43rd minute at the Mestalla on Saturday night. FC Barcelona are winning against Valencia CF 2-0 and are in cruise control. Then a cruel thing happens: Lionel Messi pulls a hamstring and is escorted off the pitch.
Then a doubly cruel thing happens: Ronaldinho, who is on the substitute’s bench for yet another La Liga game, has almost hopped out of his seat on the dug-out in eager anticipation of trotting onto the pitch, but his manager doesn’t see him (or possibly refuses to) and throws Giovanni Dos Santos into the mix.
Ronaldinho sinks back into his seat, the gleam of light darkening on his face and he is perhaps waiting for another chance to seep into the action. But unfortunately for Ronaldinho, that Second Coming never comes.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…..the countdown has begun. Not for El Clasico to storm into center-stage, not for the onrushing Christmas break, but for the departure of a certain Ronaldinho Gaucho from Camp Nou. Rarely do you make it through a day without stumbling across the words Barcelona, Ronaldinho and AC Milan all stringed into one sentence. Since the summer, the Brazilian ace has been the focus of much attention in the transfer market and that medley of speculation claims and counter-claims has not faded away. Far from it, it has only increased in density and intensity.
The Spanish press and the Italian press both seem to be in a fierce competition to rumble on the rumor mill on Ronaldinho. While reports from Italy have all but confirmed that Milan supreme Silvio Berlusconi has struck a deal with Ronaldinho’s brother-cum-agent Roberto de Assis, the Spanish scribes are treading with one step wrapped up in a shoe called caution. Pro-Madrid Marca, Spain’s highest selling sports daily, says that Ronaldinho is packing his bags for the San Siro at the end of the season while Catalan sports daily Sport.es doesn’t exactly deny the claim but do add a clause—that Ronaldinho will move to AC Milan and only AC Milan if and when he leaves Camp Nou and that the move won’t take place in January.
One and a half season ago, you would have been labeled a madman, a fit-only-for-the-asylum lunatic had you conceived the idea that Ronaldinho as to leave the Camp Nou cathedral ever. At the time he was the God of the religion of football in Catalonia. If, as Sir Bobby Robson once so famously observed, “Catalonia is a nation and FC Barcelona its army,” then Ronaldinho was its adopted generalâ€”a man who led by example and always with a cheeky grin playing on his lips, a man who was Catalonia’s Savior.
It was Ronaldnho’s extremely good form intertwined with his undeniable high class that Barca scaled the mountain to gallop from a UEFA Cup spot to second place in La Liga in the 2002-2003 season it was this man considered as “too ugly to sell shirts” by the then Real Madrid president Florentino Prerez who played the multiple character roles of an architect, a craftsman and a poet to lead Barca by the hand to their first Spanish title in six heavily limping years; it was Ronaldinho who sparked a suspicion of hope for the traveling Barcelona supporters at Stamford Bridge in 2005 when he scored an outrageously ridiculous chip against Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League, last 16, second leg match.
Even last season, with a dip in form but a reported upturn in body mass, Ronaldinho was one of Barcelona’s most efficient players. As an attacking midfielder, Ronaldinho’s tally of 23 goals in all competitions appears as much as astounding as heartening. Ronnie’s form had been fluctuating all of last season but it was he who in the absence of Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi had transformed himself into a goal scorer for a club that prefers good football to winning at all cost. Ronnie wasn’t the best even in La Liga last season but he exhibited that he still was one an amazing sorcerer. Remember that overhead kick against Villarreal? Yes, that one, the goal that even Marca acknowledges as a top draw, a goal at doesn’t lose any credit even if the defender marking Ronaldinho was a certain Pascal Cygan and everyone knows how good, or bad, a defender he is, right?
But this season is different. The suspicion that Ronaldinho is no longer the player hat he was once was and that he can be no longer reach his old ghost from the yesteryears has ballooned into an over-fed confirmation. It’s not so much a surprise as sad to discern Barca fans booing their old and favorite hero off the pitch. Ronaldinho’s fling with poor performance has metamorphosed into a dreadful love affair to such a degree that even 5 goals in 11 matches and a few scintillating tricks are not enough to convince Frank Rijkaard to reward him with a regular place in the starting line-up. Ronaldinho missed Barca’s big night out against Sevilla FC where he wasn’t even inside the stadium as Barca comfortably beat the Andalucians and he watched Saturday’s 3-0 humiliation of Valencia from the uncharted territory of the bench.
Impossible as it may seem but Barcelona do not appear to miss Ronaldinho. Barca might not lead La Liga but after a so-called mini crisis at the start of the season when the Catalan giants were held to draws by Racing Santander and Osasuna, they have stepped on the accelerator, improved their enthralling playing style and are now second in the league table, 4 points behind leaders and reigning champions Real Madrid. Gabriel Milito is a rock in central defense, and is more than capable of covering up for the often comically erratic but world class Carles Puyol, Andrei Iniesta has developed into a marvelous midfielder whose ball possession is better than anyone else, Xavi is now Pep Guardiola II and much more and Samuel Eto’o has returned to the side after missing three months with injuries and has already started banging in goals, right, left and center and nothing-good-enough-can-be-said-for Lionel Messi is the new heartthrob.
And it is Messi’s rise over the past couple of seasons that could just open the door for Barca to walk out Rnaldinho. Not that Messi wants it to be that way— the Argentine international hardly ever speaks and at 20 has a mature and humble head on a young and nimble body. Messi is still the wonder kid, a humble boy who loves and is loved by everyone inside the Barcelona camp and his genius to win matches almost single-handedly has convinced the Camp Nou that he’s Catalonia’s very own Messiah. That was something that was solely the right of Ronaldinho not so long ago.
The Barca fans have already shifted their embrace from Ronaldinho to Messi and it is clear that Ronaldinho’s exodus from Camp Nou wouldn’t so much entice them to dig out the handkerchiefs and dab at the corners of the eyes as play an acknowledging smile on their faces and wave a hearty goodbye with a resounding Adios. President Joan Laporta et al are doing all they can to eclipse the swelling doubts on Ronaldinho’s future at the club but the crack are evident on the wall. Ronnie’s brother’s de Assis too is waving off any transfer rumors hovering over the player but is often betraying himself. That Ronnie is sticking to the Camp Nou till the end of the season is certain but after that it will be a free-for-all.