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Sports Blog Page

Ronaldinho's Juggling Act

Elina Frumerman

Photo: Rafa Rivas, AFP/Getty Images

Photo: Rafa Rivas, AFP/Getty Images

BARCELONA — Momma's boy or playboy? Style or substance? Humble or self-satisfied? 

However one chooses to view Ronaldinho, this much is certain: For the next four months, his status as the world's best soccer player will be under klieg lights.

"I don't think about it," says the Brazilian superstar of the multipronged pressures of trying to lead his club, FC Barcelona, to the Spanish League and European Champions League titles — not to mention spearheading Brazil's World Cup title defense in Germany this summer. "We're doing a good job in all the games we're taking part in, and we have to be up to the test in all the competitions."

A pivotal member of Brazil's 2002 World Cup team, the player with the flowing hair and perma-grin has been filling his trophy case while leading FC Barcelona back to prominence and surpassing English mega-celebrity David Beckham in global commercial viability. In December, the 26-year-old nabbed his second consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year award, an honor that has eluded Beckham. Ronaldinho also captured the 2005 European Footballer of the Year award and the 2005 FIFPro World Player of the Year award, voted on by players from leagues around the world. 

Barcelona, meantime, sits in first place in Spain's premier professional league. Today, the powerful Catalan club plays perennial Italian power AC Milan (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes) in the first of a two-match semifinal in the prestigious Champions League competition among Europe's top teams. Barcelona last won the elite club competition in 1992. 

England's Arsenal and Spain's Villareal meet Wednesday in the opening match of the other semifinal (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Team success aside, Ronaldinho's dazzling skill with the ball, superior field vision, deft playmaking and goal-scoring acumen long have riveted soccer fans, including Brazilian legend Pele, who said Ronaldinho was "the best player in the world right now" last November.

"He transmits a lot of joy and pleasure playing the game, and he has individual skills that are of such a high level that everybody in the world adores him," says FC Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard.

Surpassing Beckham 

Barcelona leads Spain's top professional league, ahead of Valencia and third-place rival Real Madrid, a team stocked with stars such as Beckham, Brazil's Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos and France's Zinedine Zidane.

The nexus of sport, money and fame doesn't get much bigger than Beckham, whose worldwide renown has outstripped his soccer skills. But Ronaldinho's combination of youth, success and exuberance has eclipsed 31-year-old Beckham in one respect. 

According to a study by consulting firm BBDO Germany, Ronaldinho's name is worth an estimated $56.4 million, surpassing No. 2 Beckham and making the Brazilian the world's most commercially valuable soccer player. 

It doesn't hurt that one of Ronaldinho's commercial backers is Nike, which also sponsors FC Barcelona and the Brazilian national team. Ronaldinho has a lucrative 10-year endorsement deal with Nike, the study says. Nike is challenging Adidas for marketing control of the pitch around the world. 

Ronaldinho's trademark moves and beaming grin are captured in a Nike spot, which made its debut March 29 during an American Idol telecast, featuring footage of him today and as an 8-year-old phenom. That commercial and a video of Ronaldinho repeatedly kicking a soccer ball at the crossbar so that it comes right back to him have been downloaded more than 3.5 million times, according to Nike.

Also beneficial to Ronaldinho's appeal and to Barcelona, seeking to expand its name in North America, will be a three-match tour in the USA this summer for the second time in four years. This tour is slated for stops in Los Angeles (Aug. 6), Houston (Aug. 9) and East Rutherford, N.J. (Aug. 12). 

Despite fame, millions in salary and lucrative endorsements, Ronaldinho seems natural, easygoing, verging on timid. His demeanor doesn't exactly mesh with the flashy on-field image. Then again, the large diamond-studded "R10" pendant hanging from his neck isn't exactly everyday costume jewelry.

"No, no, I can't play with this on," laughs Ronaldinho, who wears jersey No. 10 and answered questions in Spanish through a translator deep in the bowels of Barcelona's massive Camp Nou stadium after practice in January. "The referees won't allow it."

