ASKING ABrazilian to name his country's most entertaining World Cup team is a lot likepressing a wine expert to choose the richest vintage of Bordeaux. Does he fancythe 1970 champions, the popular choice, led by the immortal Pelé? Or maybe the1962 titlists, the connoisseur's pick, paced by the dribbling wizard Garrincha?If he's like the character Miles in Sideways and prefers temperamental wines,he might choose the '82 outfit, an outrageously skilled bunch (with Zico,Sócrates and Falc√£o) that threw caution to the wind and paid the price, losingto stolid Italy in the quarterfinals. ¬∂ The finest soccer player on earth,Brazilian midfielder Ronaldinho, is also a futebol history buff, one wholearned some of his breathtaking moves from watching videotapes of theswashbuckling 1970s star Rivelino. Called "the last romantic ofsoccer," Ronaldinho has an abiding affection for that '82 side. "Theyplayed the most attractive kind of soccer," he said last month while in aquiet corner of the Camp Nou stadium, the home field of his club, FC Barcelona."And I think the 2006 team is comparable to the '82 team." ¬∂ Thereinlies the challenge for this Brazilian team entering Germany 2006: Can anattacking force blessed with gifted veterans (Ronaldo, Kafu, Roberto Carlos),emerging talents (Robinho, Kakà, Adriano) and a superstar at the height of hispowers (the 26-year-old Ronaldinho), combine the flair of the '82 dreamers withthe results of the less-storied '94 and 2002 titlists? Can it transcend notonly the 31 other teams in the tournament but also the 17 previous champions?Ronaldinho (or Little Ronaldo, to distinguish him from the 29-year-old Ronaldo)responded without hesitation. "I believe so," he said, "because wehave been playing as a team for seven or eight years. So there's a historythere."
Historic is theonly way to describe what Ronaldo de Assis Moreira is attempting in 2006. IfBrazil prevails in Berlin on July 9, Ronaldinho could become the first playerto win soccer's unofficial grand slam--domestic league title, European Cupchampionship, the World Cup and the Ballon d'Or (for Europe's top player,awarded since 1956)--in the same calendar year. "His skills areincredible," says Portuguese forward Luis Figo. "It's like he can dowhatever he wants in a game."
No less anauthority than Pelé, known to this day as O Rei (the King), sounds ready toabdicate his throne to FIFA's World Player of the Year in 2005 and '06. "Ilove watching Ronaldinho play," says Pelé. "He could be the greatestever."
THANK GOD foryoutube.com. Type Ronaldinho into the video vault's search engine, and you toocan see his greatness on display: the double sombrero, in which he hoodwinkstwo swarming Spanish League defenders by juggling the ball over their heads;the elàstica, in which he jabs the ball to his right but then snares it withhis right foot and darts left in the blink of an eye; and all manner ofastounding goals, from his 20-yard toe poke against Chelsea to his twojet-propelled strikes at archrival Real Madrid last November, which drew astanding ovation. (Imagine A-Rod getting a standing O at Fenway.)
A frequentvisitor to the Salvador Dalí museum near Barcelona, Ronaldinho compares theimagination that produced his favorite Dalí painting--Gala Contemplating theMediterranean Sea, in which the artist's wife blurs into an image of AbrahamLincoln--with his own creativity on the soccer field. "Each player has anindividual style," he says. "I think my best talent is dribbling andsetting up goal situations, giving an assist or deceiving one of the otherteam's players. So I'm always seeking new ways of dribbling, new moves, so Ican give my best to the team."
It's a style bornof his origins in futsal, an indoor, five-on-five version of soccer thatrewards trickery and improvisation under tight defensive pressure. Theinfluence is apparent when, at full speed, he pedals his feet above the ball,daring foes to commit; or when he stands stock-still, freezing a defenderbefore delivering a pinpoint 30-yard pass; or when he invents a move on thespot, like the aerial elàstica, in which he performs his one-footed killercrossover in midair. "I've never seen anybody else do that," he sayswith pride.
So innovative isRonaldinho that he can make the seemingly impossible possible. Was he reallytrying to score on the 35-yard free kick that sank England in the 2002 WorldCup quarterfinals? (He swears he was despite the way it floated.) Is hismesmerizing aerial elàstica in one recent Nike commercial for real? (Yes.) Andwhat about the stunning sequence in another swoosh spot--YouTube views: 4.2million--in which he bangs shot after shot against a crossbar from 25 yards,the ball never touching the ground? (Not on your life.)
Like any goodmagician though, Ronaldinho never reveals his secrets. Asked about the lastclip's veracity, he feigns offense. "Of course it's real!" he says,playfully slapping his interviewer's knee. His impish grin is priceless."Are you questioning my abilities?"
FOR A worldwidebrand--with $28 million in annual earnings, he recently passed David Beckham asthe world's highest-paid soccer player--Ronaldinho Inc. is, to a startlingdegree, a mom-and-pop operation. His older brother, Roberto, a formernational-team prospect, is his agent. His no-nonsense older sister, Deisi,schedules his time with the media. And his mother, Miguelina, flies in oftenfrom the family home in Porto Alegre to cook her son his favorite rice andbeans. "The woman of my life," Ronaldinho calls her. "I have thehappiness of having a wonderful son [one-year-old Jo√£o, from a relationshipwith a Brazilian dancer], but I would like to have a family and lots ofchildren someday."
Yet nobody hashad a more lasting influence on Ronaldinho than his father, Jo√£o, an amateurgoalkeeper who worked as a shipyard welder. "He gave me some of the bestadvice I've ever had," says Ronaldinho. "Off the field: Do the rightthing and be an honest, straight-up guy. And on the field: Play soccer assimply as possible. He always said one of the most complicated things you cando is to play it simple." Young Ronaldinho hated his father's rule--nevertake more than two touches at a time--but it ultimately served as the basis forhis wondrous playmaking.
When Ronaldinhowas seven, the family moved from a favela into a two-story house with aswimming pool, the spoils of a contract Roberto had signed with the PortoAlegre pro team Gr√™mio. Soon after, there was a party at the house forRoberto's 18th birthday and the parents' 19th anniversary. "Suddenlyeverybody was looking for my father, but he was nowhere to be found,"Ronaldinho recalls. "Then I saw some people carrying him to a car. Itturned out that he had drowned in the pool." Jo√£o da Silva Moreira was41.
IN A GAMEdominated by scheming coaches and hyperorganized defenses, Ronaldinho'sPromethean spark is all the more exceptional--yet his previous club, ParisSaint-Germain, nearly snuffed it out. "At PSG, I didn't have the samedegree of freedom to develop my style that I have now with Barcelona," hesays. With his skills having fully evolved in Catalonia, demanding Brazilianfans are eager to see his genius in a canary-yellow jersey as well.
By promising thatthe team he'll lead in Germany will rival the greatest in Brazil's history,Ronaldinho isn't shrinking from those expectations. The last romantic of soccerwouldn't have it any other way.
• For photos of10 veterans and 10 rising stars to watch, go to SI.com/soccer.