Ronaldinho Superstar


Well-behaved, patient with the media and autograph
seekers, Ronaldinho is not the spoiled rebel athlete that professional
sports have become plagued with. He loves to play soccer and he shows it.
In Spain, he is treated like a pop star wherever he goes. Legions of admirers
follow him when he leaves Barcelona’s training facility. Hysterical teenage
girls swoon over his shaved head and boyish smile. Ronaldinho torments
opponents with his ability to hold the ball and dribble through or past
a swarm of defenders. He has been compared to legendary Pelé, but
the young player can be humble even when he says that all he wants is to
be the world’s best soccer player today.
By Peter Castle

Like all great players, he needs only one name. But unlike his style,
his nickname is nothing fancy, nothing special. He is simply Ronaldinho,
the 20-year-old man-child who emerged from the poverty-stricken suburbs
of Rio de Janeiro to capture the heart of Brazil and turn the soccer world
upside down with his dazzling moves, punishing strength, and spectacular

Voted 1996’s best player in the world by the International Federation
of Soccer (FIFA) in January, Ronaldo is also the best-paid player in the
world, earning well over $5 million a year in salary and endorsements.
His superhuman abilities, which are already drawing comparisons to the
immortal Pelé, are currently the property of the Spanish club Barcelona,
which the Spanish press now calls "Ronaldo F.C. (Football Club)."

It was only four years ago that Ronaldo Luiz Nazário de Lima
first caught the eye of Zagallo, the coach of the Brazilian national team.
At sixteen, Ronaldo was the best player in the Juvenile South American
Championship in Colombia, where Brazil finished fourth despite the young
star’s eight goals.

When he returned to Brazil, Ronaldo signed his first substantial contract,
playing for the Belo Horizonte professional club Cruzeiro. His scoring
proficiency with Cruzeiro impressed Zagallo, who selected the young attacker
to be a part of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup Championship team.

Though Ronaldo did not play during the competition, his more experienced
teammates knew this baby-faced kid with the lightning-quick reflexes and
powerful legs would have plenty of opportunities to lead Brazil to future
Cup victories. It was during this time, among the good-natured jests of
the older players who teased the adolescent about the braces he wore on
his toothy grin, that "Ronaldinho" was born.

After the World Cup, the European clubs came calling, bringing their
fat checkbooks and the lure of international fame. The Dutch team PSV Eindhoven
paid $6 million for the rights to the Carioca scoring phenomenon,
a record in Brazilian soccer at the time. Ronaldinho received nearly $1
million of this money himself.

But this is just the tip of the financial iceberg. After two successful
seasons playing in relative obscurity in Holland, his rights were sold
to Spain’s Barcelona for the unprecedented amount of $20 million dollars.
After an incredible start with the club last year, Ronaldinho’s agents
wasted no time in renegotiating his contract for an unbelievable $50 million
over the next ten years. Absurd? Not in the eyes of several other European
teams, who are reportedly considering paying $32 million in penalties alone
to break Ronaldinho’s contract with Barcelona. And this is before any mention
of a salary offer. Evidently, no price is too high for the prized possession
of Ronaldinho’s talents.

Humble Beginnings

The youngest of three children, Ronaldo came of age in the poor neighborhood
of Bento Ribeiro, on the outskirts of Rio. His father worked for the state
phone company Telerj and brought home a monthly income of around $400.
Their house had a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and one bedroom. Ronaldo’s
brother and sister slept on the couch in the living room while he shared
the only bedroom with his parents.

His mother Sônia hoped he would continue in school and begged
him not to spend all his time playing on the soccer fields with the neighborhood
kids. She wanted him to be a doctor or an engineer, and like most mothers
who want more for their children, she thought a good education was the
only way to a better life.

But Ronaldo was simply not cut out for academics, and after flunking
three times, he dropped out of school at the seventh-grade level to play
indoor soccer, or futsal as they call it in Brazil. Ronaldo was
a mere 13 years old then, but he was already known for his ball-handling
skills, and a local juvenile club offered him bus fare, snacks, and athletic
shoes in exchange for his goal-scoring services. During one game, Ronaldo
made 11 of his team’s 12 goals.

Ronaldo’s biggest aspiration was to play for his favorite team, Flamengo,
in the affluent Zona Sul (South Zone) of Rio. He tells the story of how
one day in 1989 he spent two hours on two different buses to attend a tryout
with 100 other kids that hoped to make the Flamengo team. The best players
were told to return for final selection the next day. Ronaldo had made
the cut, but had no way to pay for four more bus fares to come back. Dejected,
he left the training field and boarded the bus for the long ride home.
To add insult to injury, the young player was accosted on the bus by thieves
who stole his watch.

But it wasn’t long before Ronaldo’s luck would change. The following
year, while playing in a juvenile league, he decided to turn professional,
signing a $7,500 agreement with the same two agents that handle his affairs
today. A year later, he was picked up by Cruzeiro, and from then on, his
chosen path to success presented few obstacles.

