We all remember our first. The first person that made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The first person that made a red hot flush fly through your body. The first person to make your stomach bubble with excitement whenever you saw them. The first person that made you go, “I’m in love”.
I remember mine. It was in the assembly hall at St. Edward’s Primary School, at the tender age of seven. It was a Friday morning and half of the school was crammed into the hall trying to get the best view of what was about to happen. It was a big deal. It’d been the hot topic of conversation in school all week.
Hang on. I’m not on about a girl here and my first kiss. That came a *LONG* time after that morning in 2002. Painfully long. I’m on about Ronaldo de Assis Moreira. I’m on about Ronaldinho and the day he made me truly fall in love with football.
It was the 21st of June, 2002, and we were about to watch England take on the mighty Brazil on the school’s big projector. While I was already into football by this time, like most 7 year old boys, my “obsession” with the game boiled down to a kick about at playtime with the rest of the lads in my class and the odd issue of Match magazine that my Grandad would buy me. Power Rangers were well better, to be honest.
Carlos Marinelli was my favourite player because he played for Boro and he had a funny name although Carlos Marinelli couldn’t team up with Szilàrd Nemeth and Jonathan Greening to make a Megazord like the Power Rangers could. Brazil’s very own trio of Power Rangers were about to blow my world apart.
This trio of samba dancing, nutmegging superstars were Rivaldo, Ronaldo (complete with mental forehead shovel haircut) and Ronaldinho. None of the lads in our school had seen these three guys actually play but we knew they were good. It said so in Match and they were on all of the adverts we saw on telly. Why did this make them good at football? Fuck knows but it did. They were the kiddies and to be feared by every single England supporting child in the assembly hall that morning.
Michael Owen didn’t seem to be scared of them. He put England 1-0 up and had us all dreaming. England were winning and we’re missing class. This is the best day ever. We were all laughing at each other. We believed. This was England’s game. “Brazil aren’t even good, Ronaldo and that couldn’t even get a game for Boro”.
Then it happened.
A blur of blue, a flick of the boot and a goal. Ronaldinho had slalomed his way from his own half, through the England defence and put the ball on a plate for Rivaldo to sweep into the net quicker than you could say Joga Bonito. We’d seen nothing like it. The best was still to come.
In the second half, Brazil got a free kick over 40 yards from goal and piled all of their boys in the box. No problem, we all thought. Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand were two of the largest men any of us had ever seen and even if Brazil got a head on this cross, David Seaman is saving it. He played for Arsenal and he never let in more than one goal in a game. That was the rule. Seaman had this covered. Everyone watching that game was focused on the swaying mass of blue and white in the box. Everyone except Ronaldinho.
As he struck the ball, the hall fell silent as we awaited the outcome. A Campbell clearance or a Seaman save. Haha not to worry, the goofy fella has mishit it anyway, it’s going straight towards Seaman. Easy. Football’s coming h…it had gone in. Ronaldinho had popped the ball over David Seaman from 40 yards out and dumped England out of the World Cup. He was the one laughing now. Running away, buck teeth bared, laughing his little arse off.
Laughing at the sounds of hearts shattering in living rooms, schools and offices across England. Laughing at us all for believing a grown man with a ponytail could stop him from working his magic. Laughing at Ron Atkinson on commentary, who was turning into an actual piece of gammon, furiously barking “You can’t convince me he meant that”. Shut up Ron, you silly old knob.
Of course he meant it. As we’d come to learn later on during his time at Barcelona, Ronaldinho never did something with a football that he didn’t mean to do. He was a genius, a football artist and this was his very first masterpiece. He was a real life superhero that could make a ball do whatever he wanted. He came right through the projector screen, touched my heart with his sheer brilliance and unlocked the door to an entire world of footballing joy.
For the rest of that day in school and throughout the summer holidays that followed, we all argued about whether Ronaldinho had meant to score that free kick. It really didn’t matter. I was 7 and he’d done something dead cool. If I could believe in Father Christmas, I could believe in Ronaldinho. Those arguments soon turned into who got to “be Ronaldinho” in the game of football we were playing. That never changed as we grew up.
As we got older, Ronaldinho became even more magical. He played football like we all wished we could. Rabonas, sombreros, flip-flaps; we could barely spell these tricks let alone pull them off. Ronaldinho made them look as simple as A,B,C. He even made toddies (toe pokes) trendy after he prodded the ball into Petr Cech’s net after hypnotising Ricardo Carvalho with his wiggling hips in a Champions League tie against Chelsea.
The Champions League became a Tuesday and Wednesday night ritual; with the TV in my bedroom on mute, ear to the door to check that my Dad wasn’t about to come in and bollock me for staying up past my bedtime, watching this Brazilian wizard dance and weave his way past any team that crossed Barcelona in the Champions League. If I wasn’t watching football, I’d be on the PS2 making Ronaldinho do Ronaldinho things on FIFA Street. Even as Boro became my true passion, Ronaldinho was always there, flashing his goofy smile and putting defenders on their backsides.
Then it almost happened. Sort of. Teesside came to a standstill as Boro were linked with a shock move for the big, mad magic bastard in 2007. This was it. Years after our first meeting, we were finally going to be united as one. Ronaldinho was going to step onto the Riverside pitch, carve open defences and put chances on a plate for Jeremie Alliadiere, just like he had done for Rivaldo all of those years ago. We were going to be best mates, he was finally going to teach me how to do a rainbow flick and we were going to go surfboarding with David Beckham like on the Pepsi advert.
Unfortunately the Brazilian we ended up with was Afonso Alves. That’s a story for another time.
Ronaldinho officially retired earlier this year, three years after his last professional appearance. He spends his time flirting with right-wing politics and partying. His hair is greying and he’s put a bit of beef on. It’s like when you spot that girl from school you used to proper fancy, but she’s got four kids to four different Dads and it really shows. That’s Ronaldinho now. However, I prefer to remember him as what he was, not what he is.
Goofy teeth beaming, hips rocking and rolling, his Nike Tiempo clad feet painting his latest masterpiece, a pile of defenders left lying on the floor behind him and all while laughing his arse off at how easy it was. He’d always be laughing.