Even for a player with a habit of confounding expectations (both positively and negatively), the news that two-time World Player of the Year Ronaldinho is to sign for Mexican club Querétaro FC has left a few jaws hanging slackly open, not least in his native Brazil. But while the signing is undoubtedly exciting news for Querétaro and Mexican soccer, questions must be asked about Ronaldinho’s reasons for moving – and to what extent he even still wants to play the game. His has been a precipitous decline.
When he left Belo Horizonte club Atlético Mineiro in July, his contract terminated by mutual agreement, the future seemed relatively bright, at least considering the player's age, and there was more than enough love to go around on both sides. “For me these Atlético fans are eternal. It’s not goodbye…it’s see you soon,” said a visibly moved Ronaldinho, and the feelings were reciprocated by the club. “For us, he’s Ronaldinho Mineiro,” said Atlético president Alexandre Kalil.
Before Mineiro, though, Ronaldinho had endured a miserable spell at Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo on his return to Brazil. His tenure there ended with lackluster performances on the field and lawsuits off it after the club failed to pay his wages. As a result, in June 2012 Ronaldinho was a 32-year-old free agent who had seemingly fallen out of love with soccer. His twilight had come sooner than expected.
That is until Atlético, a well-supported but perennially unsuccessful club who last won a major title in 1971, came along. There was plenty of skepticism about the move at the beginning, but in the end Ronaldinho and Galo was a perfect combination. Far from the bright lights of Rio, understated Belo Horizonte was homely enough to let Ronaldinho focus on playing the game, but at the same time was a passionate soccer town that clasped him to its bosom and made him feel loved. Ronaldinho, said Kalil when he announced the signing, would “show Brazil that there's a professional, well-run club on this side of the mountains.”
While his aging legs meant the thrilling scampers of his Barcelona days were behind him, playing in a more central, midfield schemer role allowed Ronaldinho space and time to unleash his full range of tricks, and both Atlético and the player were invigorated. Galo (coincidentally Atlético and Querétaro share the same nickname) came a close second to Fluminense in the 2012 Brasileirão title race, an achievement that meant qualification for the Copa Libertadores in 2013, the first time in 13 years that the club had played in South America’s biggest competition.
Atlético roared through the group stage of the Libertadores, scoring 16 goals in six games, with Ronaldinho in imperious form. After that though, the going got a little tougher. Up against more abrasive opposition in the knock-out stages, Ronaldinho struggled to work his magic, particularly away from home. No one seemed to care, however, as Atlético won the tournament in thrilling fashion, squeaking past Tijuana in the quarter-finals with a last second penalty save by goalkeeper Victor, and then beating Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina in the semi-finals and Olimpia of Paraguay in the final, both after penalty shootouts. “I came back to Brazil for this. They said I was finished, that Galo couldn’t do it…let’s see what they say now!” crowed Ronaldinho after the game.
It was arguably his greatest moment since he was in his prime at Barcelona. And yet with hindsight it looks more and more like something of a last hurrah. For since then The Artist Formerly Known As Ronaldinho has done little to recall his glory days.
After a lengthy “celebration” break after the Libertadores final, he put in a few, generally apathetic performances for Atlético, before a thigh muscle injury in September 2013 put his participation in December’s Club World Cup, a tournament of huge importance for South American teams, in doubt. He eventually recovered in time to travel to Morocco for the tournament, but was ineffective as Galo, which had been dreaming of a final showdown against Bayern Munich, was humiliatingly eliminated by local side Raja Casablanca. Things didn’t improve much in 2014, with Ronaldinho becoming a more and more peripheral figure as Atlético coach Levir Culpi generally eased him out of the team.
There were no regrets, however, when he announced his departure a couple of months ago. “Ronaldinho has done what he needed to do at Atlético. He became a champion and the idol of the fans…Everybody should thank him for what he has done, for his contribution to the club. But it doesn’t seem like he wants to play anymore,” said Éder, a former Galo idol and member of the Brazil 1982 World Cup squad.
Doubts over Ronaldinho’s continued motivation had increased after a curious incident just before he left Belo Horizonte. Given special permission to play in a testimonial game for his friend Deco in Porto, Ronaldinho contrived to miss his plane to Portugal. Rather than return to Atlético and play in the club’s match that weekend, however, he simply disappeared. “I don’t know where he is,” his teammate Jô said after Galo’s game against Sport in Recife.
Once he left Atlético the expectation was that Ronaldinho, having achieved his goals in Brazil, would seek pastures new. There was talk that he might head to the MLS to play with the New York Red Bulls, though Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh quickly poo-pooed the story. Then there were rumors that Turkish giants Besiktas and Galatasary might rekindle their previous interest – a move that surely would have been disastrous, given the competitiveness of the Turkish Super League and the player’s greatly reduced speed these days. The president of Egyptian giants Zamalek optimistically announced on TV that Ronaldinho would be coming to Cairo, while a last payday in the lucrative world of Chinese or Arab soccer was a frequently mentioned possibility.
The only concrete negotiations, however, seemed to be happening in Brazil (at least publicly). First there were rumors of interest from Santos, who had recently repatriated Ronaldinho’s former Brazil teammate Robinho. Club directors reportedly disagreed over the merits of the signing, however, and the story fizzled out. Next in line was São Paulo club Palmeiras, who went as far as paying a transfer registration fee to the Minas Gerais (the state where Belo Horizonte is located) Football Federation, before Ronaldinho’s brother and agent Assis came back with further demands, one of which was that the player would receive a bonus of U$350,000 if he saved the club from relegation. Palmeiras refused.
There were even rumors of interest from the Chennai Titans of the Indian Super League, and a jokey offer from English lower division side Basingstoke Town, before the news broke yesterday that Ronaldinho was on his way to Querétaro on a two year deal. “Now it’s official! The number 49 shirt! My lucky number! I hope to experience the same happiness here!! #GallosForever! I chose Mexico because of the warmth with which I’m always treated here! Really motivated to play for @Club_Querétaro!” the player tweeted enthusiastically.
But despite all the exclamation marks and the undoubted excitement in Querétaro, it is hard to imagine that much more than financial motivation lies behind the deal for Ronaldinho. Assis is well known for driving hard bargains, and for attempting to auction off his brother’s services to the highest bidder (“we know that it’s not easy to work with his team,” said Palmeiras president Paulo Nobre), and it seems unlikely that Ronaldinho is fulfilling a long-harbored desire to play in the Liga MX. Nor are Querétaro one of the powerhouses of Mexican soccer, although the club was recently bought by Grupo Imagem, a local communications consortium, and has a number of other Brazilian players in its ranks.
Which is not to say, of course, that the deal will be a complete disaster. Given time, space and motivation (financial or otherwise), Ronaldinho can still be an enthralling, if static, force on the field, and may even propel Queretaro to some success. Perhaps more importantly for the decision makers at the club, he remains a global icon, capable of immediately boosting ticket sales and, over the long term, as Atlético discovered, the visibility, and commercial profile of a team. Never was this more apparent than during that Libertadores run, when he was received with Beatlemania type fervor from Bolivia to Buenos Aires, and in Morocco, where Raja Casablanca players stripped him almost naked after their team’s win, such was their desire to grab a souvenir of the day when they played against the great man.
As he did with Atlético Mineiro, Ronaldinho immediately puts Querétaro on the map, not only in Mexico, but far beyond the country’s borders. Yet no matter what the deal means for the club, there is the lingering sense that this most talented of players has once again put reasons that are nothing to do with soccer ahead of his dwindling love of the game.