It's a Friday, around noon. Ronaldinho sets out to prove that advertising does not lie, that he is an illusionist who blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Under a blue sky, he has laid out four footballs in a line. The distance to the goal is a good 30 yards.
"Ronaldinho, I want to have your baby," shrieks a girl standing with 200 others in the fans' enclosure. Paying no attention, he slowly backpedals, measuring his strides. He steps up, takes two quick paces, and shoots with his right foot. The ball sails through the air, curving to the left, strikes the crossbar and rebounds back onto the pitch. Ronaldinho smiles. Only three balls left.
There's a Nike commercial that shows Ronaldinho hitting the bar four times in a row. It looks authentic: magical play by the greatest footballer of our time. If anyone could do it, it would be Ronaldinho. But this feat is beyond even him, as anyone with the smallest appreciation of football knows. Trick shots come easier with a camera than a ball.
Back to reality at Barcelona's Nou Camp training ground, with three balls still to go. Ronaldinho runs up. Again it arcs through the air, clips the bar and cannons back.
There is a sudden hush. The girls have fallen silent. Ronaldinho's teammates Márquez and Edmilson, who have been crossing the ball from one side of the field to the other with miraculous precision, stop in their tracks. All eyes are trained on the master. Standing just a few yards from the center circle, he eyes the ball and the bar.
It is a moment in which the world as we know it seems to hang in the balance; a moment when someone is on the brink of extending the realm of possibility. Everyone present senses this. Standing directly at the chain-link fence, Edmilson holds his breath. He stands motionless, transfixed.
Ronaldinho steps up, two quick paces, and shoots with his right foot. The ball bananas to the left. And just over the bar. "Ronaldinho, I love you," a girl shouts. Edmilson grabs a ball and lofts it to Márquez, over Ronaldinho's head. The world starts turning again.
Disappointment hangs heavy over the field, the disappointment of being confronted with our limits. And maybe a slight sense of relief that Ronaldinho is human after all.
He was the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. He won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, and the Spanish championship with Barcelona in both 2005 and 2006. But that's not the whole story.
Ronaldo de Assis Moreira is one of the very few players to have brought new qualities to the sport, accomplishing something entirely fresh and unknown, yet unseen. He casts his spell not by hitting the crossbar four times in succession - at least, not yet - but with his dribbling, his passes and his goals.
HE FIRST CAUGHT the world's eye in the summer of 1999 when, at the age of 19, he scored six goals at the FIFA Confederations Cup. Some months later I first met him in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, where he was playing at the time. A 12 hour flight for the chance of meeting a man who could become the new century's footballing hero.
It was a week in the company of a happy, carefree boy, who had nothing but soccer and samba on his mind. It rained constantly. Ronaldinho showed off his house and his life. He got a kick out of posing for the cameras bare-chested in bed with a fat, cuddly teddy bear perched on his nightstand. The teenager's ball skills in training were intoxicating.
Six years later came my second attempt to meet the footballer, no longer a youth but a fully fledged superstar, and not in Porto Alegre but in Barcelona. It turns into another week of Ronaldinho, but a very different one.
I arrive on a Sunday, Barcelona are playing Athletic Bilbao. Juanjo, Ronaldinho's friend and adviser, had agreed to an interview far in advance. "No problem," he had said on the phone. "Just turn up." But nobody has been able to reach Juanjo since Thursday: he hangs up on every caller.
At the Nou Camp, Barcelona's stadium, it's the silence that deafens at first. Even though the ground is nearly full - 80,000 spectators are waiting in the stands - the fans never sing here before the whistle blows. Ronaldinho is last to take the field. He moves at a trot, jumps into the air, embraces all his teammates. He positions himself near the left touchline. The game begins and still nobody is singing.
Barcelona win a tight match 2-1 against opponents mired in a relegation struggle. Ronaldinho converts a penalty and creates the winner with a cross. Though not at the top of his game, he still produces some unforgettable moments. Challenged by two opponents, he controls the ball with his right foot, nudges it forward and feints to break between them. Then he pulls his foot back and the ball follows, as if attached to his shoe. By some miracle, ball and player elude the opponents who are frantically trying to dispossess him. With his right foot Ronaldinho rolls the ball back and flicks it behind his left leg to a teammate in space. The ball is gone; chaos reigns in the Bilbao defense.
At this moment the silence is shattered and the stadium explodes into life, as 80,000 people jump up from their seats in relief. Laughter and olés ring out.
This match, which is pretty drab for over 70 minutes, clearly demonstrates why Ronaldinho is so exceptional. Football has become an overregulated game, shackled by geometry and systems. One is reminded of Prussian battle tactics: rigid formations and little scope for the foot soldiers. In this respect, the Nou Camp is an honest stadium: there are no special songs for regulation combat, moments of magic spark outbursts of emotion.
