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Ronaldinho's moment of truth is at hand in Brazilian championship

I was talking recently to an American who got into soccer as a result of watching Ronaldinho at his extraordinary best -- which seems a long time ago. Now he is not sure whether to feel angry with the player for spending so long betraying his own almost unparalleled talent, or grateful that for a few years Ronaldinho hit a peak of performance that few have ever matched.

It is a dilemma that will be familiar to fans of Flamengo, Ronaldinho's current club, and one that may be solved one way or the other during the course of the Brazilian championship, which kicks off this weekend.

Flamengo supporters organized a huge party at the start of the year when, after a decade in Europe, Ronaldinho opted to come back across the Atlantic and sign with the Rio giants. This is a club closely associated with the great Zico, and the fans were delighted to have another world-famous name wearing their No. 10 shirt. Most of them still are. But some three and a half months later there is a consensus that his level of performance has been unworthy of the celebrations, and of the massive salary he is earning.

True, Flamengo won the Rio State championship earlier this month. But it was hardly the most inspirational of triumphs. Coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo faithfully followed the formula of beating the tiny teams and drawing with the big ones -- a line of approach, incidentally, that would see the team relegated from the first division if adopted for the Brazilian championship. The big, decisive games against local rivals Botagofo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gama all ended in draws, with Flamengo winning the penalty shootouts.

Moreover, it has now become apparent to almost everyone that winning the state title no longer means very much. It confers local bragging rights, but nothing more -- unlike the Brazilian Cup. The Cup winners qualify for the following year's version of the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League. And the winners of that go on to the World Club Cup, where they have a shot at glory against those rich Europeans -- just as Flamengo did 30 years ago when, in the greatest day of the club's history, it beat Liverpool 3-0. Landing the Brazilian Cup was the priority for the first half of this year, but that dream has ended already. Last week, in its first serious test in the competition, Flamengo was eliminated by Ceara. As Flamengo lost the first leg in front of its fans in Rio, the boos started ringing out for Ronaldinho.

The goofy playmaker comes up with the occasional flash that brings back memories of his former glories. He will bring a difficult ball under total control as if he had suction pads on his boots. Or there will be a glorious, defense-splitting pass for a colleague. But these are mere scraps. The burning acceleration he had in his prime has gone forever.

Two years ago, when Ronaldo returned to Brazil to join Corinthians, there were serious doubts that he would be able to play top-class football. He had suffered a terrible sequence of horrific knee injuries, and he had an obvious weight problem, caused, he later revealed, by a thyroid problem.

But Ronaldo was still able to tip the balance. He was the decisive figure as Corinthians qualified for the Libertadores by winning the 2009 Brazilian Cup, and had he been able to play more games last year, the club would probably have been national champions.

Flamengo won the national title the year before, a triumph in which the key figure was Serbian playmaker Dejan Petkovic, at the grand old age of 37. When the club brought him back for that campaign few took it seriously. He was, it was said, an ex-player who would make little or no contribution. But he ended up being the dominant figure, bossing the midfield and supplying center forward Adriano with a succession of intelligent assists.

Ronaldinho has only just turned 31. He has no history of serious injury a la Ronaldo. And yet so far he has been a peripheral figure, good for the odd moment, the occasional free kick, but giving no sign that he is going to take charge of the game. It was hoped that after a sequence of matches he would be sharper, fitter, hungrier. That has not happened. There are no complaints that he is skimping on training. But I wonder if his heart and soul are truly in it.

There are no such doubts about Carnaval. Just over two months ago Ronaldinho enjoyed himself thoroughly, lapping up every moment of the celebrity experience during Brazil's big party. He seemed to make up for all those Carnavals that he missed while he was in Europe.

Earlier this week, after the party to celebrate Flamengo's state championship, he seemed set to board a plane and rush down to Buenos Aires to participate in Argentine TV's version of Dancing With the Stars. It did not happen. But the mere fact that it was cogitated just a few days before Flamengo's debut in the Brazilian championship might be interpreted as a sign of lack of focus.

It has been five years now -- half many a top-class career -- since Ronaldinho has been at anywhere near his wonderful best, and it may be that living the celebrity life is more important to him than playing soccer. In interviews the man is guarded and defensive on this theme, almost as if he does not want to admit to himself that his level of performance has fallen so far.

At the risk of straying into the area of completely amateur psychology, I wonder how much of this has to do with the premature death of his father. Ronaldinho's older brother, Assis, is now his agent. Some 25 years ago he himself was a footballing prodigy, signed to a fat contract by Gremio in their home city of Porto Alegre. The family moved across town to a plush neighborhood and bought a house with a swimming pool -- in which their father tragically suffered a heart attack and died. Ronaldinho was 8 years old at the time. It is surely possible that this awful event has given him a sense of the precariousness of life, a need to take advantage of opportunities with all due urgency, because tomorrow never knows.

But there is a second, more minor tragedy here. It is that Ronaldinho's amazing talent has a shelf life. By the end of this decade he will be an ex-soccer player, and it will hardly matter what he does in his spare time. But at the moment that gift is still there somewhere. Is he prepared to dig deep enough inside himself to find it once more? Does he really want to extract the most from the thing that he was placed on this planet to do?

The time for truth is approaching. The Brazilian championship starts this weekend. By the time it ends in December, Flamengo fans will have a much clearer idea of whether they should be angry or grateful that Ronaldinho wears their famous No. 10 shirt.

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