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This blog reflects on soccer qua football all over the world. The blog has a specific investment in attractive, attacking football and, as such, focuses on Brazil, the most emphatic historical exponent of the beautiful game.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fluminense on verge of Brazil Serie A title

Fluminense stand on the brink of their first Brazil Serie A title since lifting the trophy in 1984 under the leadership of coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. In their penultimate game, Fluminense won 2-1 against Luiz Felipe Scolari's Palmeiras through goals by Carlinhos and Tarta. Palmeiras striker Dinei threatened Fluminense's title chances by scoring from a spectacular long range strike from the right flank that rocketed past goalkeeper Ricardo Berna's right hand in the 4th minute. But the league leaders quickly regained their composure and created a bevy of scoring opportunities by means of their quick build-ups through midfield and intelligent distribution to the flanks. Fullback Carlinhos equalized in the 19th minute through a long range, right footed strike from the left flank before Tarta sealed the match for Fluminense with a left footed strike from within the box in the 58th minute. Fluminense's come from behind victory underscored their championship level mettle through a glorious display of attacking, free flowing football characteristic of Brazilian domestic teams at their best.

Meanwhile, second placed Corinthians secured a 2-0 victory over Vasco da Gama through goals by Bruno Cesar and Danilo. Third placed Cruzeiro stayed in the title hunt with a 2-1 victory over Flamengo, who narrowly avoided relegation by securing 15th place in the league under the leadership of their most recent coach, Wanderlei Luxemburgo.

In the final round of competition, Fluminense play at home against relegated Guarani, while Corinthians travel to play Goias. A loss by Fluminense and a win or draw for Corinthians would be enough to hand the title to Corinthians in their centenary year. A loss for Fluminense to Guarani would be monumental though coach Muricy Ramalho assured his fans that, despite their relegated status, he expects Guarani to play as professionals in a highly competitive final match. Cruzeiro stand an outside chance of claiming the title in the event they win and Fluminense and Corinthians both lose.

Corinthians star striker Ronaldo looks set to miss the final match against Goias because of a right thigh injury sustained in their 1-1 draw against Vitoria on November 21.

Standings:

Fluminense: 68 points
Corinthians: 67 points
Cruzeiro: 66 points

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Santos midfielder Ganso starts running for the first time after ACL surgery

Three months after undergoing surgery for a torn, left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), Santos midfielder Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima (Ganso) has started running and training in standing positions. Ganso's 10 minute run around a soccer pitch bodes well for a speedy and expeditious recovery. Santos physical therapist Avelino Buongermino indicated that Ganso may recover in time for the first round of the Copa Libertadores in March 2011, but added that he would be able to make a more intelligent prediction about Ganso's timeline for recovery following a December 28 examination of his knee, at which time he would decide whether to add the soccer ball to his training regimen. Ganso sustained the injury in an August 25 match against Gremio in a Brazil Serie A match. The Santos midfielder was critical to the club's successes in the early half of the season in winning the Paulista championship and the Copa Brasil. Paulo Henrique said he was ecstatic about being able to run again and is looking forward to seeing the fruits of his hard work continue to bear fruit in subsequent weeks.

Ganso's injury timeline:

August 25: Sustains torn ACL injury in Santos v. Gremio Brazil Serie A match
August 28: Successful cruciate ligament operation
November 27: Begins running again for the first time since surgery
December 28: Knee examination by Santos physiotherapist Avelino Buongermino
March 2011: Projected date of Ganso's return to competitive play

For more on Ganso, see:
Bringing Back the Beautiful Game: Player Profile: Paulo Henrique Ganso

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Effortlessness of Lionel Messi

He is the greatest football player since Kaka and Ronaldinho. At the tender age of 23, he has yet to make his mark in a World Cup for Argentina, but if form holds, he is destined to earn career achievement comparisons with Maradona, Brazilian ace Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Pele. He has already won the FIFA Player of Year Award and is trailblazing Barcelona's campaign for the 2010-2011 La Liga title against Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo. His name is Lionel Messi and he is in the midst of redefining the meaning of footballing greatness.