On the field Ronaldinho is a free agent, allowed to play on the left, right or in the center. Tactical structures and strictures mean nothing to him. His self-appointed mission is speed. The moment he has the ball, Barcelona's game accelerates into a raging torrent. He enjoys what he's doing more than anyone else. He laughs and chats cheerfully with the referee. He celebrates his goals with a flourish he calls the Brazilian surfer salute, spreading his thumb and little finger while rotating his wrist. Ronaldinho is the beach boy of football.
He is saving football from monotony. He plants flowers in the wilderness, and there they blossom, defying the odds. He triumphs over cynicism. In the Bilbao game, Deco pulls his marker's hair and Samuel Eto'o spits at Exposito. Bilbao coach Javier Clemente later comments that only "animals who live in trees" would do such a thing. Meaning monkeys. A racist attack on the Cameroonian striker. Without Ronaldinho, this sport might be a lost cause.
A meeting has been scheduled the evening after the game with Cordula Reinhardt, a German who covers Barcelona for the Spanish sports publication Mundo Deportivo. She becomes the fairy godmother in this story. With Juanjo still hanging up on phone calls, she offers to help track down my man.
A plan emerges: Intercept Ronaldinho during training and show him the magazine with the 1999 article, in the hope he will remember me and agree to an interview.
The squad is training at the Nou Camp at 11 a.m. on Monday. It is cool and rainy, just like so long ago in Porto Alegre. One by one the players emerge from the changing rooms: Eto'o, Lionel Messi, Henrik Larsson, Carles Puyol. They warm up, their bright yellow tops almost fluorescent in the gloom. But where is Ronaldinho?
It's no secret that he doesn't always train with the team the day after a game. He's not just a free spirit on the pitch; no longer really part of the world around him, he inhabits a different galaxy. Manager Frank Rijkaard wouldn't consent to anyone else missing the start of training, but Ronaldinho is almost always late.
This time he doesn't turn up at all. He's doing exercises underneath the stands. Our stratagem has failed. But Claudio, a Brazilian photographer who claims to have outstanding contacts to the elusive star, immediately proposes Plan B.
Gesturing for us to follow, he scuttles off around the stadium and in through the turnstiles, pressing a Blackberry with his photos of Ronaldinho into my hand as we hurry along; he negotiates with the security staff and moves on through the stadium lounges, meanwhile a slideshow has started on his palmtop, Ronaldinho shooting, Ronaldinho dribbling, Claudio races down the steps, opens a door, Ronaldinho in a suit and tie, beyond the door is the basement garage with the players' cars, Porsche Cayennes, Hummers, VW Touaregs, Ronaldinho with Maradona, Claudio stops at a Seat SUV with a drowsy young man behind the wheel, Ronaldinho with his trophies, the man in the car is Thiago, Ronaldinho's driver and friend, now he glances at the 1999 magazine and the picture of Ronaldinho in bed, his expression doesn't change, he says nothing but Claudio is talking nonstop, Ronaldinho shooting, dribbling, wearing a suit, Claudio talks and talks, and then the young man gives us the surfer salute, Claudio responds in kind and leaves and stops talking. Looks like Plan B too has failed.
The standard post-training press conference is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. and Ronaldinho is due to appear. Another chance for Plan A. Fifty journalists are waiting. They take bets on what Ronaldinho will say, cookie-cutter statements that football players always spout. We need to play to our own strengths...
AND THERE HE IS, in the flesh, even on this Monday. He sits on the podium in a pressroom that looks like a small theater. He's wearing a woolly hat and a clunky silver chain. He recites the statements predicted by the journalists, speaking calmly, in a monotone. Like a machine.
And then he's gone before he can be shown the magazine and the photograph. He clearly wants to get out, head home as quickly as possible.
He lives in Castelldefels, a resort south of Barcelona. Apart from the beach and palms, it's nothing special. Ronaldinho's villa sits on a hill. They say he often practices his tricks on the beach. We might stretch out on the sand and wait for him to come, but what if he doesn't?
Ronaldinho also owns a Hummer and a Cayenne, and all the other trappings of mega-rich young men. He met a showgirl on a Brazilian TV program and fathered a child with her right away; now one year old, João lives with his mother in Brazil. It's said Ronaldinho won't have his buck teeth fixed because they have become his trademark, a marketing asset. He seems to be leading the decadent life of a true superstar.
Thousands of anecdotes are exchanged during the hours spent waiting for Ronaldinho in Barcelona's pressroom. But these are the only three that conjure up the image of a superstar. Most describe a decent human being who is generous towards the fans and fully integrated within his family: managed by his brother, looked after by his sister, supervised by his mother. Someone who wants nothing more in life than to play beautiful football. Indeed, someone who does little else. Even off the field, he is glued to his Playstation console - playing electronic soccer. Ronaldinho always selects the virtual version of himself as his player. Needless to say, he is rumored to be the best electronic gamer in the entire Barcelona squad.
