Graham Hunter: Ronaldinho was like rock ’n’ roll hero but his timing went awry

On the face of it, Ronaldinho conjured up the timing of a true showman when he chose to announce his retirement just as Coutinho arrived at Barcelona.

The new boy was telling the world that the inspiration behind his choice was seeing our Ronnie starring at the Camp Nou back in 2005/6.

But the truly sad thing is that just when Ronaldinho was required to show an innate understanding of true “timing”, there was a stopped watch where his brain should have been.

I guess that for Manchester United fans the sense of “what could have been” began in summer 2003.

Ronaldinho, a year on from winning the World Cup, was tired of Ligue 1, tired of France, tired of Paris.

Manchester United had had their eyes on him for a few years – this, they reckoned, might be their next “Cantona-esque” signing.

Revolutionary, dangerous, ultra-talented, hungry and someone who could add magic to the already cherished United brand.

Spoiler: They blew it.

PSG were then run by a powerful, mid-40s TV mogul called Francis Graille – a guy who’d only just powered his way into football and wasn’t for being made to look a mug.

He and Peter Kenyon famously agreed a deal for Ronaldinho at one price, verbally, but Graille then received a different, lower, offer by fax. The Frenchman went ballistic.

Surprisingly enough, even at a massive distance from the epicentre of the affair, this is where I step on stage.

I was down at Sitges, that lovely, elegant beach resort just south of Barcelona and, I must admit, I was lounging around on the edge of the surf.

But I had my phone and a good friend, in the know, called me to say: “I’ve just been tipped off by Graille’s close friend that the Ronaldinho deal to United is off … and Barcelona have a chance if you want to phone them.”

I did, indeed, call a neighbour of mine, Juanjo Castillo, who worked with the Barça vice-president Sandro Rosell.

No one at the Camp Nou had yet heard they were back in the race and although they would, quite clearly, have discovered the news pretty soon thereafter I fondly like to think I was a trip-switch in what happened next.

Rosell knew Ronaldinho well from his days as a high-ranking Nike executive in Brazil.

He called the buck-toothed football mustang and warned him that living in Manchester was akin to living underwater. “It’s cold and it rains ALL the time,” Rosell warned him.

It worked.

Sometimes, when you look back, it’s interesting when there’s retrospective substance to people’s words.

No, not about the weather in Manchester.

It was Barcelona’s other vice president, Ferran Soriano, who’s now in charge at Manchester City, who told me Ronaldinho “is our rock and roll signing”.

He meant that while the Barça brand was being dusted down and made to look shiny again, after years where things were moribund and football-stupid at the Camp Nou, the board wanted to sparkle some magic-dust immediately.

Ronnie did that. Oh boy, did he.

For reasons too complicated to go into again here, Ronaldinho’s first goal came about 12.40am when Barcelona v Sevilla kicked off at five past midnight that September of 2003.

It was a groovy, “rock ’n’ roll” goal – slaloming past a handful of defenders and bursting the net from distance. And because the city was so quiet at that time the roar of excelsior joy was so great that it made the sensors on local seismographs twitch.

Just think of that.

For a while he was divine.

The team around him wasn’t just talented, it developed into a unit which would work hard enough that Ronaldinho’s filigree touches came when he was able to get on the ball, still full of energy, and he’d do quite remarkable things.

People naturally enough remember the two goals in that unbelievable destruction of Madrid at the Bernabeu when the atmosphere changed from racist abuse to applause … from the home fans!

But go seek out his goal-assist pass to Ludo Giuly against Milan in the Champions League semi-final of 2006. And his gravity-defying overhead kick to score the fourth against Villarreal in November 2006.

It’s bonkers good.

Back to the substance of Ferran’s “rock ’n’ roll” idea, it has now proved that Ronnie wasn’t just making great music, the notes were reaching Brazil – where, according to Barcelona’s most expensive signing himself, young Coutinho was sitting and watching in awe – promising himself, “I’ll do that at the Camp Nou one day”.

And, finally, back to the timing like a stopped watch.

For various reasons, partly inattention and decline around the team’s coach, Frank Rijkaard, partly because neither Barcelona nor Ronaldinho’s support team of brother Roberto and sister Deisi were equipped to stop him being utterly submerged by commercial and media duties, Ronaldinho went off the rails.

In fact, he’s currently slimmer and in better shape than he was in that last season of 2007/8.

Like the true rock ’n’ roll gods, this boy knew how to party. He just didn’t know when to, or how to stop.

If he’d possessed any true sense of timing he’d have sensed that change was coming, that Barcelona had become sluggish and that a massive new investment in talent, Guardiola, Pique, Alves, Busquets, Keita, Pedro, was coming.

Before Guardiola kicked him out the door the new Barça coach laid out his entire training and playing masterplan to Ronaldinho until the Brazilian was beside himself with excitement at what lay ahead only for Pep to tell him: “But you’ve shown that I can’t trust you to be part of this.”

And that was that.

The rock ’n’ roll signing had lived too hard, and thanks to some of the worst timing a footballer has ever shown, Guardiola unplugged his amp, took back his guitar and told him to leave the stage.

Leaving the rest of us to join Alex Ferguson and the United fans in wondering: “What could have been …?”

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