With 24 major trophies over the last decade (not including several more likely to be added in 2016), it’s almost impossible to imagine a world where Barcelona is considered anything other than the gold standard in world soccer. And yet, as recently as 2003, the club’s situation was not only starkly different, but downright perilous.
Bereft of Champions League competition after an abysmal campaign in La Liga, coupled with an increasingly crippling debt, Barcelona’s newly elected board quickly failed to achieve the marquee signing it had campaigned on.
At this juncture, when Lionel Messi was only a promising player at La Masia, Barcelona, despite facing its most intense problems in decades, managed a signing that was perhaps more important than any the club achieved since Johan Cruyff in 1973.
Ronaldinho, whose very name conjures the best ideals of soccer among an entire generation of fans, arrived at Barcelona in slightly miraculous circumstances. Instead of choosing an established European superpower with guaranteed Champions League playing time, the Brazilian gambled on a Barcelona team in crisis.
He was the perfect addition, arriving at the perfect time. As a one-man goal creation system, he got the ball rolling for Barcelona in the 21st century, helping to rescue the Catalan club in its hour of need. It’s a story filled with drama that’s largely forgotten in the contemporary context of Barcelona dominance. And it almost didn’t happen.
“Ronaldinho is the one who changed this negative spiral,” former Barcelona President Sandro Rosell said in 2013 (on the tenth anniversary of the Brazilian’s arrival in Catalonia). “He turned it round into something positive, and we still have that momentum today.”
Van Gaal’s Second Stint Spiral
The 2002-2003 La Liga season for Barcelona was an unmitigated disaster. For the first time in the memory of most Blaugranes’ minds, the team finished half a season with more losses than wins. In reality, it was the byproduct of decay that began years before.
Known as the polarizing manager of Manchester United in 2016, Dutchman Louis van Gaal cut a similar figure as Barcelona manager that season. In his second spell with the team (having achieved moderate success, including a pair of La Liga wins in his first tenure from 1997-2000), the manner of Van Gaal’s return was far different than when he first arrived in Catalonia in the ‘90s.
Having ascended to the Barcelona job in 1997 on the back of his masterful managerial job at Ajax (which included a Champions League victory in 1995), Van Gaal returned in 2002 amid very different circumstances. Ignominiously, he’d presided over the first Netherlands team since 1986 that failed to qualify for the World Cup. The team’s 2002 fate was sealed when, after particularly boastful comments from Van Gaal, it slumped to a loss to Ireland 1-0 (despite the Irish being down to ten men).
In his second stint, Van Gaal began with a customarily polarizing decision. Rivaldo, the team’s creative fulcrum for the previous five seasons, was let go on a free transfer. On top of being an unpopular decision (Rivaldo had only just helped Brazil win that summer’s World Cup), the move was also bad business. The club received no money for letting its star depart, epitomizing the thoughtless financial decisions of Joan Gaspart’s Barcelona presidency (which lasted from 2000-2003). And while he wouldn’t star at A.C. Milan, Rivaldo would go on to contribute to a win in that season’s Champions League.
In his own Champions League effort, Van Gaal’s Barcelona actually managed a record run of form. Snapping off 11 wins in a row, it established a new competition benchmark. But that would be the highwater mark, as Barcelona lost in the quarterfinals to Juventus.
In La Liga, results went far differently. Prior to the new year, Barcelona found itself in an inconceivable lower-table position, with more losses than wins. The poor investments of the Gaspart era were finally coming home to roost (over 150 million Euros on 16 players). The club massively overspent on players like Marc Overmars, Javier Saviola and Geovanni. For a variety of reasons, none proved to be consistently productive.
When form didn’t improve in January, 2003, Van Gaal and the board agreed to a mutual termination of his contract. In the frivolous spirit of the Gaspart presidency, Van Gaal’s exit cost Barcelona four million Euros. Only three points above the relegation zone, it was a full-fledged crisis.
Remarkably, the damage by season’s end wasn’t relegation, but merely a historically poor sixth place finish in La Liga (achieved only by a last-gasp win in the finale). By then, Gaspart’s reign had come to an end, less than a month after Van Gaal’s. Rudderless Barca continued to drift into Spanish soccer’s abyss all while hemorrhaging money.
Beckham’s electoral bend
The defining feature of Barcelona in comparison to many of its fellow European super clubs has always been its fan ownership. Because of that, the thousands of “members” (fans who own the club) vote on its leadership.
