Ronaldinho Superstar


    Well-behaved, patient with the media and autograph
    seekers, Ronaldinho is not the spoiled rebel athlete that professional
    sports have become plagued with. He loves to play soccer and he shows it.
    In Spain, he is treated like a pop star wherever he goes. Legions of admirers
    follow him when he leaves Barcelona’s training facility. Hysterical teenage
    girls swoon over his shaved head and boyish smile. Ronaldinho torments
    opponents with his ability to hold the ball and dribble through or past
    a swarm of defenders. He has been compared to legendary Pelé, but
    the young player can be humble even when he says that all he wants is to
    be the world’s best soccer player today.
    By Peter Castle

    Like all great players, he needs only one name. But unlike his style,
    his nickname is nothing fancy, nothing special. He is simply Ronaldinho,
    the 20-year-old man-child who emerged from the poverty-stricken suburbs
    of Rio de Janeiro to capture the heart of Brazil and turn the soccer world
    upside down with his dazzling moves, punishing strength, and spectacular

    Voted 1996’s best player in the world by the International Federation
    of Soccer (FIFA) in January, Ronaldo is also the best-paid player in the
    world, earning well over $5 million a year in salary and endorsements.
    His superhuman abilities, which are already drawing comparisons to the
    immortal Pelé, are currently the property of the Spanish club Barcelona,
    which the Spanish press now calls "Ronaldo F.C. (Football Club)."

    It was only four years ago that Ronaldo Luiz Nazário de Lima
    first caught the eye of Zagallo, the coach of the Brazilian national team.
    At sixteen, Ronaldo was the best player in the Juvenile South American
    Championship in Colombia, where Brazil finished fourth despite the young
    star’s eight goals.

    When he returned to Brazil, Ronaldo signed his first substantial contract,
    playing for the Belo Horizonte professional club Cruzeiro. His scoring
    proficiency with Cruzeiro impressed Zagallo, who selected the young attacker
    to be a part of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup Championship team.

    Though Ronaldo did not play during the competition, his more experienced
    teammates knew this baby-faced kid with the lightning-quick reflexes and
    powerful legs would have plenty of opportunities to lead Brazil to future
    Cup victories. It was during this time, among the good-natured jests of
    the older players who teased the adolescent about the braces he wore on
    his toothy grin, that "Ronaldinho" was born.

    After the World Cup, the European clubs came calling, bringing their
    fat checkbooks and the lure of international fame. The Dutch team PSV Eindhoven
    paid $6 million for the rights to the Carioca scoring phenomenon,
    a record in Brazilian soccer at the time. Ronaldinho received nearly $1
    million of this money himself.

    But this is just the tip of the financial iceberg. After two successful
    seasons playing in relative obscurity in Holland, his rights were sold
    to Spain’s Barcelona for the unprecedented amount of $20 million dollars.
    After an incredible start with the club last year, Ronaldinho’s agents
    wasted no time in renegotiating his contract for an unbelievable $50 million
    over the next ten years. Absurd? Not in the eyes of several other European
    teams, who are reportedly considering paying $32 million in penalties alone
    to break Ronaldinho’s contract with Barcelona. And this is before any mention
    of a salary offer. Evidently, no price is too high for the prized possession
    of Ronaldinho’s talents.

    Humble Beginnings

    The youngest of three children, Ronaldo came of age in the poor neighborhood
    of Bento Ribeiro, on the outskirts of Rio. His father worked for the state
    phone company Telerj and brought home a monthly income of around $400.
    Their house had a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and one bedroom. Ronaldo’s
    brother and sister slept on the couch in the living room while he shared
    the only bedroom with his parents.

    His mother Sônia hoped he would continue in school and begged
    him not to spend all his time playing on the soccer fields with the neighborhood
    kids. She wanted him to be a doctor or an engineer, and like most mothers
    who want more for their children, she thought a good education was the
    only way to a better life.

    But Ronaldo was simply not cut out for academics, and after flunking
    three times, he dropped out of school at the seventh-grade level to play
    indoor soccer, or futsal as they call it in Brazil. Ronaldo was
    a mere 13 years old then, but he was already known for his ball-handling
    skills, and a local juvenile club offered him bus fare, snacks, and athletic
    shoes in exchange for his goal-scoring services. During one game, Ronaldo
    made 11 of his team’s 12 goals.

    Ronaldo’s biggest aspiration was to play for his favorite team, Flamengo,
    in the affluent Zona Sul (South Zone) of Rio. He tells the story of how
    one day in 1989 he spent two hours on two different buses to attend a tryout
    with 100 other kids that hoped to make the Flamengo team. The best players
    were told to return for final selection the next day. Ronaldo had made
    the cut, but had no way to pay for four more bus fares to come back. Dejected,
    he left the training field and boarded the bus for the long ride home.
    To add insult to injury, the young player was accosted on the bus by thieves
    who stole his watch.

    But it wasn’t long before Ronaldo’s luck would change. The following
    year, while playing in a juvenile league, he decided to turn professional,
    signing a $7,500 agreement with the same two agents that handle his affairs
    today. A year later, he was picked up by Cruzeiro, and from then on, his
    chosen path to success presented few obstacles.