In early adolescence, Messi struggled with a medical condition related to a growth deficiency that required nightly injections of a growth hormone. Unable to afford the treatment in Argentina, his family accepted an offer from Barcelona to pay for Messi's medical bills as part of his induction into Barca's youth team and moved from their home in Rosario, Argentina to Spain in 2000. Messi shone as a youth player for Barcelona and since then, has accompanied the team on its road to La Liga titles in 2004-2005, 2005-2006, 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. He finished the 2009-2010 year with 34 La Liga goals in 35 appearances for Barcelona on their way to the title as he picked up awards for the Balloon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award in the same season. Messi shone at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 but failed to score, though he recently scored for the first time against arch-rivals Brazil with a brilliant injury time goal to sink Brazil and hand Mano Menezes his first loss since taking charge of the Brazilian national football team.

Fans and pundits compare him most frequently with Diego Maradona because of their prodigious dribbling skills, diminutive stature, low center of gravity and shared Argentine heritage. Maradona himself has called Messi his "successor" on more than one occasion, though one could be forgiven for wondering whether Maradona has reconciled himself to Messi's greatness given the former's inability to realize Messi's powers at the World Cup 2010 or even in South American World Cup qualifying. Regardless of whether there exists an unspoken rivalry or jealousy on Maradona's part about Lionel Messi, a closer look at the two players reveals a number of differences at the level of technique, skill and overall style.

Effortlessly, Messi glides past one defender and then another, weaving his way through defenses by means of absurdly quick changes of direction that leave defenders in the box stunned by the speed of his change of pace. Feigning a movement in one direction and then heading in another in a flash, he leaves defenders awestruck as he dashes by them on his way toward goal. His dribbling skills rank with Maradona, Garrincha, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho save for the naturalness of his movement, and the way he blows by players as if the field were a chess game where the pawns on the opposing side offer no resistance. And in all this, there is a seeming lack of exertion on Messi's part as he plots his path toward goal through a throng of defenders. Whereas Brazilian ace Ronaldo and Maradona muscled their way past defenders like bulls with speed and supreme ball control skills, Messi draws on his deep positional awareness to find his teammates and the ball and the back of the net. True to his look as a band groupie or a Harry Potter-like, contemplative nerd, his power is cerebral and based on a keen tactical awareness of the positions of his teammates and the opposition. And in keeping with his South American heritage, the other component of Messi's magic derives from his dribbling abilities and clinical finishing power. The ball stays glued to his laces until he unloads it onto his left foot and dispatches a shot with clinical precision that rarely misses the target. Simply put, Lionel Messi is the best finisher in the game today, playing at a league above even the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Didier Drogba and Luis Fabiano.

He scores 3 and 4 goals per match with a frequency rarely performed by strikers such as Romario, Ronaldo, Raul and Gabriel Batistuta, all of whom were accustomed to braces but far less frequently to hat-tricks and beyond. On March 10, 2007, Messi scored a hat-trick in the El Clasico match between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In 2009, he repeated the feat with a hat-trick against Atletico Madrid. On April 7, 2010, Messi single handedly destroyed Arsenal by scoring 4 goals in a 4-1 rout of the Gunners. The 2010-2011season has witnessed two Messi hat-tricks already, one against Sevilla in a 4-0 victory on August 21, 2010 and another against Almeira in an 8-0 Barcelona victory on November 20, 2010.

Messi's most touted goal so far was against Getafe on April 18, 2007, where he defeated five Getafe players plus the goalkeeper in a goal that drew widespread comparisons with Diego Maradona's second goal against England in the World Cup of 1986. But he has scored brilliant goals since then against more experienced and tactically savvy defenses such as those of Valencia, Zaragoza, Real Madrid, Arsenal and most recently, Brazil, that have ironically drawn less media attention than the goal against Getafe because of the sheer effortlessness of his accomplishment in putting the ball in the back of the net. Messi's effortlessness conceals his raw talent and uncanny positional awareness of how to navigate through mazes of defenders and score with comparative ease. Ironically, however, the world would do well to watch the spectacle of his career unfold with baited breath since—beneath his modesty, shyness and music groupie-like appearance—we are witnessing one of the greatest football players of all time soar toward the peak of his career. The next test of Messi's greatness will be how he handles Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo at this season's first El Clasico on November 29. Given how their flagship striker is in the hottest of form having scored in 9 straight Barcelona games, Barca fans could be forgiven for expecting Messi to shred Real Madrid's defense into tatters at the Nou Camp on Monday.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Menezes, Batista, Messi and Ronaldinho Quotes on Argentina 1-Brazil 0

Mano Menezes, Ronaldinho, Victor, Sergio Batista and Lionel Messi had the following to say after Argentina's 1-0 victory against Brazil in an international friendly at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar on November 17, 2010.

