Earlier this week, I asked you all on Twitter whether or not you would be for or against Ronaldinho coming to the New York Red Bulls in 2016, when he'll be 36 years young. The notifications almost melted my phone. And there was a pretty clear consensus: No. Nay. Never. Global soccer's wildest rover is not a popular option for RBNY fans - at least those who took a moment to throw together 140 characters in response to the question.
@Once_A_Metro Against. Love the guy but I've seen turds stay in one place longer than him. Can't build on that.— William Wilson (@WillWilson1989) October 12, 2015
@Once_A_Metro I against. We need to bring young players, to build young and powerful team for years to come— Stanislav Morozov (@morozov83) October 13, 2015
@Once_A_Metro Why would anyone be for that?— Brian Kish (@tynian16) October 12, 2015
A very good question. Why would anyone be for that? As my Twitter notifications can attest, there is a lot to say on the subject of why NOT to sign 'Dinho at this stage of his career: he's washed up; his time has passed; he's not fit, not motivated, and simply not suited to modern soccer. His day is done. Not so long ago, I sat on social media talking up the idea the legendary midfielder was lazy and looked as if he was playing in a charity football match. Minutes later, I deleted the tweet and went back to thinking.
Any fan of the game knows about Ronaldinho, so I'll spare you the details of his career: they are here, if you want them. 'Dinho has been said to be on the decline pretty much since he left European soccer in 2011. At the peak of his ability, he was among the best to have ever played the game. He isn't at that level now; therefore, he's a bust. Well, maybe. He's still good for a fun highlight reel.
Ronaldinho has been deemed one of the greatest players ever. He has been linked with MLS countless times, and there was a time when that was something to be excited about. Increasingly, however, he seems to have ever-shorter spells at clubs and has had some bad experiences along the way. 'Dinho has worked himself into the spotlight after a decade's worth of talented play, and now he seems to be spiraling into a self-dug footy grave. He has been praised as a "god", now he is cast as a washout. He seems ill-suited to soccer's modern era, especially as his body looks to be falling behind the physical standards required of a top player in the game. He has won respect for himself and his sport, but now many observers would like him to retire.
For me, however, he deserves a another chance.
Sure the Brazilian isn't as quick as he used to be, neither is Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba, and dare I even say Kaka - no footballer is: as they get older, they decline. Further, unfortunately, it seems there is a key difference between players like those named above and Ronaldinho: effort. 'Dinho's most recent attempts to hold down a playing job have garnered him a reputation as a lazy player, with low work rates on both sides of the ball. His coach at Queretaro, Manual Vucetich, was not complimentary:
We need players that contribute in all aspects. Mexican soccer needs people that are on the up, not on the slide and that is very important for the league.
Oof. And he bounced out of Mexico to Fluminense in Brazil, where he lasted less than three months. He's done, right?
Not so fast. Remember 'Dinho helped Atletico Mineiro to a Copa Libertadores title in 2013 and was named South American Footballer of the Year. In 2013. That's less than two years ago. For Queretaro, things went bad for 'Dinho when Vucetich arrived at the club, about six months after the Brazilian joined the team. His new coach didn't like what he had to offer, even if what he was offering helped the club to a Liga MX playoff final and a berth in CONCACAF Champions League .
At Fluminense, the parting was more amicable, though his level of play was demonstrably below even diminished expectations of his best. His former club is no hurry to slander one of the greats of the game, but it also - pointedly - doesn't want him around any more.
Ultimately, if you're writing 'Dinho off, it's the recent stint at Fluminense that is his only unremittingly bad patch. He left Atletico Mineiro on a high, he was up and down with Queretaro- and both those teams got special memories out his time with them.
I believe that with the right manager, someone in which treats him with the same respect as they treat any footballer on their squad - no more, no less (well, maybe a bit more: he needs to be handled right) - Ronaldinho can still make a positive impact on the game. He is held to a higher standard, and that is deserved - but to suggest his footballing days are done because Manuel Vucetich doesn't rate him and he had a rough time with Fluminense seems hasty.
Players such as Raul, Francesco Totti, and Thierry Henry are a few names that come to mind when thinking about "legendary footballers" playing well into their upper thirties. Of course, these players are praised for their work rate, drive and professionalism - qualities that tend to be lacking in commentary about Ronaldinho.
But they also have something 'Dinho has never had: one club at which to make their reputations, a club that nurtured and valued their talent and built teams around them for many years. Five seasons at Barcelona is the longest stint Ronaldinho has had anywhere. Raul had 16 at Real Madrid. Henry had eight at Arsenal. Totti turned pro with Roma more than 20 years ago and has never left. 'Dinho is a wanderer and has a reputation as a bit of a playboy. Each to his own.
