One last hurrah from Ronaldinho...?
On a Brazilian TV show on Saturday I was asked to explain the success of the English Premier League.
The answer that instantly came into my mind was the mixture between the old and the new. Modern ideas - the money and the business practices - have been planted in fertile soil because the tradition of the game - its roots in the world's first industrial society - is so strong.
There was another point I might have made which would have been of more relevance to the audience. Outnumbered by the minnows, the big clubs were part of a structure which did not attend their interests. They spent the money, attracted the crowds, but then had to divide the TV revenue with the professional clubs of all four divisions. So they broke away to form their own structure, and the rest is history.
Brazil's big clubs find themselves facing a similar fork in the road - as the events of the last few days have made clear.
The return of Ronaldinho after a decade in Europe is an undoubted coup for the Brazilian game. He ended up joining Flamengo, who pipped Gremio and Palmeiras to his signature. He could have gone elsewhere - to the Premier League, for example. Coming back across the Atlantic was a vote of confidence in the direction that the country is taking, with its financial stability, strong currency, and so on.
It is good to have him back, and more will follow. But there is a downside. With sponsors on board, Ronaldinho will be earning a fortune - his reported salary is above £100,000 a week. This is bound to further inflate wages for top players in Brazilian football, and not all of them can have their wages covered by sponsors. But the clubs already have astronomic debts - Flamengo's are estimated at not far short of £150m.
And here comes the problem of the structure of the Brazilian game. Before the Premier League, Manchester United only had to divide TV money with small clubs. They did not have to spend months playing against them. But that is what happens in Brazil.
From now until early May, Brazil stages its State Championships - one for each of the country's 27 states. On a league basis, big clubs - Flamengo boast over 20 million supporters - are playing teams with next to no fans at all. In the Rio first division the meeting of two small clubs will often attract about 200 fans. Sometimes there are less than 50. Clubs like this have no place in professional football and big clubs are wasting their time playing them on a league basis.
Ronaldinho in full flow against Australia at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany. Photo: Getty
The signing of Ronaldinho has concentrated minds on this issue like never before. I have been railing against the State Championships for 16 years. For years I felt like a lonely voice, but the momentum has been building, and over the last few days I have noticed an unprecedented outpouring of criticism. People have been looking at Flamengo's fixture list and coming to an obvious conclusion - what is the point of buying a Rolls Royce and then driving it on dirt tracks?
Change will not come overnight. The State Championships are vital to the power structure of Brazilian football - and since the power structure controls the 2014 Fifa World Cup, there is fear of rocking the boat at the moment. But it is very likely that the Ronaldinho deal will bring closer the day when Brazil's big clubs stage a Premier League-style breakaway.
This then is the big picture behind the return of the goofy star. But the small picture is no less fascinating. Signing such a big name brings obvious marketing benefits for Flamengo. But strictly in terms of his form on the field, will their investment in him prove to be money down a rat hole?
Ronaldinho's best days are now a full five years in the past. He is clearly a far more complex character than the happy, smiley image he likes to portray. Barcelona tired of him when they realised they could not get him to react either by being nice or by being nasty. No-one becomes as good as Ronaldinho at football without loving it. And no-one can fritter away such talent for so long without falling out of love with it. Coming up 31, that devastating burst of acceleration has probably gone for ever. A logical view might conclude that he is not worth the investment.
But we are dealing with a player of such extraordinary talent that normal considerations are suspended. Ronaldinho might just flick that genius switch. I've seen it happen. When Romario left Barcelona to join Flamengo in 1995 he was 30 and jaded. For two years he was appalling. He still scored goals - the man was a phenomenon - but he was not interested and it showed. I thought the show was all over.
Then something happened. In the tail end of 1996 Ronaldo emerged as a superstar with Barcelona. Romario's ego was bruised. He felt that he had been knocked off his perch. So he flicked that genius switch. In 1997, at the age of 32, he was suddenly unstoppable once more. He had turned back the hands of time.
There is a catch. Romario went on scoring stacks of goals. But there were very few important ones. The 1998 World Cup could have been his masterpiece, but he missed it. He looked razor sharp in the group phase of the 2001 Copa Libertadores, but played no part in the knock out phase. Both times injury kept him out of the party. He had become susceptible to muscle tears, Romario's body paying him back for his lack of application to training.
Will it be a similar story with Ronaldinho? His aim is to shine in the next World Cup. There is only ever one eventual winner in the sportsman's battle against time. But it is going to be fascinating to see if Ronaldinho can hold mind and body together for long enough to enjoy a last hurrah on home soil in 2014.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) As an Argentina fan, I have been encouraged by the recent emergence of some promising young defenders at home and abroad (defence being an area of the national team that is in desperate need of refreshing). You mentioned Marcos Rojo in a recent blog, and the likes of Ezequiel Munoz (Palermo), Juan Forlin (Espanyol), Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal), Leonel Galeano (Independiente) and Hugo Nervo (Arsenal di Sarandi) have garnered praise for their performances this season. Do you think that Sergio Batista will give any of these players a chance with the national team soon?
A) Batista knows he has to look at new faces. I wonder, though, if he might be held back by the fact that Argentina is staging the Copa America this year. With home advantage the pressure will be on to win the first senior title since 1993, meaning there is an obvious temptation to tick with the tried and tested. An interesting dilemma.
Q) Have you seen any eye-catching performances from players coming from Africa, Asia in the South American leagues? Or even more basic, are there any players from these continents over there? Do you think that African and Asian national teams will perform much better at competitions like the World Cup, if players played in these leagues rather than aiming for lower rung European leagues? Would it also help in improving the quality of these players who perhaps later can try to get into big European clubs after performing well?
A) I've seen very few. There have been a few Japanese, and a handful of Africans - Geremi the most high profile. The big question, though, is why the South Americans would want to buy in from elsewhere when they can produce their own players.