Tim Vickery
Thursday January 13th, 2011

In Rio Flamengo, fans came out by the thousands to give a euphoric welcome to new signing Ronaldinho. Some pundits have tried to pour water into their beer -- such as former top class referee Jose Roberto Wright, who argued in the sports daily Lance! that Flamengo had made a bad deal.

"Ronaldinho is close to being an ex-player," he wrote. "The club has entered into despair, a result of the team's awful campaign last year. The amount of money involved is unrealistic for Brazilian soccer. And it gets worse. The club has made the investment without knowing if he really wants to play, given that recently he's been seen more on the dance floor than on the pitch."

Has Mr. Wright got it wrong? There may well be a touch of desperation about the deal. The most bizarre aspect is that it happened now, rather than in six months. Come June, Ronaldinho would have been a free agent. Going into January, though, he was still under contract with Milan, which made the negotiation more complex and also upped the price. It is not as if Flamengo has anything interesting for Ronaldinho to do in the short term. It has not qualified for the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, which gets under way later this month. For a while the only thing on the plate is the quite appalling and outdated Rio State Championship and the early stages of the Brazilian Cup. So why the rush?

It is also undeniable that Ronaldinho has not produced his extraordinary and exuberant best form for some time -- not since before the 2006 World Cup, which, in terms of the career of a soccer player, is half a lifetime ago. For some of that time, especially around the 2008 mark, he waddled around like a grotesque, bloated caricature of the player he once was. Clearly a far more complex personality than the happy, smiley image he tries to convey, Ronaldinho effectively threw away the years when theoretically he should have been at his sporting peak.

But he is still only 30. Provided he is prepared to live the life of a professional athlete, he still has plenty to offer. The searing acceleration of 2004-05 may be gone forever. But he can compensate with intelligence and experience, picking his options with greater maturity. For an attacking midfielder, playing well means choosing well. Ronaldinho has the passing range and the vision to make an impact -- meaning that much rests on his level of motivation.

The word in his camp is that he is still hungry -- all the more so, in fact, after being omitted from Brazil's World Cup squad last year. The big aim is to have a last hurrah at the international level on home soil in 2014. The 2006 World Cup is where it all started to go wrong for him. The 2014 version is where he hopes for redemption.

Until then, of course, there are lot of training sessions to go through, games to be played, concentrations (where the players are locked up before matches) to be endured and temptations to be avoided. But if Ronaldinho is serious, there are few better platforms to push for a national team place than the club he has just joined.

There is always a cry in Brazil for domestically based players to represent the national team. And Flamengo gives Ronaldinho the biggest constituency of all -- the club counts its supporters in the tens of millions, and can fill stadiums in the northeast of this giant country, thousands of miles away from its base in Rio.

Furthermore, Ronaldinho will have seen the impact made on recent Brazilian Championships by attacking midfielders greatly inferior to himself. In 2009, the decisive player was veteran Serbian Dejan Petkovic, never a smash hit in Europe's major leagues. Last year, it was the Argentine Dario Conca, a player unable to make an impression in his native land. If they can tip the balance, then Ronaldinho will hope to do much more.

Whether he lives up to expectations or not, he will be handsomely rewarded. His brother and agent, Assis, appeared to play various competing clubs against each other until he secured a mega-salary for Ronaldinho, perhaps in the region of almost $200,000 a week.

Bearing in mind that Flamengo's debt is estimated at $200 million, how has this proved possible? By bringing the sponsors on board.

Brazil's currency is extremely strong at the moment. The country has a huge population, and has been going through a consumption-led boom. An association with one of the big clubs, and none come bigger than Flamengo, offers a channel of communication with millions of people. Put it all together and you have the explanation for the big, "bring the stars back from Europe" deals that have been taking place in Brazilian soccer. Ronaldo to Corinthians. Adriano on a short-term loan to Flamengo. Robinho on a short-term loan to Santos. And now Ronaldinho on a four-year contract with Flamengo. All cases in which the bulk of the wages are paid not by the club, but by the sponsors.

There is a key difference in the two definitive (non-loan) deals. When Ronaldo signed with Corinthians, coming back to Brazil was his only feasible option other than retiring. His horrific run of injures made it highly improbable that a club in a major European league would have taken a chance on him. That is not true of Ronaldinho. He could, for example, have gone to the English Premier League. There is a good chance that bigger clubs than Blackburn Rovers may have been interested. The decision to come back to Brazil is a vote of confidence in the direction the country has taken.

This is a moment, then, that Brazilian soccer can celebrate. But with an undercurrent of caution.

Even if Jose Roberto Wright is wrong about Ronaldinho's motivation, his observation about the amount of money involved still holds. OK, in this case sponsors can meet the bill -- and Ronaldinho would not even have signed without financial guarantees. But as Brazilian soccer looks to repatriate other big-name players from Europe, it is not possible for sponsors to pay all of their wages. There is little doubt that the Ronaldinho deal with add a few extra turns to a wheel that is already spinning fast enough -- that of wage inflation. Salary demands will be skyrocketing, and Brazil's clubs already have debts that Hercules himself would not be able to hold up.

Soccer is notoriously hard to administer. Clubs seek to maximize wins, not profits. Whatever the system of management, more revenue always seems to mean more expenditure on players and that is certainly what is going to happen in Brazil.

But if Brazilian soccer is going to pay European wages, its current structure is unsustainable. The State Championships -- one for each of the 27 states that make up this giant nation -- have to go, or at least need to be reduced and reformed. These tournaments run from mid-January to early May. They are vital to the power structure of the Brazilian game, but sacrifice the interests of the big clubs -- who are obliged to face, on a league basis, clubs so small that they barely exist. It is professional soccer without supporters, an obvious nonsense.

The Ronaldinho deal is already forcing a debate on this issue in Brazil's sports press. Fernando Santos points out in Lance! that over the next couple of months Flamengo has only one game against meaningful opposition and plenty of matches against tiny sides. "Was this why Flamengo signed Ronaldinho?" he said. "The return of the stars is an attraction for Brazilian soccer. But we need to go further, to make our competitions more viable."

It is an excellent observation. Ronaldinho's return poses a fundamental question for the future of the Brazilian game. What is the point of buying a Rolls-Royce and then driving it on dirt tracks?

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