In many ways, Sky have been their own worst enemy. By ploughing so much money into purchasing rights to live sport and branding every channel as the ‘only place’ to view, it was always going to bite them when the eventuality of a competitor arose.
When it was initially introduced, Sky Sports 5 was billed as the exclusive place to view the continent’s premier competitions. The tagline turned into a punchline from a joke when they lost the Champions League to BT. The self-proclaimed ‘home of European football’ were forced to fill airtime with Major League Soccer highlights and Premier League Years reruns, a chain of events which left egg on corporate faces.
The hits have continued for Rupert Murdoch’s organisation (they relinquished rights to the Ashes cricket and first choice of games on European Cup rugby), all of which prompted them to alter their channel structure. They dispensed with the numerical element and replaced them individually depending on the sport – Sky Sports Premier League, Sky Sports cricket etc. Faced with filling hours of television time on a new football only channel without many of the prominent leagues, they’ve had to broadcast documentaries and short highlights packages of classic matches/moments.
Recently, they’ve aired bitesized segments of La Liga games from the archives which offer a portal to a time when football wasn’t so homogeneous. Every League was visually different and the bright lights and colourful kits of La Liga offered a glamorous contrast to English football.
One vintage offering shown a few weeks ago was a meeting between Barcelona and Sevilla from September 2003. It was a drab affair illuminated by an awe inspiring goal, scored by Ronaldinho.
Barca’s number ten picked the ball up in his own half. He accelerated along the left touchline, slalomed inside and launched a rocket from thirty yards that crashed off the crossbar and then the turf before nestling into the roof of the net. It was his first goal for his new club and it was the beginning of a period where he was a peerless force in the game.
Due to the advancements in football even in the short time that has passed since his heyday, it is sometimes difficult to rank footballers and how they compare to those plying their trade in the present day. But Ronaldinho really was the complete package. Had the close control and silky dribbling ability of Neymar allied with the power and showboating of Cristiano Ronaldo. He could arrow passes across field, trap a ball on his chest as if it was a cotton pillow, produce jaw dropping feats of athleticism and technique and score with almost any body part.
The signing of Ronaldinho was arguably the catalyst for Barcelona’s upturn in fortunes. For much of the previous post-Cruyfian decade they were a rabble, a club indulgent of mediocrity living in the shade of their great rivals Real Madrid. Originally they were pursuing Manchester United midfielder David Beckham, but were trumped by Madrid’s Galactico spending power. That move had a knock on effect on United’s transfer activity as Barca swooped in to snatch the Brazilian from their grasp.
Ronaldinho’s first real breakout moment was during Brazil’s World Cup triumph in 2002. While overshadowed by his more established compatriots Ronaldo and Rivaldo, he nevertheless made his own mark on the tournament in South Korea and Japan – catching England goalkeeper David Seaman out from a set piece.
By the time Barcelona had brought him in, he’d physically morphed into a different player. The scrawny, buck toothed trickster was now a freakishly powerful athlete with legs resembling tree trunks, as John Terry found to his own detriment when he was dumped on his backside trying to intercept another mesmeric run at the Nou Camp.
More often than not, Chelsea were the recipients when Ronaldinho’s genius was fully expressed. Most notably there was the outrageous toed dink in a memorable Champions League tie in 2005, but he also dragged them through the following year when the Stamford Bridge pitch was allowed deteriorate to the extent that it looked like a beach. It was speculated that Jose Mourinho instructed the Chelsea ground staff to stop manicuring the grass so it would stymie Barca’s famed passing game, but they strangely hadn’t bargained on a guy who’d grown up playing samba soccer mastering a sandy wasteland.
A couple of months beforehand, he in all probability reached his zenith as a footballer in a Clasico away to Madrid. Starting on the left flank, he tormented Michel Salgado for the duration of the first half, cutting inside, flicking it through his legs and speeding past him at will. With Barca leading 1-0, he picked the ball up in his own half and accelerated. Sergio Ramos shuffled across to halt his progress, but was swatted aside like a stick insect. Ronaldinho then galloped towards the box, danced around Ivan Helguera’s dangling leg and buried into the corner of Ikar Casillas’ net. It was like a red and blue flash whizzing through the Madrid defence. A matter of minutes later, he repeated the trick by scoring another individual goal and received the rarest of rare honours for an opposing player – a standing ovation from the Bernabeu faithful.
Tricks into practical elements of his game. Heading the ball to himself. Standing on the ball to survey the landscape in front of him.
So many goals scored during that time were imaginative:
The freekick under the wall which deceived the entire Werder Bremen team, or the chest and overheard kick against Villarreal.
“When you play with him and see what he does with the ball, nothing surprises you anymore,” commented former teammate Eidur Gudjohnsen. “One of these days, he will make the ball talk.”
Towards the latter part of the 2005/06 season, it appeared as if Ronaldinho was on a one-man mission to lead Barca to Champions League glory. In the semi-final, he sprayed an inch perfect cross field 40 yard ball for Ludovic Giuly to score against AC Milan. He led the Catalans to a second successive La Liga title and was
“When we didn’t know what to do, he would create chances to score,” Deco remarked.
In the final though, he hit a wall. Arsenal took the lead through Sol Campbell and despite playing against ten men, Barca struggled to break Arsene Wenger’s men down. Enter Henrik Larsson, who switched the final in their favour. At the final whistle, Ronaldinho kneeled beside the trophy he so richly deserved.
The 2005/06 season was the peak of Ronaldinho’s career. Few footballers reach the level of influence and reverence he did in that period. Like the greats of every era, the game was played at his pace and everyone else was just a pawn on his chessboard. A few months later it would start to turn sour though, as his motivation and desire dwindled.