Brazil

Mano Menezes: Coach

"We have to look at this result with serenity. We created several chances, the final result was not fair, but we have to learn from everything that happened."

"We played an even match with Argentina. We were closer to victory throughout the second half, but I think our team lacked experience near the end of the match. You can't allow a goal at a time like that."

"It was important to go through these four matches with an idea of the team's potential and of how it can keep improving.”

“Ronaldinho did well, taking responsibility for creating offensive moves. He was substituted because of his physical condition and not because of his performance. We brought him back to the Selecao at the right time”

“They weren’t hurting us, but Messi had reserved one extra move for Argentina.”

Ronaldinho

“He is the world’s best player, and unfortunately for us he found a gap and with his quality settled the match when it already looked like a draw,”

Victor

"We controlled the match, they barely had any chances to score. But in one play Messi made the difference."

Argentina

Sergio Batista: Coach

“We have the best player in the world and we made the most of that. I’m not going to discover now who he is because he is the world’s best player. But you can always hope for more from a player of Messi’s quality.”

Lionel Messi


"I had planned that before playing. I always looked for my chance."

"It's always important to win and this victory is even more important because it's against a direct rival and it gives us confidence.”

"My goal was important because it enabled us to beat Brazil."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fluminense overtake Corinthians in Brazil's Serie A with 2 rounds remaining

Fluminense regained the lead in Brazil's Serie A after pounding Sao Paulo 4-1 while Corinthians dropped points on the road to lowly Vitoria with a 1-1 draw marked by an injury to their flagship striker Ronaldo. Argentine playmaker Conca scored two goals and set up two more for Fluminense as they consolidated their position as favorites for the title with two rounds remaining. Fluminense defender Gum opened the scoring from a Conca corner in the 34th minute. Lucas equalized for Sao Paulo early in the second half but the last twenty minutes witnessed a torrent of goals initiated by Conca, the midfielder who is widely regarded as the best player in Brazil's Serie A this season. Conca put Fluminense back in the lead with a strike inside the box in the 74th minute and then former Lyon striker Fred poached Conca's long distance strike roughly five minutes later. Two minutes from time, Conca sealed an emphatic 4-1 victory for Fluminense with a left footed shot that positions Fluminense within striking range of their first Serie A title since 1984.

Corinthians, meanwhile, failed to capitalize on their draw to relegation battling Vitoria despite an early lead secured by a terrific pass from Ronaldo to midfielder Danilo, the goalscorer. But Vitoria equalized just before half time with a penalty due to a handball by Corinthians midfielder Ralf. Playing in his seventh consecutive match, Ronaldo was substituted in the interim between the two goals in the 30th minute for a right thigh muscle injury. His departure appeared to unsettle the league leaders as they failed to recover their rhythm and impose their game on the home team. Third placed Cruzeiro bounced back from last week's 1-0 loss to Corinthians with a 3-1 victory over Vasco da Gama from goals by Roger, Henrique and Edcarlos, all of which were assisted by corners or passes from Montillo. The result leaves Cruzeiro just one point behind Corinthians who, in turn, lag one point behind Fluminense with two matches remaining.

After 36 matches:

Fluminense: 65 points
Corinthians: 64 points
Cruzeiro: 63 points

Penultimate round: Sunday, November 28

Fluminense (away) v. Palmeiras
Cruzeiro (away) v. Flamengo
Corinthians (home) v. Vasco da Gama

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Argentina 1 - Brazil 0: Messi sinks Brazil in Doha Friendly

In a moment of injury time magic, FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi weaved through a tangle of Brazilian defenders and dispatched a left footed shot past goalkeeper Victor to seal a stunning, last minute 1-0 victory for Argentina against Brazil at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar today. Messi's goal ended a 5 match winless streak for the Albiceleste against Brazil and, amazingly enough, marked his first ever goal against the Selecao. The goal did justice to a match rife with high percentage scoring opportunities from both teams. Brazil pressed the attack in the first half with Dani Alves and Andre Santos roaring down both flanks, and Alves, in particular, threatening the Argentine goal. Brazilian midfielders Lucas, Ramires and Elias aggressively closed down the Argentine attack while playing without the ball and, conversely, distributed nicely to Neymar, Robinho and Ronaldinho when surging forward. Alves had the first real scoring opportunity of the match when a one-two pass with David Luiz enabled him to fire a rocket at the Argentine goal that hit the cross bar. Later in the half, a Neymar corner resulted in a ball falling to Ronaldinho in the box who, with his back to goal, opted for a back heel strike that goalkeeper Romero scooped up comfortably. Dinho also threatened the Argentine goal with a curling free kick off his right foot that Romero punched out of danger. As the half progressed, Argentina began to collect themselves and posed their own threats on goal with shots from Gonzalo Higuain saved by Victor in a match that was rapidly turning into a showcase for goalkeeping talent. Messi started to impose himself in the Argentine midfield and began one of his patented, Maradona-like runs based off passes from Zanetti and Banega that resulted in a long range, left footed shot that sailed over the crossbar by inches.