Ronaldinho sums up his life in one eminently quotable sentence: "The ball is my sweetheart."
Wednesday's training starts at 6 p.m., when everyone but Ronaldinho emerges from the stadium's lower reaches. To warm up they play rondo, ball tag where the players form a circle and two in the middle try to steal possession. Quick, direct passing is the name of the game. After five minutes Ronaldinho arrives, running. He's much too late and has no time for the magazine.
An elderly woman is standing at the chain-link fence, waiting. Happy that she can take home a snapshot of her hero, she focuses her camera. He runs onto the field, sees her and fires the ball into the fence, right in front of her lens. Stunned, she lurches backward. "Just wanted to wake you up," he shouts with a grin.
He takes his place in the rondo with the South Americans. He counts the number of passes: uno, dos, tres. At cinco he chips the ball too high for Edmilson. "Jump, Fatso!" Ronaldinho shouts. He laughs and everybody joins in. Since his arrival at Barcelona, a boyish banter has prevailed; the players screech and shriek. The European rondo is deathly quiet.
Otherwise, Ronaldinho does nothing remarkable during training. He completes his warm-up exercises lackadaisically; when the others have started running, he is still dawdling across the pitch as though walking around in flip-flops in the shower. Nor does he shine during the practice match.
After 90 minutes the others disappear. He stays behind, gathers some balls and ambles around the middle of the pitch, a picture of lethargy. But it's the calm before the storm: suddenly, he picks up pace, dribbling and shooting, and the girls on the sidelines start screaming. "Ronaldinho, guapo," they chant in unison. "Hey, Handsome!" That's the last thing anyone would say of Ronaldinho with a straight face, but then who understands the heart of a woman?
He waves to the girls, accelerates with the ball, and suddenly it's like watching a completely different sport. Mere mortals dribble by prodding the ball ahead and pursuing it. But Ronaldinho seems to caress the ball, which somehow seems glued to his foot. Given such perfect control, he can turn on a dime. Never has the world's most popular sport looked so exotic, so strangely unreal.
He practices for another hour. And we revert to Plan A. He approaches the fence and is besieged with requests for autographs, for photographs - and grants them all. That takes an eternity. You stand there with the magazine and wonder if you're wasting your time.
Continued in Part II.
SIX YEARS AGO I was troubled by similar thoughts on the way to Porto Alegre. Ten sleepless hours into the flight, cramped up in economy class, I asked myself in a fit of pique what the heck I was doing. Why should a political journalist - an economist with a degree, a family and children - spend 12 hours on a plane to Brazil to see a buck-toothed brat?
The question nagged at me until the first training session. Then the young maestro took the field, slipped the ball behind his leg, swiveled elegantly and spooned it into the air. Catching it on the back of his neck, he cradled it there while bending down ten times. The ball didn't budge. There was no longer any doubt in my mind: I wouldn't have missed this trip for the world.
In Porto Alegre he had a white Fiat and invited me on a tour of his childhood. The quarter where he grew up is no favela, no slum, but an impoverished neighborhood of wooden huts lining dirt roads. Every day he and his older brother would play here with their father. The brother was signed by a professional club, and bought a house with a swimming pool - in which their father drowned after a party.
Little Ronaldo was just eight years old at the time; he continued to practice as if his father were still coaching him. He trained with small balls and with heavy balls, in the sand and in the mud after a thunderstorm. And when he played with real footballs on real pitches, it was child's play. His trainer from those days, Claudio Roberto Pires Duarte, recalls, "We couldn't teach him anything. He already knew it all."
By the end of 1999 he had been playing professionally for Porto Alegre for two years, and he was unbelievable. What's more, he was still the boy next door who, when asked who would be the world's best player in five years, innocently replied "me."
But behind the scenes the problems had already begun - money problems. The European clubs had latched onto him like octopuses. And at the start of 2001 he was suspended over a contract dispute. One of the most gifted players of all time found himself sidelined for six months.
It looked as if the dark side of football had reared its ugly head, threatening to destroy him before he could grace the sport with his skills. Then he moved to Paris Saint-Germain - to a manager who kept him on a tight leash. The world was celebrating Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Ronaldo, but Ronaldinho had all but dropped off the radar.
He resurfaced at the 2002 World Cup and enjoyed a few magical moments in the quarterfinal against England when he scored the winner. The world rejoiced. Then he got red-carded - a tragedy. In 2003 he signed for Barcelona, where the weather is kinder. Manager Frank Rijkaard realized that magicians can't perform in chains, and the young Brazilian soon became the greatest spectacle in the footballing universe.
For the past six years he has always been present in my life, sometimes as the topic of conversation with friends, and often in daydreams that start with Ronaldinho and end with myself - because boyhood dreams of sporting stardom never fade.