    The Character Issue

    Today, Ronaldinho expresses a profound gratitude to his mother for not
    taking soccer away from him when he was a boy. In return, his first priority
    has always been to take care of his family. As soon as he signed his first
    contract with his agents, he used some of the money to reupholster the
    family’s battered furniture. Later, when his parents separated and his
    mother had to take a minimum-wage job working at an ice cream shop, the
    first thing Ronaldo did after signing with Cruzeiro was to go to her boss
    and tell him that he would pay her salary from now on.

    When later he began to make big money, he would purchase apartments
    and cars for his closest relatives. But nothing was more important than
    these first gestures of giving something back to his family, especially
    the mother that raised him.

    Sônia says her son has a good head on his shoulders, partly because
    he still has both a mother and father to turn to. Despite their separation
    (Ronaldinho’s parents were never legally divorced, though both have new
    partners), they make it a point to spend family parties together, including
    the Christmas party last year. And both parents enjoy spending time with
    their son abroad.

    Perhaps these early lessons in responsibility and family identity provide
    the foundation for Ronaldinho’s successful approach to the game of international
    soccer, with all its attendant pitfalls and temptations.

    His agents, Reinaldo Pita and Alexandre Martins, speak highly of their
    client’s character, betting on his maturity and soft-spoken style. Well-behaved,
    receptive to the instructions of his coaches, and patient with the media
    and autograph seekers, he is the polar opposite of the spoiled rebel athlete
    that soccer and many other professional sports have become plagued with.
    While most players come unprepared for life, it seems that life has prepared
    Ronaldinho well. The lure of money and fame are considerable, he admits,
    but they don’t outweigh his love for playing the game.

    Pita and Martins have refused publicity campaigns worth millions of
    dollars, preferring to preserve the clean image of their client and maximize
    his marketing value with the most powerful brand in the world of sports,
    Nike. Since 1994, Ronaldinho has been sponsored by the athletic equipment
    giant, but only for a meager $150,000 annually. Recently, however, his
    agents negotiated a new contract with Nike worth a minimum of $15 million
    over the next ten years.

    Big-Time Barcelona

    Ronaldinho’s ascendancy in European soccer could not have been better
    scripted. After making the adjustment to European life and the style of
    play, the ambitious scorer felt ready to make the jump from the more-sedate
    Dutch league to the chaotic core of the soccer world, Spain.

    The deal with Barcelona was finalized during Brazil’s heartbreaking
    performance at the Olympics last summer, where Ronaldinho played well despite
    being hampered by an earlier knee operation. When he returned to Europe,
    he would wear the Number 9 shirt for Barcelona and spearhead an offense
    comprised of foreign stars from all reaches of the soccer world.

    In Spain, Ronaldinho no longer has the anonymity he enjoyed in Holland.
    He is treated like a pop star wherever he goes. Legions of admirers follow
    him when he leaves Barcelona’s training facility. Hysterical teenage girls
    swoon over his shaved head and boyish smile. Security guards have to make
    a protective circle around him every time he has to board or get off the
    team bus.

    Spanish soccer fans have amazed the Brazilian player, who thought he
    would never see a more fanatical contingent than his own countrymen. When
    he first arrived in Spain, there were 2,000 fans waiting to greet him at
    the airport.

    Ronaldinho makes his regular-season home in a comfortable suburb of
    Barcelona, sharing a million-dollar, four-story house with his friend,
    secretary, and spokesman Antonio Cesar Santiago, 25, who has accompanied
    him since his days in Holland. Santiago says he receives about four interview
    requests from the media every day.

    Ronaldinho’s partner on the front line, the Brazilian winger Giovanni,
    has become both a close friend and an invaluable asset to Ronaldinho’s
    scoring. Giovanni’s sweet passes often set up the attacker’s devastating

    Averaging more than one goal per game with Barcelona, Ronaldinho will
    reach the amazing total of 50 goals to lead the league this year. Despite
    his stellar performance to date, the humble forward does not necessarily
    believe he is playing at his best in Spain, citing more media exposure
    of his goals as the reason for his growing legend.

    There is no denying, however, that Ronaldinho torments opponents with
    his ability to hold the ball and dribble through or past a swarm of defenders.
    Opposing coaches express their admiration in frustrated tones, secretly
    wishing they could have this one-of-a-kind weapon in their arsenal.

    Perhaps one of the most exciting goals ever witnessed occurred in a
    game against Compostela last October. Ronaldinho received a pass close
    to midfield, dribbled furiously past five adversaries, escaping from kicks
    and grabs all the way, and drove the ball with incredible velocity into
    the goal from 120 feet out. The replays are still shown regularly on TV
    in Spain and Brazil.

    The Specter of Pelé

    Admittedly, it’s an unfair, if not irrelevant practice, to compare a
    20-year-old at the beginning of his career to the best soccer player ever
    and Athlete of the Century: the legendary Pelé. But a quick look
    at some of the issues and statistics provides some food for thought.

