The first time I covered the Brazilian seleção was at the Copa America in Paraguay in 1999.
A skinny little teenager called Ronaldinho Gaucho scored his first goal in a yellow jersey and for days the Brazilian press were all over him.
A week or so later, they’d lost interest and he was sitting all alone in the corner of a ballroom at the team hotel. I went over to him and tried to chat. I spoke no Portuguese at the time and he spoke no Spanish and we spent 30 seconds trying to converse. It was useless. I didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand me. We gave up.
Well, now he speaks Spanish and I speak Portuguese and we’ve both come a long way. And on Tuesday night I finally got an interview with Ronaldinho at Atletico Mineiro’s training ground outside Belo Horizonte.
You can see the whole story here at Reuters but it’s essentially a piece on how he’s put the Flamengo debacle behind him and is playing impressive football again with a team leading the league.
The story starts:
A rejuvenated Ronaldinho has established unheralded Atletico Mineiro as favourites to win their first Brazilian league title in four decades with the scintillating form that marked his time at Barcelona.
The charismatic forward has been resplendent in a campaign that has seen Atletico beaten just once in 19 games. With the season half over, his team is top of the table, a point ahead of Fluminense with a game in hand.
Former Manchester City striker Jo is scoring goals, midfielder Bernard has staked a claim for the young player of the season, and Ronaldinho has shown glimpses of the form that won him FIFA World Player of the Year awards in 2004 and 2005.
Ronaldinho has also had a crucial bit of luck. The goal he scored on Sunday against Cruzeiro was one of his best for ages (see below).
It brought him headlines around the world for the first time in years (for the right reasons at least) but what few people seemed to notice was the part that luck played. The last Cruzeiro defender to tackle him actually gets his foot to the ball but rather than knock it out of touch, it hits off Ronaldinho’s shin and falls perfectly for him to slot home.
That’s not taking anything away from him; it’s a great goal. But there are times in your life when these things go right and times when they don’t. Things are going right for Ronaldinho and Atletico now.
Ronaldinho has without doubt been a waster in the past. And I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if there are other scandals involving parties and girls before the season is over.
But I got the impression that he knows exactly what winning the championship with Atletico would mean. In its own way it is every bit as special, and probably much harder, than winning the Champions League with Barcelona.
He certainly understood just how passionate the Galo fans are. He told me:
“The fans are different because haven’t won any major titles for a long time and yet in spite of that they love their team more and more each year. Usually when a team isn’t winning the fans are unhappy. But not here, even though they haven’t won for years, that’s not the case, the fans are passionate and always present and that is different from anywhere else I’ve been.”
It’s been nine years since a team outside Rio or Sao Paulo won the Brazilian league. I can’t think of a more deserving team than Galo to break that streak.