The second half continued the end to end football that fans expected from the South American clasico with Neymar and Robinho running at defenders and setting up dangerous free kick opportunities for Ronaldinho and Dani Alves. On the Argentine side of the equation, the substitution of Ezequiel Lavezzi for Higuain paid dividends as the Napoli striker created opportunities for Lionel Messi by commanding the right flank and distracting Andre Santos and David Luiz in the process. In the 56th minute, Lavezzi tore down the right flank and passed to Javier Pastore, whose shot appeared to have been blocked by the elbow of Thiago Silva, though no penalty was awarded. Meanwhile, Neymar continued to press the attack for Brazil and found himself repeatedly fouled and manhandled the closer he got to goal. In the 63rd minute, the Argentine defense hacked down Neymar in the box and the ball neatly fell to Robinho, but his shot went just wide.

Mano's flurry of substitutions with twenty minutes remaining--Douglas for Ronaldinho, Andre for Neymar and Jucilei for Ramires--seemed to suggest resignation to a 0-0 draw and an accompanying decision to provide his young players with much needed international experience. But Ramires's departure marked a deep, tactical mistake by Menezes because it freed Messi to find space in midfield that he had rarely enjoyed before. Deep into injury time, the Barcelona number 10 picked up the ball near center circle, burst forward, cut the ball onto his left foot and hit a lawnmower of a shot past Victor's left to seal a landmark victory for Argentina after their humiliating, 3-1 loss at home to Brazil in Rosario in World Cup qualifying in September 2009 and the team's recent 1-0 loss to Japan under coach Batista himself.

This was a humiliating defeat for Brazil as it exposed their lack of a single, world class, pure striker. Ronaldinho did his best to generate attacking opportunities alongside Corinthians star Elias but he lacked a powerful center forward such as Luis Fabiano with the strength to carve out that extra yard of space and put the ball in the back of the net. On the brighter side, Brazil's midfield is finally starting to click as the Lucas-Ramires partnership promises to bring much needed coherence to the team, although they still lack a creative playmaker in the form of Kaka, Elano or Paulo Henrique Ganso.

Despite not having as many high percentage shots on goal, Argentina clearly deserved the victory because Batista succeded where Maradona failed in freeing up Lionel Messi, the best striker in the world. Batista will have to worry about his defense, however, as he cannot rely on Romero to bail out the Albiceleste as often as he did today in Doha.

Overall, this was great end to end football and a tantalizing glimpse of two teams who will, in all likelihood, be the clear favorites for the World Cup in 2014, based as it will be on South American soil in Brazil. If Mano shores up his strikeforce with more mature incarnations of Neymar, Pato and Andre, Batista consolidates his defense, and Messi stays fit, the Selecao v. Albiceleste will probably be everyone's favored match-up for the World Cup final in 2014.

Team Captains:

Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)
Robinho (Brazil)

Shirt Numbers:

Argentina

Messi: 10
Higuain: 9

Brazil

Neymar: 11
Ronaldinho: 10
Robinho: 9

For more on the history of Brazil v. Argentina, see:
Bringing Back the Beautiful Game: Brazil v. Argentina: A Brief World Cup History

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Corinthians regain lead from Fluminense as Ronaldo penalty sends Brazil Serie A battle down to the wire