    In the debate, it is generally conceded that Pelé was a phenomenal
    scorer, had both speed and fantastic ability, showed great vision for the
    game, headed well, and kicked strong with both legs. Ronaldinho, meanwhile,
    has the rare combination of strength, ability, and speed, matched with
    an incredible hunger for the ball on the attack. His explosive bursts in
    the short and medium distances are incomparable.

    In terms of scoring, Pelé averaged an unbelievable 1.10 goals
    per game over his career, scoring his 1,000th goal at the age of 29 in
    1969. Ronaldinho, playing in an era of tougher defenses, averages 0.92
    goals per game and will reach his 1,000th goal at the age of 33 if he plays
    approximately 70 games a year.

    At the age of 17, Pelé played on the first squad for Brazil when
    it won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958. By the age of 20, he was already
    averaging 1.07 goals per game (in 316 games). Ronaldinho has played only
    155 games and did not play during Brazil’s World Cup victory in 1994.

    Ronaldinho doesn’t pay much attention to these exercises in futility.
    When the comparisons with Pelé began, Barcelona’s goalkeeper, the
    Portuguese Vitor Bahia, was concerned at how it might affect the young
    star. But after speaking with him, Bahia reported that the ambitious Brazilian
    had his feet firmly on the ground. For Ronaldinho, it is enough to be the
    best player in the world today.

    On the Home Front

    I decided to ask some of my Carioca family and friends their
    opinions on the greatest player in the game today. Not surprisingly, most
    of them spoke with pride and admiration for Ronaldinho’s skills and success.
    But they were also quick to acknowledge that Ronaldinho’s history is not
    yet written; he is still a very young player who, believe it or not, has
    a lot to learn about the game.

    "This is one player Brazilians can be proud of," says my friend
    Tom, 23, who follows the careers of Brazil’s players overseas. "The
    quality of his technique is incomparable at this time. When he scores,
    the game changes and the rest of his teammates gain confidence and go on
    the attack."

    "He’s a craque [outstanding player], no doubt about it,"
    says Reinaldo, 26, my brother-in-law, "The more I watch him play,
    the more I appreciate him. He has charisma, knows who he is, and shows
    humility, unlike many players these days."

    "The Ronaldinho phenomenon has just started," my wife Leila,
    28, reminds me. "But he already has those artful qualities that make
    a true idol. We’ve had many great players in Brazil, but geniuses like
    Pelé and Zico come along just once in a while."

    Much has been said of Ronaldinho’s lethal combination of speed, strength,
    and agility. "The ball seems to stick to his feet when he is going
    for the goal," says Tom. "But it’s not just his speed; he sees
    everything that’s happening around him, which is the one trait of all special

    Reinaldo says the attacker’s dribbles are fast and short because of
    his early experience playing futsal [indoor soccer], where the field
    is much smaller and the action much faster than futebol.

    Rodrigo, my 12-year-old nephew, likes Ronaldinho for his awesome scoring
    and great dribbling, but he still thinks Zico and Pelé had better
    technique. Somewhat to my surprise, it is clear that he is not mesmerized
    by Ronaldinho’s talents.

    I, on the other hand, am completely mesmerized. As I’m writing this,
    Barcelona is playing on TV. Ronaldo handles a hard pass easily, dribbles
    toward the goal and two defenders, stops short, and lulls the defenders
    into a false sense of security. Surely, he is not yet within striking distance.
    Wrong. With a quick, powerful stroke, Ronaldinho rifles the ball high into
    the far corner of the goal, perhaps the only spot where the goalkeeper
    cannot reach. The goal breaks a 2-2 tie and moments later when the game
    ends Barcelona has another victory courtesy of Ronaldinho.

    The Color of Money

    "What about all that money?" I ask.

    "Isn’t that amazing?" answers Tom, smiling broadly. That’s
    all he can say about it.

    Reinaldo makes it plain: "The way he’s playing now, he deserves
    the money."

    Rodrigo is old enough to understand that Ronaldinho is playing in Europe
    because they pay the stars a lot more there. He hopes Ronaldinho will come
    back to play in Brazil someday, but for now he is satisfied with watching
    Barcelona on TV.

    Ronaldinho says he just wants to be the best in the world. Well, is
    he? Young Rodrigo believes Ronaldo is in his best phase, but has no idea
    how he will play in the future.

    Reinaldo thinks he has a chance to be the best player ever, but to be
    the best Ronaldinho needs to be less of an individualist and more consistent.
    "Sometimes he’s a genius and sometimes he’s not effective," he
    says. "Since he’s so young, he will probably get more consistent."

    Tom agrees that the main problem with his game is lack of consistency.
    "There’s no telling when the craque will explode with multiple
    goals and lead his team to victory, or simply disappear from the game against
    tough, physical defenses."

    And now, with every defender looking to "mark" the Brazilian
    scoring machine, Ronaldinho has to work much harder to score.

    "He doesn’t have the same level of confidence as Brazilian craques
    of the past," continues Tom, "but he has too much skill to be
    hindered by psychological barriers." Maturity, it seems, is something
    that Ronaldinho, like any other 20-year-old, will simply have to wait for.

    Peter Castles is an American living in Rio de Janeiro.
    He can be reached by E-mail at

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