Sometimes you're sitting at a press conference, listening to Angela Merkel or her deputy droning on and on, and the urge to sleep is almost overwhelming. Then suddenly, in your mind's eye, a ball flies into view and lands at Ronaldinho's feet. He instinctively bisects two German defenders with the ball, and your faith in the world is restored. Ronaldinho is my salvation too. Which is why chasing after him with an old magazine in tow is not so bad after all. But it's not something you'd do for Angela Merkel.
BACK AT THE NOU CAMP, Ronaldinho has signed all the autographs, smiled for all the cameraphones and hugged all the children; he's on the verge of disappearing into the dressing room. He comes over and ... Here, this is the magazine with the article from way back when. He pauses, looks at the photograph showing him in bed. He remembers and laughs.
"Okay," he says, "I'm really tied up, but I'll do the interview. Set a time with the press rep." Then he's gone. The meeting is arranged for Friday at 1 p.m., after training.
Happily, Barcelona is a city that makes waiting easy - the charm of the side streets, the beach, Frank Gehry's huge fish sculpture. Ronaldinho is everywhere. There isn't a souvenir shop that doesn't showcase the blue and cherry-red of his shirt. Or more frequently, Barca's piercing neon-yellow away strip. His name is emblazoned on the back, above the number 10. In today's world, visiting Barcelona means being near Ronaldinho. He has become one of the city's top sights, a walking-talking tourist destination. Today the Japanese, English and Germans don't just head for Gaudí's cathedral. They also head for the Nou Camp to buy tickets. Usually in vain.
Friday 2 p.m. comes and there's still no word from the press rep. We wait until 3 p.m. At that point he returns, and his face betrays a glitch. He escorts me to the VIP area. Ronaldinho is standing there in brown trousers, a long black T-shirt and a woolly hat. He looks like a gangsta rapper, but his expression is that of a young boy. He complains he is so drained, so tired, that he can't give any more interviews. But tomorrow he will find plenty of time and it's bound to pan out. Let's shake on it. Please, he feels sooo tired. His eyes are pleading.
I don't know what to say. The new interview is set for noon.
It's 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and still he hasn't arrived. Tourists are streaming through the pressroom on stadium tours. They speak in hushed tones, almost as if in a church. Somehow it's comforting to know that this sport has driven others to even more foolish behavior.
The press rep strides up and ushers me into a lounge with brown leather chairs and a mottled carpet. Nothing happens. The pitch is visible through a window, along with some pigeons and a cat. The air conditioner purrs along.
At 2:00 p.m. word comes that Ronaldinho is still in the massage room.
At 2:25 word comes that Ronaldinho is in the Jacuzzi.
At 3:05 Ronaldinho comes.
He seems slighter than on the pitch. He has tucked his long hair inside a woolly hat, black with Rastafarian stripes - red, green and yellow. He's wearing black trousers and a white T-shirt with a stylized Michael Jordan image. A heavy chain hangs around his neck, on it a large R and the number 10. His watch sparkles. He looks like a gangsta rapper, but smells like a baby fresh out of the bathtub. He apologizes for all the inconvenience and sits down in one of the leather armchairs. The interview - a week in the making - can begin.
Ronaldinho has an irrepressible urge to laugh. Whatever the question, he always finds an aspect that amuses him. When he laughs and beams, his exuberance is contagious. It's easy to feel at ease with him. His voice is high and clear, and I decide that the boy I met six years earlier in Porto Alegre has hardly changed. Maybe he is condemned to being the sport's Peter Pan - a laid-back boy with an easy laugh. There are worse things to be in life.
Our conversation lasts half an hour. He says something that would make him the envy of everyone - "I'm living my dream." He can't stop giggling when reminded of his claim in Porto Alegre that he would be the world's best player in five years time. "I really said that? I don't remember." Asked how many times in a row he can hit the crossbar, he says, "That varies from day to day. I can do it twice, three times, four times." He grins mischievously. "The day we made that commercial, I managed it four times." Now he cracks up laughing.
Interviewing a footballer like Ronaldinho has its limits. Everything you have imagined, your feelings about the sheer beauty and art of his game - none of this is reflected in his words. Your feelings play out in your own mind and soul. Ronaldinho simply says, "I work hard."
Asked what he wants more - to play beautiful football or win - he says, "Winning is what counts in football." As if registering my disappointment, he adds, "But if something beautiful occurs as a result, that - of course - is ideal."
A television is on in a corner of the room, its sound muted. When highlights from an indoor football match come on, Ronaldinho drifts out of the conversation. He is simply in another world, staring at the screen, deaf to my questions. He twitches occasionally, as if he himself is on the pitch in hot pursuit of the ball. And that says more about Ronaldinho than words ever could.