The opponents kicking air in his wake would prefer referees also outlaw some of the midfielder's dizzying moves. No such luck. What makes him so dangerous is the combination of individual moves and his ability to raise the level of his teammates whether or not he has the ball. 

"Ronaldinho brings security to the team because all the players know he can always do something special during the game," says Barcelona captain Carlos Puyol.

"He makes the plays that result in goals to beat you — by passing, by combination play with teammates, or he can do it individually," adds U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena. "He puts people on their heels, and because of his special talent, he makes everyone around him better and more confident. Given ... that the people around him are so good, it turns into a nightmare for everybody else."

Barcelona on the rebound 

Ronaldinho, also known as Ronaldinho Gaucho, comes from a family of soccer players. (Ronaldinho means "little Ronaldo" in Portuguese; Gaucho is a nickname for inhabitants of Porto Alegre, Ronaldinho's birthplace in southern Brazil.)

He first made his mark as the top scorer for champion Brazil in the Under-17 World Championships in 1997. His professional career started with Gremio in his home country a year later. In 2001 he jumped to Paris Saint-Germain. Barcelona paid $37 million in transfer fees for his services in 2003, beating out Manchester United.

That transaction sparked the club's turnaround. Barcelona had been mired in several years of poor management, low morale, erratic coaching and chronic underachievement. After a six-year drought, Barcelona won Spain's Primera Liga in 2004-05 on the strength of Ronaldinho's spectacular play and that of stars such as Spanish defender Puyol and Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o. 

"I'm very happy for Barcelona, and I think the team can go very far this season," says Ronaldinho, praising the team's chemistry. "It's actually like a second family, and we are thinking the same way and all working towards the same goal."

This season, the club also is powering its way to a possible Champions League title. Ronaldinho, who opened the scoring in Barcelona's 2-0 quarterfinal home win against Portugal's Benfica, is second in Champions League goals with seven. (Andriy Shevchenko of AC Milan, Barcelona's semifinal opponent, is first with nine.)

But Ronaldinho insists team goals are more important. 

"Here in Spain I'm motivated, and I hope to continue working like this for a long time," he says. "I wouldn't talk about my individual goals, because football is a team sport. My idea is to win titles with my team and with my national team."

All the accolades and commercial success have not slackened his desire to improve. "I have to get better in everything. I can't stop," he says. "My goal is to be better in everything technically and physically — to improve my kicking with my left leg as well as right leg, to be able to score more with my head and improve my game when the ball is stopped. I think I'm still a young player, and I want to learn a lot."

Keeps priorities in mind 

Ronaldinho keeps close to his humble roots. His widowed mother, Miguelina, who splits time between Brazil and Spain, lives with Ronaldinho and his two dogs, Bola and Negrao, when in Barcelona.

Although no stranger to clubs and parties, Ronaldinho says he enjoys hanging out with his mother, family and friends, going to the beach and, well, just playing soccer. 

"What I like to do is be with the people I really appreciate and relax with them," says the politely confident star. "For me the most important thing is to be a happy person with friends. I respect everybody that's out there, and I'm very happy with the way my life is now."

Beckham-like fame is of little interest to him, but he has made his appearances on the gossip pages.

A little more than a year ago, he fathered a son with a Brazilian dancer. He has since split with the boy's mother and admitted paternity. The boy continues to live with his mother in Brazil. Ronaldinho's role is unclear because he declines to discuss the matter, preferring to keep it private.

His roles with Barcelona and Brazil, however, will be in full view of the world. With a Primera Liga championship to defend, Champion's League games to play, the World Cup in Germany kicking off in June and Barcelona's U.S. tour in early August, the spotlight beckons.

At the 2002 World Cup, Ronaldinho was an emerging talent among a gaggle of Brazilian superstars. This June, the midfielder will be a marked man in Germany.

Ronaldinho, who considers former champions Argentina, France and host Germany dangerous rivals, says he and his team will be up to the task.

"We have a strong base, and we've known each other for a very long time," he says. "We have good relationships and lots of top-notch players. We are confident that we can win another title."

Contributing: Kelly Whiteside in Cary, N.C., Michael McCarthy in New York