Can Milan wait for icon to deliver?

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Eighteen months later, those same Milan fans might be entitled to ask themselves if he was worth all the fuss. Even no less a figure than Pier Silvio Berlusconi -- son of the prime minister and the club's owner, Silvio Berlusconi -- recently criticized the club's estimated $26 million purchase of Ronaldinho from Barcelona.

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"If it had been up to me, I would have gone down another, more long-term road rather than buying a player for the immediate short term," Berlusconi junior told reporters during a TV business fair in Monte Carlo in November, in reference to "Il Dentone" (the big, toothy one).

When Brazil coach Dunga left Ronaldinho out of the squad for the World Cup qualifiers last autumn, there were those willing to speculate this was the end of the international road for him.

Unconfirmed sources told us that a dejected "Dinho" was even thinking of chucking it all in. He had had enough. Dunga, meanwhile, merely urged people to leave the player alone and allow him to regain his best form.

Which, curiously, is what he appears to have done at the end of 2009, when there were tantalizing indications that perhaps, just perhaps, the former World Player of the Year might still be capable of getting back up there. As Milan has switched to a more attacking lineup (Alexandre Pato-Clarence Seedorf-Ronaldinho playing behind Marco Borriello), Ronaldinho has come up with a variety of glorious assists for either compatriot Pato or Borriello.

Even on a disappointing night which saw Milan held 1-1 in the Champions League by Marseille, Ronaldinho was arguably the best news of the game for Milan. As the former European champions struggled to contain a determined Marseille in the second half, Ronaldinho was noticeable not only for the quality of his play but also, unusually for him, for the enthusiasm with which he covered and chased back. At one point, he was seen excitedly urging the San Siro faithful to get behind the team.

If owner Berlusconi had written the script, that is how it would have gone. As far as the powers that be at Milan are concerned, this just has to be Ronaldinho's season. Last summer, of course, he may well have served as a pawn in the chess war of never-ending rivalry that underlines all relations between Milan and city cousins Internazionale. He tended to look like Milan's answer to the bold move which a month earlier had seen Inter hire the "Special One," former Porto and Chelsea coach José Mourinho.

Now, in this post-Kaká, post-Paolo Maldini, post-Carlo Ancelotti campaign, Milan badly needs "Dinho" to do the business out there on the pitch rather than on the transfer market. Media tycoon Berlusconi has always been a huge fan, believing that Ronaldinho can write new chapters in Milan's history by reproducing the sort of form which saw him win the World Soccer World Player of the Year, FIFA Player of Year and European Player of the Year awards, not to mention the Champions League title, during his five seasons (2003 to '08) with Barça.

By the end of last season, beset by a series of niggling injuries and regularly consigned to the bench by Ancelotti, there was little sign of such a revival for Ronaldinho. The season had begun well with him picking the best possible match to score his first Serie A goal for Milan: namely, a winning header against Inter in the first derby of last season. But that perfect start proved to be a mirage and, to a large extent, it was all downhill from then on.

It may well be that the change of coach at Milan has proved beneficial for Ronaldinho. When he says that it is easy to work with the new man in charge -- compatriot Leonardo -- one tends to believe him, if for nothing else because the two men speak the same language: both literally and also in terms of their football philosophies. There seems little doubt, too, that Leonardo has put his own neck on the line by investing in a Ronaldinho revival -- something that may just be beginning to pay a dividend.

"I find it really difficult to be stuck on the bench," says Ronaldinho. "I'm glad only when I get a chance to do the thing I like best -- to play. I was unhappy, but now, I'm enjoying my football again."

Some Milanello observers also point to his more professional lifestyle. In other words, these days, Ronaldinho spends much more time on the training pitch than on the dance floor.

Those observations may be a trifle unkind, but it was significant to hear an old Milan warrior like Franco Baresi recently highlight Ronaldinho as the key figure in an overall Milan seasonal watershed: "Milan's seasonal start was not easy but the team looks to me to have refound morale, enthusiasm and self-belief, starting with Ronaldinho," Baresi observed.

Milan fans will be hoping he is right. They will be hoping that at 29, he can climb back to where he once was, right at the very top of the greasy pole of world acclaim.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.