Ronaldo scored a decisive penalty in the closing minutes of a hard fought match against Cruzeiro to give Corinthians a crucial victory as the battle for the Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A goes down to the wire with three matches remaining. Since Ronaldo's return from injury, Corinthians have now won four matches and drawn two, a significant turnaround from a period when the Timao suffered a five match winless streak when their flagship striker, more commonly known as The Phenomenon, was sidelined because of injury. Ronaldo has now played six consecutive 90 minute matches and the Corinthians number 9 has vowed to play as much as possible in order to bring the title back to Corinthians in their centenary year. The match against Cruzeiro represented a hard fought victory for Corinthians as Cruzeiro squandered a number of high percentage chances on goal. Ronaldo himself had a number of chances including a blistering run from midfield that resulted in a left footed shot that sailed over the crossbar. The 89th minute penalty was awarded when Ronaldo suffered a blow from the back that left him face down in the box. Cruzeiro players protested the penalty vociferously and in the process, defender Gil earned a red card. Under pressure, Ronaldo maintained his tradition of successful penalty taking by sending the ball low into the corner to goalkeeper Fabio's left as he dove right.

Meanwhile, Fluminense drew 1-1 with Goias, and consequently relinquished the lead in Brazil's Serie A to Corinthians. Corinthians now have 63 points, Fluminense have 62 and Cruzeiro have 60, with 3 matches remaining. Highly familiar with titles going down to the wire, the experienced Ronaldo noted that, in the battle for Brazil's Serie A, "everything will be decided only on the last day."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Romario, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka & Bebeto: A Guide to Shirt Numbers for the Selecao

The number of a football player's shirt speaks volumes not only about his position on the pitch but also about the way in which he is perceived by his coach and the team more generally. In the case of the Brazilian national football team, the symbolism of numbers worn on the shirts of Selecao players is richer than in most other national teams given the Selecao's illustrious history, complete with 5 World Cup trophies, two runner up medals and the memory of Tele Santana's 1982 World Cup squad, widely regarded as the best football team never to win a championship. Ever since Pele wore the number 10 shirt for Brazil in 1970, the number 10 shirt has typically been given only to remarkable footballers who have the capacity to change a game. Zico inherited the number 10 shirt in 1982 and 1986 and, like Pele, occupied the position of a pure striker. In recent years, however, the number 10 shirt has shifted to creative, attacking midfielders that orchestrate attacks in addition to scoring goals. When Mario Zagallo gave the number 10 jersey to Allessandro Rivaldo at the 1998 World Cup in France, for example, there was much speculation in the Brazilian media as to whether Rivaldo could "bear the weight" of the number 10 jersey. As it turned out, Rivaldo lived up to and even exceeded expectations in the number 10 shirt both in 1998 and 2002, and since then, the number 10 shirt has gone, for the most part, either to Ronaldinho or Kaka.

The number 9 and 11 jerseys signify a pure striker in the vein of Ronaldo and Romario. Ronaldo famously wore the number 9 whereas Romario was most often seen in the number 11. 7 marks yet another well known number in the pantheon of venerable Brazilian shirt numbers as it is typically worn by another striker, and most likely a winger of a certain kind who lies deeper than a primary striker and plays a pivotal role in creating goal scoring opportunities alongside the attacking midfield. Bebeto wore the number 7 given his penchant for lying deep, behind Romario, and setting up his strike partner to score while concurrently dispatching scoring opportunities that came his way. Rivaldo also wore the number 7 jersey earlier in his career when playing alongside the famous "Ro Ro" combination of Romario and Ronaldo as a left sided winger. The final number of any real significance is 8, the shirt number worn by the great midfielder Socrates and, in select matches, by Ricardo Kaka, who wears the same jersey for Real Madrid. 8 seems to have fallen out of favor in the last ten years or so, but its symbolic association with Socrates has unforgettably marked its bearer as an embodiment of creativity, leadership and midfield brilliance.

The following list identifies attacking Brazilian players for the Selecao and the shirt number they typically wore in World Cup matches or qualifying rounds:

World Cup 2010

Robinho: 11
Kaka: 10
Luis Fabiano: 9
Elano: 7

World Cup 2006

Ronaldinho: 10
Ronaldo: 9
Kaka: 8
Adriano: 7
Roberto Carlos: 6

World Cup 2002

Ronaldinho: 11
Rivaldo: 10
Ronaldo: 9
Roberto Carlos: 6

World Cup 1998

Bebeto: 20
Rivaldo: 10
Ronaldo: 9

World Cup 1994

Romario: 11
Bebeto: 7

World Cup 1990

Muller: 15
Romario: 11
Careca; 9

World Cup 1986

Socrates: 18
Zico: 10
Careca: 9
Muller: 7

World Cup 1982

Falcao: 15
Eder: 11
Zico: 10
Serginho: 9
Socrates: 8
Junior: 6

World Cup 1970

Rivelino: 11
Pele: 10
Tostao: 9
Jairzinho: 7

Santos midfielder Paulo Henrique Ganso is widely expected to take over the number 10 jersey in the coming years while Neymar may well inherit number 11, and Alexander Pato the number 9 shirt for Brazil.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Brazil v. Argentina: A Brief World Cup History

