Amid the (relative) excitement of MLS’ reentry draft and upcoming Superdraft, the biggest news swirling around the league is the potential return of the circus to Los Angeles. In keeping of biannual tradition, rumors of a high-profile player transferring to the Galaxy have once again been the talk of the league -- this time with Brazilian star Ronaldinho as the apple of AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke’s eye.
Following in their own footsteps, Galaxy management is looking to once again attempt to make a splash in the world of international football by adding an aging European-based star to a team in the hopes of expanding their brand both here in the States as well as abroad.
Similar to Beckham’s impact on the team, the Ronaldinho Experiment, due to his long documented partying life-style and questionable motivation over recent seasons, will prove to be an equally dangerous anathema to the product on and off the field.
The 30-year old former two-time World Footballer of the Year has dazzled international football fans for the better half of the new millennium, displaying a quality of skill and flair on the ball that is still unmatched today. With the stereotypical Brazilian smile, Ronaldinho’s approach to the beautiful game was always to have fun first and be a team player second, endearing him to fans and distancing himself from coaches at the same time.
While his child-like approach to joga bonito reminded fans why they loved soccer in the first place, his ardor for individual showcasing over core team play combined with his equal passion for extra-curricular fun off the field has made him a pariah of sorts, in recent years, in the eyes of team management.
Injuries, an increasingly public party life, and the influx of fresh Catalan talent forced Ronaldinho to leave Barcelona in 2008, as he looked for a kick-start to his career at Milan. Unfortunately for the Brazilian international, Ronaldinho suffered similar problems in his first year at the Rossoneri. He struggled with fitness issues early on and faced growing scrutiny over his oft-caught on camera partying life-style; both resulting in his relegation to a bench role.
In his second season, Ronaldinho seemingly regained the form that was expected of a player who was only recently considered the most talented to ever play the game. New Milan coach Leonardo had belief in the aging Brazilian star, despite criticizing him for being known as a party animal throughout his career.
Solidifying his trust in the play-maker, Leonardo forced out fellow Brazilian Kaka in favor of Ronaldinho, as the two never quite clicked on the field. Ronaldinho repaid his coach’s faith with improved play and finished with 12 goals and 14 assists in 36 appearances for Milan.
Despite his apparent resurgence in form, Ronaldinho has been unable to shake off the stigma of being a wild party-seeker off the pitch. In February 2010, he was accused of holding a ‘mega-party’ in a hotel suite just before a game against Milan derby rivals, Internazionale, which they lost 2-0. The Rossoneri reportedly fined the Brazilian for his antics, but were still unable to keep him out of the late-night limelight.
It was widely believed that Ronaldinho’s partying lifestyle was one of the reasons Brazilian National Team head coach Dunga chose to pass on bringing him to the World Cup. Alluding to the attacking mid-fielder’s troublesome recent history, Dunga claimed that his decision to leave Ronaldinho at home was to avoid “[creating] problems for ourselves.” Apparently unfazed by the characterization of being a George Best-esque wild man, Ronaldinho was once again scrutinized by the media, this time by opting to go clubbing at the resort city of Florianopolis instead of watching his Selecao team in the World Cup.
In November 2010, AC Milan boss Allegri was furious over Ronaldinho being caught on camera at a nightclub the morning only a day before a game. “It certainly isn’t alright. They are not hours that are compatible with the life of an athlete.” His partying ways have once again has put Ronaldinho in a precarious position with management and the Rossoneri have reportedly come to terms with the Galaxy that, pending the Brazilian’s approval, would see him transferred to the United States for the 2011 season.
Those Who Don’t Study History…
While landing the Ballon d’Or winner a few years ago would have seemed a coup de théâtre for the development of MLS, buying the 2010 version of Ronaldinho would be a waste of millions of dollars for Los Angeles Galaxy’s ownership. Let’s face it; Ronaldinho is as fond of partying as Stephen Gerrard is of Phil Collins. Bringing an already world-renowned socialite to a city where belligerent public debauchery of the famous is not only accepted, but encouraged is a recipe for disaster for the league.
One can understand why the Galaxy are so tempted by the prospects of landing such an iconic international footballer. Imagine the jersey sales, Ronaldinho/Galaxy merchandise, ESPN promos, bump in television ratings, increased ticket sales, packed stadiums in Asia for off-season friendlies, and new sponsorship opportunities. Wait, where have we seen this before….?
Surely, Los Angeles stands to benefit, in the short term, from all of the above. However, one only needs to reflect on recent team history to see how a desperate grab for the international spotlight can set-back a team at home in the long run.
