The talent, the gossip, the inside track
They haven't won a national trophy this century, but Atletico Mineiro top the league – led by a rejuvenated yet more mature Ronaldinho, says Rupert Fryer
He positioned his body between ball and defender, had a quick glance over his shoulder, and then he gave him the ‘hat’. The ball looped over the Portuguesa player’s head, Ronaldinho turned and brought it down in a flash as a huge roar went up around Estádio Independência.
It was an oddly incongruous moment in a 2-0 win that took Atlético Mineiro back to the top of Brasileirão 2012 – and in the player's season. Rony had, as Globo put it when awarding him Dribble of the Week, "decided to recall the old times."
The two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, renowned at his peak for inventing a new trick every weekend as his Barcelona side swept past all those before them, has largely ditched his inner show-pony since arriving in Belo Horizonte last month.
"I want to play well," he said when unveiled by the club. "I will only gain the confidence of the fans by winning and playing well." That Ronaldinho even acknowledged a need to regain the confidence of football fans shows just how far his stock has fallen since returning to his homeland to join Flamengo 18 months ago.
Following an encouraging start in Rio de Janeiro, his form quickly became erratic. There were too many late nights – so many, in fact, that his security team quit their posts after complaining they couldn’t keep up with him, and the club set up a hotline that fans could call should they see Rony overdoing it in one of Rio’s many nightspots.
One or two late arrivals for training and an inevitable fall-out with Vanderlei Luxemburgo (which would eventually cost the former Real Madrid coach his job) added up to test the patience of the 30 million Flamengo fans.
Rony's stay with Fla was played out in microcosm during their early exit from the Copa Libertadores group stage this year. He was superb as they swept past Lanus 3-0 in their final group game, but it was too little too late: their idol had given them the most when it mattered least.
By then his relationship with the club had become increasingly strained amid reports that Traffic, the Sports Marketing company that financed the majority of his £400,000 monthly salary, were not stumping up. It was time to go. Ronaldinho and his brother Assis took Fla to court, claiming nearly £12 million in unpaid wages, and secured his release from the club.
NEWS 31 May 2012: Ronaldinho walks out on Flamengo
"What happened with Flamengo is in the past," said the former World Cup winner after his contract was cancelled. "Now it's a new phase in my career and my future is with Atlético."
Guess who? Rony tries on the new shirt
Electing to sign a deal until the end of the season worth around a quarter of the contract he had in Rio, the 32-year-old seemed painfully aware that this may be his last chance to play a major role in what could be the greatest era in the country’s domestic football history.
With the local economy booming, star players both young and old are being repatriated, foreigners like Clarence Seedorf and Diego Forlán have arrived and superstars such as Neymar and Lucas Moura are deciding to stick around that much longer. Undoubtedly 2012 is boom time for the Brasileirão – a league that Ronaldinho & Co. lead after the first eight rounds.
There isn’t much spectacular about coach Cuca’s side, but they’ve gone about their business with an admirable professionalism while others have been distracted by the Copa do Brasil or Copa Libertadores.
Former Manchester City striker Jô looks to be settling in well, having grabbed three goals in his six appearances since arriving from Internacional. Former Boca and Villarreal midfielder Damian Escudero is proving extremely effective as a late substitute, captain Réver is marshalling a defence that has conceded just three goals thus far, and the consistent Richarlyson has added some bite and verve to the left flank.
Rona(l)dinho the Redeemer: Rio's icon rearranged
However, the standout performer of their season so far – the man flicking the ball over opponents heads or between their legs – has not been Ronaldinho, but 19-year-old Bernard, who has stepped forward as chief entertainer. At training last week, Ronaldinho was asked why he was letting Bernard take free-kicks. "Well," he replied, "Bernard’s better than me."
Ronaldinho, for now, is no longer the outlandish individualist so many of us fell for during his time at Barça; he is functioning as a part of the collective, refraining from his customary showboating to focus more intently on his attempts to transfer the ball from midfield to those more dynamic further forward. The class is still there, but the flamboyance has been reined in.
With just one national league championship to their name, Atlético Mineiro is proving a stage emblematic of a more modest approach that, so far, has seen Ronaldinho’s star shine that little bit brighter.
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