Brazil and Argentina have played in the World Cup in 1978, 1982 and 1990. 1978 featured a tense, goalless draw dubbed “The Battle of Rosario” that Argentina enjoyed en route to World Cup glory on home soil. Four years later, in Spain in 1982, Brazil defeated Argentina 3-1. Tele Santana’s Brazilian team considered Argentina their most formidable opponent en route to the trophy, knowing full well that the Albiceleste had brought a young player to Spain named Diego Maradona. But the match was far easier for Brazil than originally envisioned. Zico scored the first goal, Serginho the second and Junior the third before Argentina’s Diaz scored in the closing minutes. But eight years later, it was Argentina’s turn to claim victory at the World Cup with a 1-0 defeat of Brazil in Turin. Brazil dominated the first 80 minutes of the match, deploying dangerous shots on goal from Careca, Dunga and Alemao, in addition to commanding the lion’s share of possession. In the second half, Careca, Valdo and Alemao continued to press the attack on Goycochea’s goal, but to no avail. In the 80th minute, a moment of magic from Maradona sealed the victory for Argentina. Maradona ran through a throng of Brazilian defenders toward the right flank before providing a left diagonal through ball to Claudio Caniggia, who promptly beat goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel. The match subsequently became famous for the “holy water scandal” because Brazilian right back Branco claimed that he had been given a water bottle laced with tranquilizers during the game. Branco had been central to the marking of Maradona and, amidst his lethargy, Maradona was able to break free and dish the killer pass to Caniggia. Years later Maradona confessed the truth of Branco’s allegations on Argentina television, but Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo denied the incident completely.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Player Profile: Ronaldinho Gaucho

No player better defined the decade from 2000 to 2010 than Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, better known as Ronaldinho or Ronaldinho Gaucho. Dinho, as he is also called, began his career at Gremio before transferring to Paris Saint Germain in 2001. Despite a number of spectacular goals and performances for Paris Saint Germain, Ronaldinho burst onto the international stage most visibly in the 2002 World Cup for Brazil in Japan and Korea. Ronaldinho was the lesser known of the “3 Rs” attacking formation additionally constituted by Rivaldo and Ronaldo. Though playing third fiddle to Ronaldo and Rivaldo, Ronaldinho provided some decisive assists and goals to lead Brazil to World Cup victory in moments when they were struggling. In the round of 16 against Belgium, Brazil found themselves in deep trouble with the match scoreless after 65 minutes. Belgian players Marc Wilmots and Mbo Mpenza took shot after shot on goal, only to be denied by acrobatic saves from the Brazilian goalkeeper Marcos. In a moment of magic from the right flank, Dinho floated a mid-air pass using the outside of his right foot that Rivaldo chested down, turned and rifled into the back of the net. Similarly, in the quarterfinals against England, with Brazil trailing 1-0 due to a Michael Owen goal, Ronaldinho picked up the ball near center circle and charged at the English defense, dribbling past the English defender Ashley Cole as he dished off yet another crucial pass to Rivaldo that the Barcelona star dispatched with his golden left foot. Minutes into the second half, Ronaldinho struck again, this time with a sublime curling free kick into the back of the net from 35 meters after catching England goalkeeper David Seaman off his line.

At the club level, Dinho’s most productive years were at Barcelona from 2004 to 2006, where he led the team to the La Liga title in 2005 and 2006 and earned himself the FIFA World Player of the Year Award in consecutive years in the process. After leaving Barcelona in 2008, Ronaldinho has struggled to find his young form at AC Milan, though he has produced tantalizingly displays of his earlier form under coach Leonardo and, most recently, Massimiliano Allegri. Dinho scored a hat-trick against Sienna on January 17, 2010 and produced a scintillating display against Manchester United a month later with a goal and an assist in a performance rife with back heels, flicks and dazzling dribbling skills that mesmerized the Manchester United midfield and defense.

