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Old 25-05-2003, 18:32   #9
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The Manchester United Thread

Football: As Ronaldinho looks set to leave Paris St Germain for a possible move to Old Trafford, the Brazilian tells Gabriele Marcotti why he would rather line up beside Ruud Van Nistelrooy than his hero Ronaldo

It would be so easy to sum up Ronaldinho as a stereotype: the supremely talented but inconsistent Latin player who is more trouble than he's worth, the mercurial genius who is unmanageable and who drives coaches and chairman insane with his petulant behaviour.
Certainly that's how a portion of the French press described him this season, a result of his frequent run-ins with Paris St Germain boss Luis Fernandez. But then, before he is written off as another fancy-dan Johnny Foreigner, remember they said the same things about a certain Eric Cantona.

And who was it who believed he could turn the star-crossed Frenchman into perhaps the greatest foreigner the Premiership has ever seen? Bingo. The same man who could well bring Ronaldinho to Old Trafford: Sir Alex Ferguson.

Some in France claim the deal is already done and will be announced after PSG conclude their season in the final of the French Cup next Sunday. Others suggest that Nike, who sponsor both United and Ronaldinho, is mediating the neg-otiations. Either way, Ronaldinho is very aware of the interest.

'Right now it's just speculation, right?' he says. 'But I'd be lying if I said that English football isn't one of my ambitions. And, the way things are looking right now, playing in the Premiership, at Manchester United in particular, is more than just a dream. It's a concrete possibility. But there is nothing more I can say today. First of all, because nothing has been agreed and, second, because I am a PSG player and I have three years left on my contract. If PSG and United reach an agreement and everyone is happy with it, I'll be very proud to come. At the same time, I'm proud to play for PSG, our season is not over and I want to respect the club, my teammates and the fans.'

He really couldn't say anything else at this stage. A disastrous season and a financial meltdown at the parent company, Vivendi, have left PSG on the brink of oblivion. The club's state has fuelled much of the speculation surrounding him, so has the fact that United are one of the few teams with the financial means of securing his services. And they also happen to need a striker who can partner Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

But Ronaldinho seems sincere when he talks about wanting to win the French Cup. 'If I do leave Paris, I want to leave them a trophy to remember me by,' he says. 'It's been tough for everyone at every level, but the fans always seem to take it the hardest. If it is to be my destiny that I leave this club, I want to go out with a bang. The fans deserve it after what they've been through.

'Only a liar or an idiot would say that everything is fine at the club, given the state of Vivendi. But the fans have been great, they've surpassed all of my expectations.'

The very same fans, no doubt, would be gutted at the prospect of losing Ronaldinho. Then again, even in this depressed transfer market, he would fetch £15-£20 million which could help keep the club afloat. Losing Ronaldinho would obviously be a softer blow than seeing PSG fold.

'What more can I say about Manchester United?' he says. 'Everyone knows how powerful and respected they are in every corner of the globe. It would be a tremendous honour to be the first Brazilian in history to play for them.

'I imagine it to be a lot like playing for Brazil: you are expected to dominate every game, everybody wants to beat you and you have to prove yourself every day. When I think what it would be like to work with and learn from a master like Ferguson, I get goose bumps. We'll see what the future brings. I want to win trophies and grow as a footballer and obviously playing in England would be a major stepping stone.'

The whispers linking him to Old Trafford are based on the fact that it would be the kind of move which would suit both parties. Ronaldinho -- the third 'R' after Ronaldo and Rivaldo in Brazil's World Cup-winning side -- would get his long overdue move to the big stage. He turned 23 in March and it's safe to say that, with the possible exception of Bayern Munich's Michael Ballack, he is the best footballer outside Europe's big three leagues.

He would fit nicely into Sir Alex's formation as well. Van Nistelrooy has long hinted that he could use a genuine partner up front. The Dutchman has had to perform either on his own or alongside a recycled midfielder such as Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes. Ronaldinho's pace and creative ability may well make him an ideal match for Van Nistelrooy and he would provide that element of genius and unpredictability which has occasionally gone missing in recent years.

'I'll play anywhere in midfield or attack,' he says. 'But I think lining up as a second striker is my best position. I like to have the freedom to go wide -- right or left, it makes no difference to me -- and deliver crosses or take on defenders. Ideally I could play off of a strong centre forward.'

Those who have seen him on the ball, even just in those Nike adverts where he takes on the stickman figure, will realise that he's one of those players who makes everything look easy. His control is so close it's claustrophobic, and he is exceptionally quick over the first 10 yards.

'People say I'm naturally gifted, I say there is no such thing as natural gifts,' he says. 'You may have an aptitude for something but you have to work on it. And I've worked hard, but I realise I still have a lot to do. This season I've tried to eliminate the superfluous touches, tried to make my game simpler.

'I still love to entertain, but there is a time and a place for everything. I know I need to work on my heading. I jump quite well, but I'm not a particularly good header of the ball. And, in more general terms, I should be scoring more goals.'