With the demise of Joan Gaspart’s presidency, his successor faced an uphill battle. Gaspart spent over 180 million Euros in transfer fees, leaving the club in more than 230 million in debt. In fact, according to one financial assessment group cited by El Mundo in February, 2003, Barcelona were the most indebted club in Spain.
Campaigning for the presidency, 40-year-old Catalan lawyer Joan Laporta’s bid was instrumentally helped by a pitch from his running mate (and eventual rival), Sandro Rosell. Rosell posited that he would bring Manchester United icon David Beckham to Barcelona if Laporta was elected. Rosell claimed to be “70 to 80 percent confident” of signing the England midfielder.
It was a bold, if familiar plan. Promising a star signing was, after all, the trademark of not only Barcelona club presidents, but also arch rival Real Madrid. And it was from Madrid that the main competition would arise in the Beckham sweepstakes.
The election proved to be foregone conclusion for Laporta. Aside from Rosell’s tantalizing Beckham rumor, the Catalan attorney enlisted an official endorsement from one of his clients, Johan Cruyff. And with a corps of younger partners, Laporta’s campaign successfully inspired the voters, who saw them as refreshingly energetic and business-savvy.
In the final tally, Laporta won with 27,138 votes (52.57 percent), decisively defeating his closest challenger, Lluis Bassat (16,412 votes).
Flush with victory, Laporta’s regime set out to sign Beckham. Yet even before the English star helped bend the electoral results of Barcelona’s presidency, the tactic was backfiring.
In a club statement, Barcelona disclosed an offer for Beckham prior to Laporta’s election. The bid was contingent on him becoming the next club president:
“Manchester United confirms that club officials have met Joan Laporta, the leading candidate for the Presidency of Barcelona. These meetings have resulted in an offer being made for the transfer of David Beckham to Barcelona.”
Beckham, then on vacation in Los Angeles, fired back in a statement from his management company, SFX:
“David is very disappointed and surprised to learn of this statement and feels that he has been used as a political pawn in the Barcelona presidential elections. David’s advisers have no plans to meet Mr. Laporta or his representatives.”
Madrid, led by their own democratically elected president (Florentino Perez) had already seized on Beckham’s frustrations at United. Having sensed an opening, Perez swooped in to sign the latest in his long line of extravagant “Galácticos.”
As was discovered long afterward, Madrid had truthfully all but locked up the transfer even before Laporta’s election. Rosell’s “70 to 80 percent” certainty of signing Beckham was purely a first-rate Machiavellian political power play. They had a zero percent chance of getting Beckham, but Barcelona’s club members were dazzled by the possibility. The “slight of hand” trick from Rosell, as author Graham Hunter has described it, was masterstroke of political gamesmanship, though it quickly put the new administration in a tough spot.
Just three days after Laporta’s landslide election victory, it was confirmed that Beckham would be signing with Real Madrid. With the lynchpin of his electoral promises rendered a failure, any honeymoon stage Laporta and his team might normally have enjoyed vanished. Club members, having just voted for a candidate promising to sign star of Beckham’s caliber, were instantly disappointed.
Ronaldinho, Manchester United, and a “matter of 48 hours”
The loss of Beckham as a primary transfer target forced Laporta’s boardroom quickly onto its heels. Scrambling to find a star with the same clout as the England midfielder appeared impossible.
Beckham, especially in 2003, was at the peak of his international appeal. (In a sense, his signing was a microcosm of Madrid’s Galácticos era. The obvious appeal to his addition was entirely commercial. He made little sense for Madrid’s starting 11, vamously triggering the departure of Claude Makelele.)
To find an alternative, Laporta was initially rumored to be interested in several Premier League players. But the only real target was an enthusiastic Brazilian playmaker at Paris Saint-Germain.
Ronaldinho, who would grow to become affectionately known worldwide as one of the most talented players of his generation, was far from a household name in 2003. Having achieved inconsistently at PSG over two seasons, his European reputation to that point had been mostly built on Brazil’s victory in the 2002 World Cup. And even in that context, he was the decidedly least famous attacker in Brazil’s frontline (behind Rivaldo and Ronaldo).
Still, there was one aspect of Ronaldinho that was not in dispute. He was fantastically gifted, and capable of the kind of magic that had been so sorely lacking from Barcelona over the past year.
