The case for Ronaldinho

Without doubt Brazilian icon Ronaldinho is the biggest name player ever to have so much as taken a glance towards the A-League. But it appears he's the big fish that got away, seemingly thrown back into the water.


Source: Getty Images

Through the months of November and December the player's Australian agent worked frantically to get him a guest deal for 14 games, from January 22 onwards. He spoke to five clubs. Support was also sought from the FFA and Foxtel, both of whom were willing to give it. But the clubs wouldn't budge. There was no genuine interest.

The reasons for the rejections were the standard issue ones: financial risk aversion and opposition from coaches too shy to disrupt dressing rooms half way through a season. Neither reason, in my view, stacks up in this special case.


I say special because Ronaldinho ain't no ordinary prospect. This man is a twice winner of the Ballon d'Or, the world's best footballer in the mid 2000s and a World Cup winner, like Alessandro Del Piero, and we all know how he impacted on the game here. He is 35. Del Piero was 38 when his signing by Sydney FC was announced.

And, above all, he's a showman. He's not just some high credentialed ex with good functional qualities (like a Peter Crouch, mentioned recently). Ronaldinho, more than anything, is an entertainer. He would, as Ian Crook once lamented, not just put bums on seats but make people jump out of them.

Of course we do know of one thing that acts as a deterrent to Ronaldinho: his reputation as a free spirit who sets his own training regime to the extent that he trains at all, as did Del Piero by the way. This will frighten the willies out of many coaches who naturally want to maintain total command and control of their dressing rooms. But then aren't coaches required to harness gifted players as opposed to shunning them for their own comfort or protection?

On the financial side, what we know is that Ronaldinho was eminently affordable, his asking price pro rata less than half of what Del Piero was getting. Yet still there were no takers. According to Sydney FC chief Tony Pignata the revenue metrics are not good for this part of the season when memberships are full and the fans have spent their replica shirts budgets. But what then about the marketing impact, the tremendous boon to sponsorship prospects, TV revenues and the rest of it? What about brand enrichment and the bling?

In one club case we are aware of, the commercial people conveyed the agent to deal directly with the coach. This was a big mistake for a coach should have nothing whatever to do with a commercial decision such as this. Naturally and unsurprisingly, the coach said, no thanks.

There is a simplistic view that player recruitment should be the exclusive domain of the coach. After all it is the coach who is judged solely on playing results and gets fired if he doesn't get them. But what then of the club executive who is judged on whether the club as a business achieves success and gets fired if he doesn't get it? Doesn't he have the same rights?

The truth is that there are times in football when commercial and technical needs not only intertwine but act as competing forces. In such times club hierarchies have to make a judgment call on what are their priorities. And it often happens that the commercial imperative is chosen, as happened when Del Piero was signed or whenever Real Madrid signs one of its galacticos.

Granted, the on field results don't necessarily come with such signings every time. But the commercial revenues do.

The A-League, let's admit it, is currently in a slump and the absence of glamour and playing draw cards is one of the reasons.
This is just as the FFA, and indeed the clubs, are looking for a vastly improved broadcasting deal, something that is unlikely to eventuate without injections that will boost the league's profile and its existing TV ratings. The league is desperate for a Ronaldinho or others of a similar ilk.

There is also the view that guest or marquee players are only a short term, band aid solution. Sydney academic Daryl Adair said recently that a Ronaldinho venture is not an answer to the league's ills. He said, "You’ve got to really develop the local product and players ... you need to build relationships not only with your fans, but your potential fans. That’s something the FFA can improve on."

Sure. But Ronaldinhos lead to penetration both in the market and in the hearts and minds of young players, the ones you want to cultivate as attractions in their own right. Ronaldinhos lead to headlines, media space and all manner of positive spinoffs on which the league can ride and float forward.

Adair forgets that the A-League doesn't just compete with AFL, NRL, BBL or test cricket. It competes for credibility with the EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, the UCL and all the rest of it. It needs to have some level of glamour as part of its character. Otherwise it languishes as a provincial, bush entity and its fortunes will only spiral downwards.

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5 min read
Published 4 January 2016 at 1:59pm
By Les Murray