The Character Issue

Today, Ronaldinho expresses a profound gratitude to his mother for not
taking soccer away from him when he was a boy. In return, his first priority
has always been to take care of his family. As soon as he signed his first
contract with his agents, he used some of the money to reupholster the
family’s battered furniture. Later, when his parents separated and his
mother had to take a minimum-wage job working at an ice cream shop, the
first thing Ronaldo did after signing with Cruzeiro was to go to her boss
and tell him that he would pay her salary from now on.

When later he began to make big money, he would purchase apartments
and cars for his closest relatives. But nothing was more important than
these first gestures of giving something back to his family, especially
the mother that raised him.

Sônia says her son has a good head on his shoulders, partly because
he still has both a mother and father to turn to. Despite their separation
(Ronaldinho’s parents were never legally divorced, though both have new
partners), they make it a point to spend family parties together, including
the Christmas party last year. And both parents enjoy spending time with
their son abroad.

Perhaps these early lessons in responsibility and family identity provide
the foundation for Ronaldinho’s successful approach to the game of international
soccer, with all its attendant pitfalls and temptations.

His agents, Reinaldo Pita and Alexandre Martins, speak highly of their
client’s character, betting on his maturity and soft-spoken style. Well-behaved,
receptive to the instructions of his coaches, and patient with the media
and autograph seekers, he is the polar opposite of the spoiled rebel athlete
that soccer and many other professional sports have become plagued with.
While most players come unprepared for life, it seems that life has prepared
Ronaldinho well. The lure of money and fame are considerable, he admits,
but they don’t outweigh his love for playing the game.

Pita and Martins have refused publicity campaigns worth millions of
dollars, preferring to preserve the clean image of their client and maximize
his marketing value with the most powerful brand in the world of sports,
Nike. Since 1994, Ronaldinho has been sponsored by the athletic equipment
giant, but only for a meager $150,000 annually. Recently, however, his
agents negotiated a new contract with Nike worth a minimum of $15 million
over the next ten years.

Big-Time Barcelona

Ronaldinho’s ascendancy in European soccer could not have been better
scripted. After making the adjustment to European life and the style of
play, the ambitious scorer felt ready to make the jump from the more-sedate
Dutch league to the chaotic core of the soccer world, Spain.

The deal with Barcelona was finalized during Brazil’s heartbreaking
performance at the Olympics last summer, where Ronaldinho played well despite
being hampered by an earlier knee operation. When he returned to Europe,
he would wear the Number 9 shirt for Barcelona and spearhead an offense
comprised of foreign stars from all reaches of the soccer world.

In Spain, Ronaldinho no longer has the anonymity he enjoyed in Holland.
He is treated like a pop star wherever he goes. Legions of admirers follow
him when he leaves Barcelona’s training facility. Hysterical teenage girls
swoon over his shaved head and boyish smile. Security guards have to make
a protective circle around him every time he has to board or get off the
team bus.

Spanish soccer fans have amazed the Brazilian player, who thought he
would never see a more fanatical contingent than his own countrymen. When
he first arrived in Spain, there were 2,000 fans waiting to greet him at
the airport.

Ronaldinho makes his regular-season home in a comfortable suburb of
Barcelona, sharing a million-dollar, four-story house with his friend,
secretary, and spokesman Antonio Cesar Santiago, 25, who has accompanied
him since his days in Holland. Santiago says he receives about four interview
requests from the media every day.

Ronaldinho’s partner on the front line, the Brazilian winger Giovanni,
has become both a close friend and an invaluable asset to Ronaldinho’s
scoring. Giovanni’s sweet passes often set up the attacker’s devastating

Averaging more than one goal per game with Barcelona, Ronaldinho will
reach the amazing total of 50 goals to lead the league this year. Despite
his stellar performance to date, the humble forward does not necessarily
believe he is playing at his best in Spain, citing more media exposure
of his goals as the reason for his growing legend.

There is no denying, however, that Ronaldinho torments opponents with
his ability to hold the ball and dribble through or past a swarm of defenders.
Opposing coaches express their admiration in frustrated tones, secretly
wishing they could have this one-of-a-kind weapon in their arsenal.

Perhaps one of the most exciting goals ever witnessed occurred in a
game against Compostela last October. Ronaldinho received a pass close
to midfield, dribbled furiously past five adversaries, escaping from kicks
and grabs all the way, and drove the ball with incredible velocity into
the goal from 120 feet out. The replays are still shown regularly on TV
in Spain and Brazil.

The Specter of Pelé

Admittedly, it’s an unfair, if not irrelevant practice, to compare a
20-year-old at the beginning of his career to the best soccer player ever
and Athlete of the Century: the legendary Pelé. But a quick look
at some of the issues and statistics provides some food for thought.