Again, however, the problem was that the 23-year-old Brazilian was farther down the line in negotiations with another club. The all too familiar scenario that led to the loss of Beckham appeared to be playing out again. Only instead of Real Madrid, it was the other world superpower: Manchester United.
Having just lost its global icon, Manchester United was actively searching to fill the void. Discussions were far along by the time Barcelona began expressing serious interest. Fortunately, Laporta had an ace up his sleeve.
Sandro Rosell’s name is one that, in 2016, evokes contrasting images within Barcelona. Yet whatever might be said of his later presidential term, and its premature demise amid the Neymar transfer scandal, his first days in the power circles of the club were defined by another Brazilian signing.
Having worked as Nike’s main representative in Brazil, Rosell had uniquely impeccable contacts among Seleção stars. And following his failure with Beckham, the situation could not have been more perfect for Rosell in the case of Ronaldinho. After all, he’d assiduously built relationships with Brazilian stars (including Ronaldinho) for years.
In an interview that Ronaldinho did with El Enganche in 2014, he explained the magnitude of Rosell’s impact, calling him “a great friend of mine.”
“I was almost on my way to Manchester United and only the details needed to be put onto that deal,” the Brazilian explained. “But in the last minute Rosell called me to tell me they would win the election. That made everything happen fast.”
Noting the allure of being Barcelona’s next great “R” (following a preposterously talented lineage of Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo), Ronaldinho reveled at the opportunity.
“I loved that,” he said, looking back at the challenge presented before him in 2003 by Rosell’s persuasive pitch. Mere days after it had appeared inevitable that United would sign him, Ronaldinho was confirmed as the first high profile signing of Laporta’s presidency. It would prove to be the first brick in the foundation of Barcelona’s modern dynasty.
The Beginning of an Age
Again, it can’t be understated how much of a staggering victory signing Ronaldinho would eventually be. First, simply getting a player of the Brazilian’s quality to sign with a club not playing in the Champions League (especially when the bid was in direct competition with Manchester United) was nearly miraculous. And on top of that, his impact would be instantaneous and profound, winning FIFA World Player of the Year in both 2004 and 2005.
More than that, Ronaldinho put a smile back on the faces of Barcelona fans (which was, not without coincidence, the title of a documentary the club made about him in 2013). His first goal at home for Barcelona was a showcase in exuberance, offering a glimmering taste of what was to come. Picking the ball up in his own half, he danced by two defenders before firing a rocket into the top corner from 30 yards out. The raucous reaction inside the Nou Camp caused a measurable seismic tremor in Barcelona.
After a sluggish start to the season (not entirely dissimilar to the dismal campaign a year earlier), Barcelona caught fire. Under new manager Frank Rijkaard, the team found its form and went unbeaten from mid-January until May (vaulting from mid-table to finish second).
And in his first La Liga campaign, the Brazilian playmaker was central to Barcelona’s revitalization. In total, Ronaldinho notched 15 goals, seven of which were either the deciding or game-winning scores. Added to the tally were his 11 assists, as well as numerous pieces of skill and flair, dazzling fans worldwide.
The signing of Ronaldinho proved successful beyond Laporta and Rosell’s wildest dreams. After proving the perfect catalyst in year one, the playmaker flourished in the subsequent seasons as talent was added around him. On top of individual brilliance, the Brazilian was at the heart of a wave of trophies, including multiple La Liga crowns and a vaunted Champions League title.
More than that, Ronaldinho acted as a facilitator for what was to come. Nothing epitomized this more than his assist on Lionel Messi’s first league goal in 2005. In so many ways, he acted as a bridge for Barcelona, guiding the club from its debt-ridden, trophy-less period into its current era, where the products of La Masia have anchored a golden age.
“He was a great help,” said Messi in a 2013 interview. “It’s never easy to go into a changing room at the age of 16 especially with my character. Ronaldinho made everything much easier for me. I had the good luck to experience him first hand and to share many things with him. I can say that he’s a really great person and that’s the most important thing.”
And it was Messi himself who best summed up Ronaldinho’s lasting impact on the club.
“Ronaldinho was responsible for the change in Barça,” Messi explained. “It was a bad time and the change that came about with his arrival was amazing. In the first year, he didn’t win anything but people fell in love with him. Then the trophies started coming and he made all those people happy. Barça should always be grateful for everything he did.”