That day an estimated 20,000 supporters barged through the gates at the club’s Gavea training ground in Rio de Janeiro to welcome their renowned new signing. The atmosphere was carnival-like in its celebration of Ronaldinho’s arrival. “Gaúcho is ours,” shouted Flamengo president Patricia Amorim. “Now let’s get this party started.”
It drew comparisons with Zico’s own homecoming in 1985 after he closed the curtains on his short spell in Italy at Udinese. Ronaldinho, though from Porto Alegre and a former Grêmio player, seemed genuinely moved by the reception. He even wiped a tear from his eye.
Standing on a platform above a roaring sea of people, he grabbed the microphone and said: “Thank you red and black nation. I am with you and hope to repay your affection. I am now a Mengão.”
Considering the Campeonato Brasileirão came to an end earlier this month, perhaps now is the right time to ask whether Ronaldinho has kept his side of the bargain so far?
After flirting with relegation last season, Flamengo improved on the back of winning their 32nd Carioca State championship, throughout which they went unbeaten.
“A joy like this can only be compared with the World Cup title,” Ronaldinho claimed. “I went five years without being a champion, I have only experienced joy with these fans and I hope to continue my work here.”
That was perhaps an overstatement, but with the team performing well under Vanderlei Luxemburgo, he was able to express himself and rediscover his joie de vivre.
Take, for example, the way he brought down a high ball while holding off a Fluminense defender in March, caressing it as though he was stroking the hair of a sleeping baby. It was an exquisite piece of skill.
Then in July, with Flamengo 3-0 down to Copa Libertadores champions Santos, Ronaldinho inspired a famous comeback by scoring a hat-trick the pick of which was a cheeky free-kick hit under the wall in a 5-4 win that proved to be one of the games of the year, not least because it also included one of the goals of the year from Neymar.
Moments like those are what persuaded Brazil coach Mano Menezes to re-call Ronaldinho to his squad for a friendly against Ghana in London.
That was in September. A month later he scored his first goal for his country in nearly four years with another free-kick – this time a power-hit that was laser-like in its accuracy, honing in on the top right-hand corner as Brazil recorded a 2-1 win away to Mexico.
Flamengo meanwhile remained in contention to win the Brasileirão for the first time since 2009. In the end, however, they relented and finished a creditable fourth, qualifying for the next edition of the Copa Libertadores, a tournament the club has won just once back in 1981 when a brace from Zico put Cobreloa to the sword.
“We got our place in the Copa Libertadores and I am really happy about it,” Ronaldinho grinned. “The objective was to make Flamengo play in important competitions again. It was an amazing year for me. I won the Carioca State championship. I got back into the national team and I could give happiness to the Flamengo fans. That was the most important thing. I could end my career here.”
Ronaldinho ended the campaign with 21 goals. He was the club’s second top scorer behind Deivid. So, on balance, his first year back in Brazil sounds as if it has been positive, doesn’t it? Only it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
His off-the-field activities once again made more headlines than what he actually did on it. There were the sensational reports that he had asked to build a tunnel from his house to a nightclub. During the Rio Carnival Ronaldinho was spotted out at 5am in the morning. His stamina for partying was such that his bodyguard apparently quit because he couldn’t handle all late nights, he couldn’t keep up.
Such behaviour did not go down well with Flamengo fans, of whom there are said to be 25 million in Brazil. At one point a hotline was set up for them to call and report Ronaldinho if he was seen out past the midnight hour.
“Today, more than 1,000 people have dialed the number,” said its promoter Jose Carlos Peruano. “The ‘Disque Dentuço’ hotline will be kept up until his performance on the pitch improves.”
Exasperation with Ronaldinho grew after Flamengo were dumped out of the Copa do Brasil in the quarter-finals by lowly Ceará in May. He was whistled while being substituted in a disappointing 0-0 draw in a derby against Botofogo. Not that Ronaldinho seemed to care. He was spotted playing footvolley on the beach shortly afterwards.
“It’s a storm in a teacup,” his brother and agent Roberto De Assis claimed.
The cup did run over, however, in November when a video emerged online appearing to show a naked Ronaldinho “rewarding himself” in front of a webcam. It caused the player and the club great embarrassment, even though an investigation later revealed it to be a fake.
Luxemburgo saw the funny side and joked about it with reporters. “Let me ask a question for you? Who saw the video of Ronaldinho? How big?” he laughed.
On a serious note, with Flamengo still in contention for the title, Luxemburgo lost patience with his star player a couple of times. “We need the real Ronaldinho,” he said. All too often, it seemed, the No 10 went missing in matches and it was up to Thiago Neves, on loan from Al-Hilal, to come up with a bit of magic and ensure Flamengo got the results they needed to at least get into the Libertadores.
Yet Ronaldinho had genuine cause to feel aggrieved too. There have been reports that he has not been paid in four months by Traffic, the sports management agency that agreed to help Flamengo shoulder the burden of his wages when he signed from Milan. They were supposed to pick up the majority of the tab, contributing £270,000 of his £380,000 monthly pay packet.
Traffic believed there was money to be made from offering sponsors the opportunity to have a famous face, like Ronaldinho’s, on their products. But the venture has not yielded results. It was expected that revenue from various sponsors for Flamengo’s shirt might, for instance, fetch up to £12m. Instead, finding them has proven difficult and so far Traffic have apparently arranged deals amounting to only £8m.
With other merchandising projects based around Ronaldinho either shelved or not realizing their projected value, Traffic have been in dispute with Flamengo, even claiming that the player is not entitled to the money he is owed because they didn’t make as much money as they were told they would in the first place. To make matters worse, Traffic have been irked by Flamengo’s growing relationship with 9ine, another sports entertainment company set up by Ronaldo which is helping the club attract sponsors and advertise itself.
It has made for an uncomfortable situation, although not one that, at least for now, risks Ronaldinho taking his talent elsewhere. His entourage is naturally upset and wants things resolved, but the player has also intimated that he wants to stay and see out his contract at Flamengo until 2014. “These are just small bureaucratic details,” Ronaldinho said. “I won’t leave Rio for anything in the world.”
Given the time he’s having on and off the pitch, who can blame him?