “I have a lot friends there – not just players, but people behind the scenes too. I have history there, a really strong bond.” He has fond memories of winning the Champions League in 2006 – “the pinnacle of club football” – and will be cheering on Ernesto Valverde’s charges in the latter stages of this season’s edition: “I think the team is doing really well. They’re having a marvellous season and everything is in place for them to win it.”

If they do, there may be mixed emotions for another Brazilian who is looking to follow in his gilded footsteps at the Camp Nou. Philippe Coutinho is sitting out the Champions League knockout stages, having played in the competition for Liverpool prior to his big-money move to Barça in January, but Ronaldinho believes there will plenty of good times ahead for him in Catalonia.

Philippe Coutinho is the latest Brazilian to move to the Camp Nou
Philippe Coutinho is the latest Brazilian to move to the Camp Nou

“I’m very happy that he has gone to Barcelona,” says Ronaldinho, a long-standing Coutinho fan. “I think the characteristics of his game are perfect for Spanish football, and for Barcelona’s style. I hope it works out for him, because he has a lot of quality.

“He is one of the most special players in the world today – the kind who would fit into any team. If he was able to shine in England, with that aggressive football, full of really strong, fast players, that proves he can play anywhere.”

Which raises the question: would Ronaldinho have cut it in the Premier League, had Manchester United not been gazumped by Barça back in 2003? His response is as emphatic as it is poetic: “The ball is round wherever you are in the world!”

Manchester United were interested in Ronaldinho when the playmaker was at PSG
Manchester United were interested in Ronaldinho when the playmaker was at PSG

Ronaldinho is also full of praise for Paulinho, who has spent the season sticking it to his north-London doubters following his arrival from China last summer: “I’m not surprised. Everyone in Brazil already knew [what he could do] due to the excellent work he did at Corinthians. He really stood out. He went to a league that isn’t that visible, globally, but everyone knows about his quality, and he’s showing that once again.”

It would be remiss to discuss the current crop of Blaugrana players without alighting on the man who took on the mantle of talisman-in-chief after Ronaldinho’s exit to Milan in 2008. But surely, 10 years on, the Brazilian must be starting to run out of superlatives for former team-mate Lionel Messi?

It seems not. “I will never get tired of eulogising Léo,” he says. “He’s not just a great player; he’s a great person, a great human being. That’s the kind of thing we must never tire of praising.

“And when he gets on that field… well then we could end speaking for a whole year about Messi. He evolves with every game. Léo is a living legend and we must treat him with so much respect.”

READ MORE: How Messi reacted to Ronaldinho’s retirement

Lionel Messi served an apprenticeship under Ronaldinho before the latter joined Milan
Lionel Messi served an apprenticeship under Ronaldinho before the latter joined Milan

So what will Barça do when the day finally comes for their No.10 to hang up his boots? Messi turns 31 this summer, and with one Neymar-shaped succession plan already having fallen by the wayside, the task of replacing the Argentine has never looked more daunting. Ronaldinho pauses. “We just have to cross our fingers and hope that someone comes along with half of his ability,” he ventures, a glint in his eye. “That would already be enough.”

One retired magician is quite enough for now, however, and few football fans can have resisted a nostalgic trawl through the limitless supply of Ronnie highlights videos in the wake of his exit from the game. The flick-flacks, nutmegs and free-kicks all retain their technicolour lustre, even at a few years’ remove, but for many there is one moment in particular that will forever define his low-slung brand of genius: that devastating toe punt against Chelsea in 2005.

“I remember it well,” he smiles. “In football, it’s very difficult to do the easy things. When someone is able to make something so simple become effective, it ends up being unique. So it was a simple goal: a little wiggle of the body and a toe poke that made history.”

I put it to him that there were echoes of Romário to the finish – the malandragem, the low backlift, the whatever-works pragmatism. “Yes, no doubt. He used that technique a lot. Us guys who came from futebol de salão [Brazil’s ultra-technical version of indoor football] grew up using the toe poke, so it comes from our background.”

A five-a-side court is precisely where you’re most likely to catch sight of Ronaldinho in action now, of course, with the global charity circuit beckoning. But even in that more modest context, you can be sure he’ll be spreading joy, one no-look pass at a time, just as he did during his all-too-brief time at the pinnacle of his sport.

“I can only thank God for the gift that he gave me, and for the opportunity to do the thing that I love the most,” Ronaldinho adds. “God put me on this earth to play football and I had a lot of fun with it.”

Ronaldinho spoke to Yahoo Sport on the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken®. The tour has visited 26 countries across the Americas, Africa and Asia over the last 11 years, letting hundreds of thousands of fans who can normally only watch the competition on television get close to the trophy and share the drama with some of the most iconic players of the game.

 

 

 

 

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