The fact that Ronaldinho is so earnest in discussing his flaws and his willingness to improve is rather disarming. But when one considers his background, it becomes less of a revelation.

Ronaldinho grew up around the game, a result of a football-obsessed father who tried to educate his boys about the sport from a tender age. His older brother, Roberto Assis, who carved out a successful career at Gremio before moving to Japan, would spend long afternoons discussing the game with their father, with the young Ronaldinho listening attentively. Eleven years ago, when he was 12, he watched in horror as his father suffered a heart attack and died in the family swimming pool. From that day, his brother became his mentor and role model.

'We are very close,' Ronaldinho says. 'He is one of the most intelligent men I know, if I had his football brain I would be a far better player. But I'm learning and, one day, we'll get there together.'

For all the accolades he has received, apart from the World Cup, he's probably most famous for his television commercials. It's the price he paid for opting to begin his European adventure in France, just as PSG began their slide into anonymity.

And even in South Korea-Japan 2002, he was overshadowed by the likes of Rivaldo and Cafu, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. Yet in Brazil, conventional wisdom has it that he is the next in the sequence that links Pele to Rivelino to Zico to Ronaldo. Pele himself has said he will be Brazil's best player over the next 10 years.

'I know people say that and it's very flattering,' he says. 'But I don't think about it. When you come from Brazil to Europe, your first priority should be adapting and learning, so you can reap the benefits later. I don't have the magic of a Rivaldo, the artistry of a Zidane or the movement of a Raul for example. For me however, Ronaldo remains the greatest. On a good day, nobody can stop him. Maybe someone will say the same about me one day.'

It's probably no coincidence that when he speaks of Ronaldo, he does so in hushed terms. One of his prize possessions is a photograph taken when he was 13, with a then 17-year-old Ronaldo. The two sport identical grins and, if it weren't for the fact that, even then, Ronaldo was a bulging mass of muscle while Ronaldinho was just about as slight as the stick figure in the Nike ad, the two might look like brothers. A lot has happened since then.

'That was nearly 10 years ago,' he says. 'I still carry that photo with me, he was already a huge star, I was little more than a fan. My brother told me to keep the picture so I would know what a footballer looks like ... I was far too thin back then.'

Indeed, he has undergone quite a transformation. He grew out his hair, to help differentiate himself from the Phenom and he spent long hours strengthening his upper body.

'I laugh when I think at how scrawny I was back then,' he says. 'Some still say I'm still not strong enough to play in the Premiership. They're wrong. I can hold my own physically against anybody and it's all thanks to hard work.'

Inevitably, the subject returns to the Premiership and English football. Again, Ronaldinho has a few surprises. 'Most Brazilians prefer La Liga or Serie A, but I think the Premiership is the best league in Europe,' he says.

'Of course, Spain is perhaps more interesting because there are more contrasting styles and tactics, plus stars such as Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Raul. But I don't think that, as a group, say, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and Thierry Henry are that far behind in terms of talent.

'More importantly, English football has a spirit and a passion which is quite unique. There is a strong collective sense of unity, an identification with the fans, a purity to the game. I enjoy it because it's so different to the football played elsewhere.

'And I guess I'm attracted to it because few Brazilians have made their mark on English football. I talk to Gilberto Silva and Juninho often, they tell me about their life in the Premiership. And I think how wonderful it would be to be the first Brazilian to really become an important Premiership player.' It almost sounds like the contents of a job applicant's covering letter.

'I'll tell you more, I'd rather watch Manchester United play than Real Madrid,' he says. 'Real Madrid's superstars are fantastic, but they are individuals. The beauty is in the individual genius, they aren't necessarily a team.

'But when I look at Manchester United, I see a collective, a unit working towards the same goal. By playing within United's system, the players perform better than they would if they were individuals, like at Real. Beckham may be the most talented, Juan Veron the most creative, Ruud Van Nistelrooy the most effective, but no one stands out as an individual.

'In fact, you could argue that a Keane, or a Scholes, or a Solskjaer are all just as important as the three I mentioned before. That's what fascinates me. Anyone can put great players on the pitch, but not everyone can get them to perform together.'

With his long hair and tabloid kiss-and-tell past involving British ex-patriate lapdancers it is a bit of a shock to hear him talk earnestly about team spirit and collectives, while waxing poetic about the English game.

But Ronaldinho, under the influence of his brother, knows a good business deal when he sees one. And a good deal is one where all parties are satisfied: PSG, United and Ronaldinho himself.

Let Real have their legendary big-money signing sequence of Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo and, who knows, Beckham?

United may well counter with Van Nistelrooy, Veron, Rio Ferdinand and Ronaldinho.


Is it me or does he sound like "I am a Manchester United player already but I can't tell" type of quotes

Last edited by Sonick; 15-08-2003 at 18:00.
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