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Ronaldinho’s Copa Libertadores win with Atletico Mineiro remembered: Hangovers, heroics and history being made in Brazil | Football News

There have been 37 winners of the men’s Ballon d’Or but only 11 of those have also won the World Cup. Just eight can claim to have lifted the European Cup too. But only one man has added the Copa Libertadores to that list. His name is Ronaldinho Gaucho.

The great Brazilian entertainer completed this unique quadruple not in his pomp as a youngster earmarked for stardom at Gremio but late in the day with Atletico Mineiro. It was his crowning glory, a remarkable example of a man rolling back the years.

This is the 10th anniversary of that triumph on July 24th, 2013.

Ronaldinho celebrates his team’s victory over Newell’s Old Boys in the semi-final

Ronaldinho was only 33 at the time but seemed older given the dwindling returns of those final years. His last World Cup came seven years earlier. It was five years since Pep Guardiola had decided his Barcelona rebuild could not happen with him inside the building.

A career in Europe over, his move to Flamengo had not worked out, and within a year of lifting that Copa Libertadores trophy, Ronaldinho had departed for Mexico. His accomplishments with Atletico now look like an oasis in the desert of that later career.

The final days as a footballer were spent back in Rio with Fluminense, a shadow of his former self. That move was hailed as a commercial success – Ronaldinho’s appeal remained – but those who watched his seven appearances do not share that satisfaction.

It is why the second half of Ronaldinho’s career is usually styled as a sad end for the man with the incessant smile. Atletico is the anomaly. In a side that was set up for him, he carried them all the way for the first and only time in their now 115-year history.

How did they do it? How did he do it? His own way, as ever.

A recent revelation from retiring Atletico Mineiro team masseuse Belmiro de Oliviera made headlines around the world. Speaking about his time with Ronaldinho on Italian television, De Oliveira said: “I was the one who always helped him with his hangovers.”

The line was delivered – and largely received – with laughter. It brought smiles, not shock. It is undeniable that the fascination with the maverick footballer endures. For that brief time with Atletico, he made it work.

Even just one decade on, it no longer seems possible. The game has become yet more physical, the speed of it ever increasing. But Atletico coach Cuca found a way to construct the team around Ronaldinho, squeezing the last juice from that vast talent.

It is said that the club had been trying to sign Juninho Pernambucano, the famed free-kick specialist. When Ronaldinho became available, Cuca decided that the one-time winger would be able to flourish in a free role if the right balance could be found.

He duly transformed the struggling side’s fortunes, inspiring Atletico Mineiro, the so-called Roosters, to the second-place finish in 2012 that brought qualification for the Copa Libertadores and the Bola de Ouro award as the best player in Brazil.

There was quality around him. Future Premier League player Bernard won the breakthrough award in Brazil that season, while former Manchester City forward Jo went on to top score in the club’s Copa Libertadores campaign. He and Ronaldinho were particularly close.

Indeed, Jo revealed that the maestro was so confident of his playmaking abilities that he agreed to buy the striker a crate of beer if he could not put him through on goal at least three times in every game. It was a fruitful partnership on and off the pitch.

Ronaldinho, left, of Brazil's Atletico Mineiro fights for the ball with Wilson Osmar Pittoni, right,of Paraguay's Olimpia during the Copa Libertadores final soccer match in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
Ronaldinho races away with the ball against Olimpia during the Copa Libertadores final

The rest of the midfield was there to serve Ronaldinho. As his team-mate Leandro Donizete put it: “I always want to let him rest because he is capable of deciding matches in our favour.” Easy to carry the water when Ronaldinho is turning it into wine.

Like his passes, the alcohol flowed, barbecues and beer being a weekend staple. But there was a will to succeed too, a connection to a club where he felt wanted. Fans held up banners in the stands following his mother’s cancer diagnosis. It was appreciated.

Ronaldinho responded on the pitch. The pace was gone but the panache remained. His performance in the 4-1 win against Sao Paulo was a feast of flicks, chest passes, nutmegs and no-look assists like the one for Jo that took his team into the quarter-finals.

In total, he delivered four goals and seven assists on the way to Atletico Mineiro’s appearance in the Copa Libertadores final for the first time in their history. Trailing Paraguay’s Olimpia by two goals following the first leg, history was made in Belo Horizonte.

Leonardo Silva , bottom, of Brazil's Atletico Mineiro celebrates next to teammate Ronaldinho Gaucho after scoring a goal during the Copa Libertadores final soccer match against Paraguay's Olimpia in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
Leonardo Silva celebrates with Ronaldinho Gaucho after his equaliser in the final

Leonardo Silva’s late equaliser took the game to extra-time and penalties, where goalkeeper Victor was the hero. Ronaldinho was not even required to take the final kick in a 4-3 shootout win. He later claimed he had a Panenka planned. Of course he did.

“This is why I came back to Brazil,” he declared in the immediate aftermath. Amid the celebrations, there was a message for the critics. “Not long ago people were saying that I was done but we showed today that is not the case. Let them talk now.”

The talking never did stop. Even in retirement. Ronaldinho’s 2020 arrest in Paraguay for holding a forged passport only added to the sense of a man who had lost his way. Perhaps even a boy who never grew up, unprepared for life without the ball at his feet.

That sadness is not the prevailing emotion in Belo Horizonte. Ronaldinho recently returned to mark the opening of Atletico’s new stadium. A series of matches featuring former greats formed part of the celebrations. Nobody’s appearance was more anticipated.

“Still moved by this beautiful afternoon that reflects what we experienced during my stay in Belo Horizonte,” he later shared on social media. “I have no words for the affection and respect for me and my family. Roosters, it is an honour to be part of your history.”

And that is the paradox with Ronaldinho Gaucho. The boy with the smile who was all about the style, whose star shone brightly but burned quickly, nevertheless managed to keep going long enough to achieve something that no other footballer has ever achieved.

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