Obviously, this potential Ronaldinho deal reeks of similarities to the Galaxy’s signing of the most recognized footballer in history, David Beckham in 2007. Despite all of the promotional upside, once the Beckham-hype had settled, the Galaxy was left with a team in disarray; two fired coaches, a rift between the team’s two stars, hiked ticket prices, disillusioned fans, angry players, back-to-back losing seasons, a season-ending injury to the man himself, a fired general manager, and a tell-all book airing all of the team’s dirty laundry during this period. Needless to say, the first ‘experiment’ started off as a train wreck.
Like Beckham, whose loyalty came into question by hardcore fans as he begged to be loaned to Milan and missed valuable regular season time, Ronaldinho’s biggest question mark will be his heart and dedication to the team. If he can’t stay motivated in Milan, where every practice is crucial and winning is everything, how can anyone expect him to care about the fewer and less intense practices or a marginally important game during a season where 56% of the teams qualify for the playoffs? Also, if we are to believe that Ronaldinho is committed to returning to Brazil’s national team, expect him to lobby for a similar off-season loan to a European club, thus putting him in further injury risk.
Ronaldinho will also almost assuredly get a physical welcome to the league by opposing players making only $60,000 a year, just as Beckham did upon his debut. If Gaúcho believes that defenders will allow him space to embarrass his opponents with his silky smooth moves and cheeky passes, he will be in for a rude awakening as he is picking himself up off the ground. MLS is a physical league featuring players who take pride in their performances. This could end up frustrating the Brazilian and limiting his effectiveness on the field.
Total Eclipse of the Heart
The Galaxy are one or two quality players away from being an MLS Cup Champion, with their most glaring hole being the lack of a strike partner for Edson Buddle. This should be their primary focus instead of signing another mid-fielder. If the front office feels the necessity of bringing in a well known European based player, they would be better suited approaching a player the quality of Giovani dos Santos; the young Mexican striker who has been unable to make an impact on Tottenham Hotspur in London. He would be a big draw for the Mexican fans in the area as well as a quality talent who would provide an instant goal threat up top with Buddle. He would also surely cost a considerable less amount of money than Ronaldinho.
dos Santos, however, won’t come without his share of drama and could join the list of unmotivated imported stars who have played in Major League Soccer as well. Instead, the Galaxy should build their club through an insistence on signing only players who prove commitment and pride to the team over spectacle; players who are not afraid to bleed for their crest and leave it all on the field for 90 minutes. Players like Millwall legends, Barry Kitchener, Harry Cripps, Keith ‘Rhino” Stevens, Newcastle’s Alan Shearer, Real Madrid’s Makélélé, Arsenal’s Ian Wright, and Fulham’s Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey. These warriors embody the ‘team first’ mentality that fans can identify with and be proud of- win or lose- and should embody the culture and valence at the Home Depot Center.
Now that the allure of Beckham’s novelty has worn off, he is finally gelling with the team and displaying the heart on the field that should be expected from players of his pay grade. This is what real fans want; not a party animal (of which Beckham was not) who turns their team into a circus both on and off the field while being outworked by players making a fraction of his salary. They do not desire to be put through another ‘experiment.’
La Conquête du Monde or just plain Risk?
Sure Ronaldinho could show up in Los Angeles and prove once again why he was twice voted the Footballer of the Year and help raise the world prestige of the Galaxy to levels yet unseen, but honestly, what are the chances of that actually happening? Give me a player of lesser talent guaranteed to be 100% dedicated to his team over a gamble on a star who has a shady track record of insubordination any day of the week.
In their zealous efforts to build an international football brand, the Los Angeles Galaxy would be jumping the shark if they risk signing Ronaldinho at this stage in his career. They are only a few pieces of the puzzle away from being hands-down favorites to win (again) the Supporter’s Shield next season. Bringing in a big money star with a lackadaisical approach to the game and insatiable appetite for the night-life could end up disrupting the brand that the entire organization has worked so hard to repair since coach Bruce Arena’s arrival.
When the excitement wears off, as it always does, and the Barcelona and Milan shirts begin disappearing from the Home Depot Center, all that will matter to the true fans is the performance of the team on the field. If this does not live up to LA fan’s high standards, the brand will be degraded, and MLS will continue to be viewed as a retirement community for ex-European stars looking only to mingle with Hollywood’s beautiful people.
If somehow the Ronaldinho Experiment detracts from the on-field product, as the Galaxy’s previous ‘experiment,’ the damage dealt to the brand and fans’ trust of management could be irreparable.