Ronaldinho plays with a child-like joy and wondrous sense of possibility every time he takes the pitch. As an attacking midfielder and left winger, Dinho typically plays deep and then surges forward, looking for his teammates or an opportunity on goal. Known more for his dribbling ability than, say, the explosive pace of Ronaldo or the direct, swooping attacks on goal by Kaka, Ronaldinho is best known for his ability to forge creative plays and scoring opportunities out of nothing by bending deep over the ball, luring in defenders and then darting by them in a flash or serving his team a creative pass down the center or to either flank. His career has also been marked by spectacular goals from free kicks and long range strikes from within the run of play, off both feet. Dinho set the standard for excellence in club and international football for over a decade in a manner that the sport has rarely seen. His recent recall to the Brazilian national team in a high profile friendly against Argentina speaks volumes of Mano Menezes’s regard for the 30 year old midfielder, and testifies to his enduring vitality and place in modern football.

Ronaldinho was named Player of the Decade by World Soccer magazine in December 2009.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Journey Home: Kaka Back to Sao Paulo or AC Milan?

Rumors continue to swirl about the career of Kaka, Brazilian international and attacking midfielder for Real Madrid. After undergoing knee surgery in early August, the former 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year and Balloon d'Or Winner has been linked with moves to Sao Paulo, AC Milan and Chelsea. Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho denies claims that the Los Blancos are ready to sell their signing from AC Milan in the January transfer window, but recent reports from Sao Paulo and AC Milan have fueled speculation that the Brazil number 10 may be leaving the Bernabeu in early 2011. Sao Paulo Vice President Carlos Augusto de Barros e Silva expressed hope that Kaka would join his former Brazil club on loan, but noted that the distance between Kaka's movement to Sao Paulo and his departure from Real Madrid remained significant. De Barros e Silva remarked that every Sao Paulo fan would be thrilled to witness the return of Kaka, who began his career at Sao Paulo before moving to AC Milan in 2003. Kaka spends time with Sao Paulo management when he returns to Brazil, and did so prior to World Cup 2010 in an attempt to recover from a groin injury. Part of Sao Paulo's attempt to lure Kaka back to Brazil features the proposition of bringing about a complete return to form for the Brazilian playmaker by means of their world class training facilities and personnel.

Meanwhile, AC Milan CEO Adriano Galliani performed a 180 degree inversion of his earlier position that, under no circumstances would Kaka be able to return to the to the San Siro, saying "never say never" with respect to the prospect of the former Rossoneri star's return. Galliani, who was linked with the summer's acquisitions of Robinho and Ibrahimovic, has been rumored to be amenable to Ronaldinho's departure in favor of Kaka's return. And a recent report in Il Giorno claimed that Kaka had phoned Galliani, expressing regret about his move to Real Madrid and the urgency of his desire to return to the club that made him an international star. Aside from Sao Paulo, Kaka's former AC Milan boss, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancellotti, has expressed interest in signing Kaka, as have Manchester United and Internazionale.

Kaka's August 5 knee surgery appears to have gone well and the midfielder has begun intense physiotherapy at Real Madrid. The Brazilian playmaker has dismissed media rumors about his transfer, noting that his primary and only focus has been on recovery according to the regimen prescribed by his physicians, physiotherapists and coaching staff. Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho claimed that Kaka is "crucial" for the success of Los Blancos, though everyone knows "The Special One" can hardly be taken at his word.

Amidst all the rumors, it's anyone's guess as to where Kaka will land in January. Given his allegiance to the Rebirth in Christ Church, it would not be surprising if Kaka sought the guidance and mentorship characteristic of the church in his professional life by opting to journey home either to AC Milan or Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo would give the player a mild respite from the scrutiny of the press and allow him to focus on regaining his physical fitness and strength in a place that he calls home. AC Milan would allow Kaka to enjoy the friendship and professional understanding of his friend Robinho and a management team that fully believes in his demonstrated ability to shine at the San Siro. But Kaka's faith in Jesus also translates into a confidence about life's trajectory that gives him the conviction to believe that he can succeed anywhere, and overcome the adversity of his injuries on almost any terrain. Following his knee surgery, Kaka claimed that he would regain his place as the best footballer in the world. Given the strength of his convictions and history of overcoming hardships such as the teenage swimming pool accident that nearly terminated his career, one would be hard pressed to bet against his return to form as the best attacking midfielder in the world, whether at Real Madrid, AC Milan, Sao Paulo or elsewhere.