The World Cup is not just a celebration of football, but a veritable education.
It exposes even the most insular, bitter-drinking old man to the beautiful game outside of England and causes a whole new generation, watching the games crammed around a TV in their classroom, to realise what football can and should be.
In 2002, the World Cup’s latest textbook came out; Korea and Japan. Upon its blank pages, Nike’s ‘Total 90’ boots, Papa Bouba Diop dancing around his top and whatever the hell Ronaldo did with his hair wrote new stories in footballing folklore.
With every unnecessary step-over, dinked pass and thunderous shot, the minds of young and old alike were smashed to pieces. Football, it turned out, was so much more than wet Saturday afternoons.
But one moment, in particular, broke England. It destroyed the country’s hearts, and in the process blew the minds of every single person who watched it as well.
The moment, of course, was that Ronaldinho free-kick.
“Who the hell is this guy!?” some old man in a pub probably yelled out when one of the blue-shirt Brazilians stepped up to take an indirect free-kick in the 50th minute of England and Brazil’s World Cup quarter-final.
The answer was Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, Ronaldinho for short, who was about to announce himself to the world as one of the game’s biggest names.
He had already impressed in the tournament, forming a terrifying Brazilian attack along with Ronaldo and Rivaldo. Known as the three Rs, they became the central attraction of the 2002 tournament and, as we now know, would fire Brazil all the way to their fifth and most recent World Cup title.
Ronaldinho had only been playing European football for a year when he was picked by Luiz Felipe Scolari, another unknown quantity who was about to make a name for himself on the world stage. Plying his trade for a much less glamourous PSG, he was a total unknown quantity to English audiences.
That all changed the moment the ball left his foot.
20 years ago today: the goal that turned Ronaldinho into an icon.
You’re not 𝒔𝒕𝒊𝒍𝒍 doubting he meant it, are you?pic.twitter.com/e6Gf98GK11
— Planet Football (@planetfutebol) June 21, 2022
Curling, floating and dipping, the Brazilian’s strike made the ball look more like a floater rather than an actual, proper Adidas Fevernova.
It looked like his deep free-kick had gone wrong, but then eyes would have noticed the flailing David Seaman who had stepped up from the goal-line.
Eyes then averted to the ball, judging it’s flight-path, then back to Seaman, then the ball again, then back to Seaman…
Seaman slumped into his net, an action mimicked by a million Carling-drinking, face-paint-wearing England fans, mortally wounded by the right boot of Ronaldinho.
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 really matter.
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For Seaman, however, there was no chance he meant it.
“It was lucky,” he said years after being left like a fish flapping desperately to get out of a fishermen’s net.
“Did we know how good Ronaldinho was? Not really, no! We’d heard about him, but it’s until you see somebody on the pitch that you begin to realise how good they are and he was good.
“Obviously I don’t remember all of that – all I remember is his lucky free-kick!
“People ask me, ‘Did he mean it?’, but it doesn’t matter. It still went in from about 40 yards out, so it was a goalkeeping mistake.
“When he crossed it, I went one way then I tried to get back the other way and I just got caught too square, and I couldn’t move.”
Ronaldinho himself has jumped between saying he meant it and he didn’t, and the reality is he probably doesn’t remember anything but the moment it went in.
Yet it was a watershed moment, both for him and for the country whose kids he had made burst into tears.
The footballing imaginations of England were suddenly exposed to the world again. After the pain had subsided and the Brazilians had claimed the gold trophy, kids in the playground were no longer pretending to be Michael Owen or David Beckham. They were Ronaldinho, Ronaldo or Rivaldo.
Those Brazil shirts became gold dust, worn as prayers to new footballing Gods at whose sanctuaries they wished to worship. Brazilian football became the football again, and the world wanted more of it.
So much was England enchanted by Ronaldinho that Sir Alex Ferguson craved him, demanding he became the new face of Manchester United as David Beckham headed off to get a tan in Madrid.
“It almost happened with United,” the man himself later confirmed.
“It was a matter of 48 hours, but Sandro Rosell had told me way before I got the offer: ‘If I become Barca president, will you come?’ I said yes.
“It was only a matter of details with United when Rosell called to say he was going to win the election there. And I had promised to him that I’d play for Barca.”
Can you imagine? Somehow there would have been more Manchester United fans, all parading around in their new Nike “Ronaldinho 7” Manchester United tops.
It would have been hell/heaven (delete accordingly).
By Patrick Ryan