Alone and unwanted in the heart of France’s wine region, Ronaldinho could have been forgiven for craving a stiff drink. It was the end of September 2001 and as Paris Saint-Germain slumped to a 1-0 defeat at Bordeaux, their star attacker was slumped on the bench, an unused substitute for a side that needed a goal.
For two years, he had illuminated Brazilian football to a drumbeat of deafening hype, but six months after leaving his homeland, the 21-year-old boy wonder looked like a busted flush. He had chosen Paris for first-team football but so far he had made just two starts. Now he couldn’t even get off the bench.
With the 2002 World Cup on the horizon, he hadn’t kicked a ball for his country in six months. Things were not going to plan.
Ronaldinho was already a star when he touched down at Charles de Gaulle Airport in July 2001 to become a PSG player. Back in Brazil, he’d been the talk of a nation since bursting onto the scene as a gangly teenager for his boyhood club Gremio.
His first invasion of the national consciousness had come in the final of the state championship in 1999 when, playing against local rivals Internacional, the 18-year-old managed to humiliate the country’s World Cup-winning captain Dunga with outrageous skill on two separate occasions, the first in particular a moment of absurdist, elastic-limbed wizardry.
Ronaldinho was promptly whisked off to the Copa America, and summoned from the bench in Brazil’s opener against Venezuela. He took precisely four minutes to score a sumptuous individual goal, flicking the ball over his marker’s head before boisterously blamming it home.
It was his Michael Owen in Saint-Etienne moment. A nation sat up and took note – as did a small army of scouts from across Europe. Continue reading