What 'Dinho might have in common with other greats of the game is the ability to raise the level of those around him. He might not set the best example off the field (if the partying rumors are accurate), but in training and on the field of play, he can provide young players with a glimpse of a rare talent. Lesser, but still gifted, players are often brought in as much for what they can impart to those around them as for what they can contribute directly to the team. Peguy Luyindula seemed to have a subtle but noticeable impact on his teammates during his with his time in New York (watch Dax McCarty swivel out of a challenge and tell me you don't see Peguy's influence); Marcos Senna has been doing it in Long Island with the Cosmos; and Roberto Carlos just got snatched up Delhi Dynamos in Indian Super League.
You sign players like that as much to help your team's future as its present. 'Dinho could do the same for the right club.
It is fair to say he has to repair the damage to his reputation done by the manner of his departure from Queretaro and the brevity of his time with Fluminense. It is fair to say he isn't getting any younger and his performance level seems to be dipping. But to say he is finished?
Lesser players than Ronaldinho have confounded expectations - the New York Red Bulls 2015 squad includes at least four regular starters who weren't thought to be capable of doing much to turn heads in MLS when they landed with the team (Luis Robles, Mike Grella, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Lloyd Sam). We attribute their success to hard work, determination, and the good fortune to find the right coaching staff and opportunity to settle into a rhythm of regular games that any player needs to be at their best. With all respect to RBNY's current stars, 'Dinho's best was better than they will ever achieve - and less than his best is still pretty good, as he has proven as recently as April, when he lit up Azteca with a memorable cameo:
Do not let his short stint at Fluminense deter you, though it was honestly his worst performance at a club in his career. Ronaldinho did not leave on a bad note with the club, who quite possibly just brought him in to sell shirts. Fluminense was careful to state very clearly that Ronaldinho treated the club with "professionalism and respect" throughout his time with the club. And, lest we forget, 'Dinho requested the contract be terminated, not the team. It is entirely plausible that he still has a love for the game, he just didn't fit right with this particular Brazilian club.
What might he bring to MLS? First, I'm not convinced a bad time with Fluminense means he is past being able to make a contribution. His vision and range of passing should make him a valuable component of a midfield willing to adjust to his talents. No, he is not RBNY's type of player - not with the club's present system. He doesn't fit the Red Bulls' desired style of play or strategic approach to squad-building in MLS and globally. But he could be a fit somewhere.
Second, he would be a useful man to have for any team that believes exposing its young players to all-time greats is one aspect of helping them develop. Again, for a system-based club like RBNY, that is not a priority. Again, other teams might see things differently.
Third, though his arrival would raise the volume of the "retirement league" jibes thrown MLS's way, I would suggest he would actually help attract better, younger players to the league. He is a big name. Other players want to say they have played against him, perhaps even bested him. He will attract attention.
Finally, and further to the attracting-attention point, he's a marketer's dream. Don't take my word for it: Querataro president Arturo Villanueva said so earlier this year:
Thanks to him, we got our first international games, we're in the majority of newspapers and Queretaro has been talked about more in this past year.
And Fluminense said much the same:
It's important to mention that the signing corresponded with our expectations in relation to marketing returns, increased ticket sales, sales of shirts and number of socios.
Ronaldinho should be able to offer what Andrea Pirlo brings to NYC FC. Though Pirlo is not exactly a goal scoring machine, he is one of the all-time greatest passers in the game as well as a free kick legend. 'Dinho has similar attributes, and he's a little fancier with the ball at his feet.
You see, not every player has to have crazy agility or speed or lung-busting fitness, they just have to be properly used in the squad they join. Don't sign 'Dinho and ask him to track back. Don't sign him and ask him to play RalfBall. Sign him for what he is: an exceptional creative talent, a player who will make fans gasp and cheer, an entertainer of the highest caliber.
It is time for Ronaldinho to make his way to MLS. Who knows, maybe the league is looking for a way to boost a faltering Chicago Fire? 'Dinho might teach Harry Shipp a trick or two. Or maybe he'd be a fit over in Colorado, where the team looks like it could use a fresh face to bring renewed enthusiasm. And if it doesn't work out, look at his recent history: he doesn't stay where he's not wanted. Soccer's wild rover will move on fast. It's a low-risk proposition. He's only sticking around if things are clicking.
It doesn't matter to me who takes him: just let it be a team in this league. I want Ronaldinho here in MLS.