When Ronaldinho’s free-kick broke England’s heart and blew their minds
The World Cup is not just a celebration of football, but a true education.
It even exposes Yorkshire’s most insular and bitter drinking old man to the beautiful game outside of England and leads a whole new generation, watching the games crowded around a TV in their classroom, to realize what football can and should be.
In 2002, the last World Cup manual was released; Korea and Japan. On its white pages, Nike’s “Total 90” boots, Papa Bouba Diop dancing around his top and everything Ronaldo has done with his hair have written new stories in football folklore.
With every unnecessary stride, every back pass and thunderous shot, the spirits of young and old were shattered into a thousand pieces. As it turned out, football was so much more than humid Saturday afternoons.
But one moment, in particular, broke England. He destroyed the heart of the country and in the process blew everyone who watched him.
The moment, of course, was this Ronaldinho free kick.
“Who the hell is this guy!?” an old man in a pub probably screamed when one of the blue-shirted Brazilians got up to take an indirect free-kick in the 50th minute of the World Cup quarter-final between England and Brazil.
The answer was Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, Ronaldinho for short, who was about to announce himself to the world as one of the biggest names in the game.
He had already impressed in the tournament, forming a terrifying Brazilian attack alongside Ronaldo and Rivaldo. Known as the Three Rs, they became the central attraction of the 2002 tournament and, as we now know, propelled Brazil to their fifth and most recent World Cup title.
Ronaldinho had only been playing European football for a year when he was chosen by Luiz Felipe Scolari, another unknown who was on the verge of making a name for himself on the world stage. Practicing his trade for a much less glamorous PSG, he was totally unknown to the English public.
Everything changed the moment the ball left his foot.
20 years ago today: the goal that made Ronaldinho an icon.
You have no doubt 𝒔𝒕𝒊𝒍𝒍 he meant it, do you?pic.twitter.com/e6Gf98GK11
– Planet Football (@planetfutebol) June 21, 2022
Curling, floating and diving, the Brazilian’s strike made the ball look like a floater rather than an actual Adidas Fevernova.
It looked like his deep free-kick had gone wrong, but then the eyes would have noticed the agitated David Seaman who had stepped forward from the goal line.
Eyes then turned to the bullet, judging its flight path, then back to Seaman, then the bullet again, then back to Seaman…
Seaman collapsed into his net, an action imitated by a million Carling-drinking, face-paint-wearing England fans fatally injured by Ronaldinho’s right boot.
Did he mean it? Of course not… actually maybe… no, he definitely did. Not. Potentially. But, as our Tom will tell you, it doesn’t matter.
• • • •
READ: Of course Ronaldinho wanted to chip David Seaman – that’s Ronaldinho
• • • •
For Seaman, however, there was no way he meant it.
“It was lucky,” he said years after being abandoned like a fish desperately thrashing to get out of a fisherman’s net.
“Did we know how good Ronaldinho was? Not really! We had heard of him, but it’s until you see someone on the pitch that you start to realize how good he is and how good he was.
“Obviously I don’t remember any of that, all I remember is his lucky free kick!
“People ask me, ‘Did he really mean it?’, but it doesn’t matter. He still came in from about 40 yards out, so it was a goalkeeping error.
“When he went through it, I went one way and then tried to come back the other way and I just got caught too square, and couldn’t move.”
Ronaldinho himself jumped between saying he meant it and he didn’t, and the reality is he probably doesn’t remember anything except when he walked in.
Yet it was a watershed moment, both for him and for the country whose children he had brought to tears.
England’s footballing imagination has suddenly been exposed to the world once again. After the pain subsided and the Brazilians won the gold trophy, the children in the playground no longer posed as Michael Owen or David Beckham. It was Ronaldinho, Ronaldo or Rivaldo.
Those Brazil shirts became dust of gold, worn as prayers to the new footballing gods in whose shrines they wished to worship. Brazilian football has become the football again, and the world wanted more.
England were so enchanted by Ronaldinho that Sir Alex Ferguson wanted him, demanding that he become the new face of Manchester United as David Beckham left for Madrid to sunbathe.
“It almost happened with United,” the man himself later confirmed.
“It was a matter of 48 hours, but Sandro Rosell told me long before I got the offer: ‘If I become president of Barca, will you come?’ I said yes.
“It was just a matter of detail with United when Rosell called to say he was going to win the election there. And I promised him I would play for Barca.”
Can you imagine? Somehow there would have been more Manchester United fans, all parading in their new Manchester United “Ronaldinho 7” Nike tops.
It would have been hell/heaven (delete accordingly).
By Patrick Ryan
No more football planet
Recalling Ronaldinho’s last fight at AC Milan, when he made us smile again
16 of the best Ronaldinho quotes: ‘More talented than Messi and Ronaldo’
Can you name all the members of England’s 2002 World Cup squad?
The Last Goodbye: When Ronaldinho, in the mid-30s, cemented his legacy