BELO HORIZONTE -- There might not be second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, but it seems that there are in Brazilian football. At least in the case of Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Atlético Mineiro, the new champions of South America, after an exhilarating, at times improbable, Copa Libertadores penalty shootout victory over Paraguay´s Olimpia, at a tempestuous Mineirão stadium in Belo Horizonte last night.
Like Ronaldinho himself, Atlético had been written off more than a few times on its way to yesterday's win. First in the quarterfinal against Mexico's Tijuana, when with the game tied, goalkeeper Victor saved a last second penalty to send Galo into the next round on the away goal rule. After that was the semifinal victory over Newell´s Old Boys of Argentina, when Atlético seemed dead and buried after a 2-0 away leg defeat, only for a late, late equalizer in Belo Horizonte to send the game to a penalty shootout, where Victor again starred, saving Maxi Rodriguez's kick to put the team in the final.
And then came last night. As 60,000 roared themselves hoarse in the stands, for long periods Atlético and Ronaldinho struggled to break down a tough, well-organized Olimpia side, defending a 2-0 lead from the first leg. But Seleção star Jô hammered in the first goal just after halftime, following a rare slip from Olimpia's Pittoni, and then, with time ticking away, giant defender Leonardo Silva looped a header over everybody and into the goal. The noise was enough to make the very foundations of the Mineirão quake.
That brought up yet another penalty shootout, and once again unassuming goalkeeper ("São", or "Saint") Victor was decisive, saving from Miranda, then watching Gíminez´s kick crash against the crossbar. The Atlético players cavorted wildly on the pitch, and in the seats the fans sank to their knees, drained and disbelieving. It is Atlético´s first ever Libertadores title, and the club´s first major honor since 1971. Dawn may have broken over Belo Horizonte now, but the celebrations in the streets will go on for a few hours yet.
There have been many heroes during the campaign, from the attacking élan of wide players Diego Tardelli and Bernard in the group phase to the miracles performed by Victor in the later stages. However, no one better represents the transformation of this proud, but until recently benighted, club from perennial loser into champions of South America, than Ronaldinho.
There were many who scoffed when Atlético´s firebrand president Alexandre Kalil took a chance on the player back in June 2012. The former (twice) World Footballer of the Year had seemed to be coming to the close of his career as he struggled through injury and apathy at the end of his spell with A.C. Milan, before a triumphant homecoming to Brazil in 2011 with Flamengo quickly turned sour.
Over 25,000 Flamengo fans turned out to see his official unveiling, but after a bright enough start, things did not go as planned in Rio. Stories emerged that the club was struggling to pay Ronaldino's wages, and, unsurprisingly, his on-field interest levels, and performances, tailed off. At the beginning of 2012 video footage appeared showing the player following a female "friend" into a room at a Flamengo pre-Libertadores training camp hotel, and not long after, the player announced that he was canceling his contract and suing the club for unpaid wages.
In retaliation, Flamengo, then in total meltdown under calamitous president Patricia Amorim, claimed it possessed a urine sample showing that Ronaldinho had turned up drunk for training (the club subsequently mysteriously "lost" said urine sample, then admitted it had never existed in the first place). Nonetheless, it was another unedifying episode in the Ronaldinho soap opera. Sullied but unbowed, he was a free agent, but who would want him?
Step forward Alexandre Kalil and Atlético. In some ways, it is the perfect match, though Galo´s CV is arguably less glittering than that of its most famous current player. Still, Atlético has provided the ideal stage for Ronaldinho. It is a big club in the Brazilian football sense of the word, where being big can often mean simply having an awful lot of supporters but not much in the way of infrastructure, sustained success, or financial well-being. For Atlético real success has proved elusive for many years, with the club's only national championship win coming in 1971, and the pain of relegation to Serie B suffered in 2005. In short, it was the kind of club desperately in need of a hero to ease the pain of its millions of long-suffering supporters.
It has worked better than anyone could have hoped. Reinvented as a craftier, if slower midfield playmaker, Ronaldinho has added a few meters to his personal highlight reel over the last fourteen months, displaying a kaleidoscopic range of feints and shimmies, creating goal after goal for the likes of the lightning fast Bernard and the powerful Jô with a dizzying range of passing, and carrying Atlético to the brink of the Brasileirão title last year.
Off the field too the player seems happier. Away from the distractions of Rio, Ronaldinho has found a home in more stolid Belo Horizonte, being granted "honorary citizenship" of the city, and reveling in the adoration of Atlético's hordes of passionate fans, even crying a little during one game when the club's hardcore "Galoucura" torcida organizada unfurled a giant "get well soon Dona Miguelina" flag for his sick mother. "These fans make me feel complete," he said later, "I'll never forget this."
Perhaps too, despite the missteps, there is something in Ronaldinho´s eternal roguishness to which football fans in general, and Brazilian soccer fans specifically, can relate. After all, the history of the game here is steeped in the cult of the brilliant individual, from Garrincha to Romário, rather than in rigid organization and hard labor. In recent years, as the Brazilian game has concentrated more on athleticism than the maverick´s sleight of foot, Ronaldinho can often feel like a (welcome) throwback. And even as gifted, but squeaky-clean stars such as Neymar and Oscar have emerged, his appeal remains undiminished.
But Kalil had more than just a mutual appreciation society in mind when he signed Ronaldinho. He knew that a star of his stature, however tarnished, would draw the TV cameras to Belo Horizonte and put Atlético back on the map, in a country dominated by the hegemony of the big Rio and São Paulo clubs. "We'll show them that there's a proper football club on this side of the mountains too," he said last year.
With last night's victory, Atlético has done that and more besides. While Ronaldinho faded a little against the sturdy, abrasive opposition of the Libertadores later stages, suggesting that the twilight of this soccer god may not be too far off, at least for the moment, he and Atlético are kings once again. "Everybody said I was finished," he said after last night's game. "Let´s see what they´ve got to say now."
James Young writes about Brazilian football for The Independent / Independent on Sunday, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about "love, death and football" in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.