In the debate, it is generally conceded that Pelé was a phenomenal
scorer, had both speed and fantastic ability, showed great vision for the
game, headed well, and kicked strong with both legs. Ronaldinho, meanwhile,
has the rare combination of strength, ability, and speed, matched with
an incredible hunger for the ball on the attack. His explosive bursts in
the short and medium distances are incomparable.

In terms of scoring, Pelé averaged an unbelievable 1.10 goals
per game over his career, scoring his 1,000th goal at the age of 29 in
1969. Ronaldinho, playing in an era of tougher defenses, averages 0.92
goals per game and will reach his 1,000th goal at the age of 33 if he plays
approximately 70 games a year.

At the age of 17, Pelé played on the first squad for Brazil when
it won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958. By the age of 20, he was already
averaging 1.07 goals per game (in 316 games). Ronaldinho has played only
155 games and did not play during Brazil’s World Cup victory in 1994.

Ronaldinho doesn’t pay much attention to these exercises in futility.
When the comparisons with Pelé began, Barcelona’s goalkeeper, the
Portuguese Vitor Bahia, was concerned at how it might affect the young
star. But after speaking with him, Bahia reported that the ambitious Brazilian
had his feet firmly on the ground. For Ronaldinho, it is enough to be the
best player in the world today.

On the Home Front

I decided to ask some of my Carioca family and friends their
opinions on the greatest player in the game today. Not surprisingly, most
of them spoke with pride and admiration for Ronaldinho’s skills and success.
But they were also quick to acknowledge that Ronaldinho’s history is not
yet written; he is still a very young player who, believe it or not, has
a lot to learn about the game.

"This is one player Brazilians can be proud of," says my friend
Tom, 23, who follows the careers of Brazil’s players overseas. "The
quality of his technique is incomparable at this time. When he scores,
the game changes and the rest of his teammates gain confidence and go on
the attack."

"He’s a craque [outstanding player], no doubt about it,"
says Reinaldo, 26, my brother-in-law, "The more I watch him play,
the more I appreciate him. He has charisma, knows who he is, and shows
humility, unlike many players these days."

"The Ronaldinho phenomenon has just started," my wife Leila,
28, reminds me. "But he already has those artful qualities that make
a true idol. We’ve had many great players in Brazil, but geniuses like
Pelé and Zico come along just once in a while."

Much has been said of Ronaldinho’s lethal combination of speed, strength,
and agility. "The ball seems to stick to his feet when he is going
for the goal," says Tom. "But it’s not just his speed; he sees
everything that’s happening around him, which is the one trait of all special

Reinaldo says the attacker’s dribbles are fast and short because of
his early experience playing futsal [indoor soccer], where the field
is much smaller and the action much faster than futebol.

Rodrigo, my 12-year-old nephew, likes Ronaldinho for his awesome scoring
and great dribbling, but he still thinks Zico and Pelé had better
technique. Somewhat to my surprise, it is clear that he is not mesmerized
by Ronaldinho’s talents.

I, on the other hand, am completely mesmerized. As I’m writing this,
Barcelona is playing on TV. Ronaldo handles a hard pass easily, dribbles
toward the goal and two defenders, stops short, and lulls the defenders
into a false sense of security. Surely, he is not yet within striking distance.
Wrong. With a quick, powerful stroke, Ronaldinho rifles the ball high into
the far corner of the goal, perhaps the only spot where the goalkeeper
cannot reach. The goal breaks a 2-2 tie and moments later when the game
ends Barcelona has another victory courtesy of Ronaldinho.

The Color of Money

"What about all that money?" I ask.

"Isn’t that amazing?" answers Tom, smiling broadly. That’s
all he can say about it.

Reinaldo makes it plain: "The way he’s playing now, he deserves
the money."

Rodrigo is old enough to understand that Ronaldinho is playing in Europe
because they pay the stars a lot more there. He hopes Ronaldinho will come
back to play in Brazil someday, but for now he is satisfied with watching
Barcelona on TV.

Ronaldinho says he just wants to be the best in the world. Well, is
he? Young Rodrigo believes Ronaldo is in his best phase, but has no idea
how he will play in the future.

Reinaldo thinks he has a chance to be the best player ever, but to be
the best Ronaldinho needs to be less of an individualist and more consistent.
"Sometimes he’s a genius and sometimes he’s not effective," he
says. "Since he’s so young, he will probably get more consistent."

Tom agrees that the main problem with his game is lack of consistency.
"There’s no telling when the craque will explode with multiple
goals and lead his team to victory, or simply disappear from the game against
tough, physical defenses."

And now, with every defender looking to "mark" the Brazilian
scoring machine, Ronaldinho has to work much harder to score.

"He doesn’t have the same level of confidence as Brazilian craques
of the past," continues Tom, "but he has too much skill to be
hindered by psychological barriers." Maturity, it seems, is something
that Ronaldinho, like any other 20-year-old, will simply have to wait for.

Peter Castles is an American living in Rio de Janeiro.
He can be reached by E-mail at

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