Two decades ago, Paris Saint–Germain lacked Qatari owners and was far from being the dominant force in French football. The club couldn’t splash out on exorbitant transfer fees or even dream of possessing a formidable attacking trio like Messi, Neymar, and Mbappé.
However, in a different era altogether, Paris Saint–Germain had another extraordinary magician at their disposal for two seasons. This enchanter happened to be none other than Ronaldinho, a player whose prime years in football were yet to come.
Unlike Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho didn’t play the game solely to break records, but rather to entertain and captivate the audience. He possessed an otherworldly talent that few could match, becoming a beacon of joy in the world of football.
One photograph, in particular, has gained increasing significance over the years. It captures Ronaldinho lifting a young Leo Messi on his back after the 17-year-old Argentine scored his first goal out of the 672 he would ultimately tally for Barcelona. Fate worked its magic, not only bringing these two incredible players together but also orchestrating a parallel trajectory in their careers. Almost two decades before Messi‘s transfer from Barcelona to PSG, Ronaldinho made the opposite move.
While Messi seems destined to conclude his career at the Parc des Princes, it was at the same venue that Ronaldinho first garnered global acclaim. Those two years in Paris may not have yielded titles, but they laid the groundwork for Ronaldinho‘s ascent to the pinnacle of football, albeit during a comparatively modest era for the club.
After a stellar performance in the 1999 Copa America, it became abundantly clear that Ronaldo de Assis Moreira could no longer remain at his hometown club, Grêmio. His future beckoned in Europe. Five years prior, Ronaldo “Phenomenon” had departed Cruzeiro to make his mark on the Old Continent with PSV Eindhoven. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he graced the pitches of Inter Milan.
Inter Milan had aspirations of forming a dynamic duo comprising Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. However, the young prodigy also attracted interest from Arsenal, Barcelona, and Borussia Dortmund. Ultimately, Ronaldinho opted for a more modest transfer, a decision rooted in pragmatism. The year was 2001, and the 2002 World Cup loomed on the horizon. Ronaldinho desired regular playing time rather than warming the bench at a European powerhouse.
The transfer faced some complications, as PSG announced it in December 2000, stating that the playmaker had agreed to sign a preliminary contract and would join the team in the coming summer. The problem was that Grêmio, Ronaldinho‘s club at the time, had never been informed about such a deal until that moment.
The club’s president, José Guerrero, was infuriated and considered it a fraudulent attempt to prevent Grêmio from receiving any compensation for their future superstar, who had spent 14 years with the team. “I read the news on PSG’s website. We are currently negotiating the renewal of Ronaldinho‘s contract, and PSG hasn’t contacted us at all,” expressed the president in frustration.
FIFA had to intervene and mediate in the case. Ronaldinho received a ban from playing until the matter was clarified, which kept him away from the field for several months. His agent even explored the possibility of loaning him to Scottish club St. Mirren to ensure he didn’t lose his form entirely.
The planned transfer to Arsenal fell through as well because Ronaldinho couldn’t secure a work visa as a non-European Union player with insufficient national team appearances. Ultimately, Grêmio received €5 million from PSG, and Ronaldinho moved to Paris, but he failed to make an immediate impact. Despite the team’s lineup not being comparable to the current one, there were still notable names and promising talents surrounding Ronaldinho, and his position as a regular starter was not guaranteed.
At that time, Mauricio Pochettino was announced as the new captain of PSG, and the team also featured Gabriel Heinze and Nicolas Anelka. However, the most significant figure among Ronaldinho‘s new teammates turned out to be Jay–Jay Okocha. “He was like a younger brother to me,” Okocha later reminisced. “I realized he was incredibly talented and simply needed someone to mentor him.”
Before Ronaldinho rose to prominence, it was Okocha who stood out on the football field. Without the Nigerian’s influence, perhaps we would have never witnessed the best of Ronaldinho, his Brazilian successor. “Ronaldinho attempted to imitate some of my tricks and dribbling,” recalled Okocha. However, in his first 13 matches for PSG, Ronaldinho could only boast two assists and one goal from a penalty. Meanwhile, the younger Kaka was gaining momentum in Brazil and suddenly emerged as a candidate to partner with Rivaldo and Ronaldo in the national team.
Nevertheless, Ronaldinho was just getting warmed up. As his hair grew into the iconic long curly mane we associate with him, his confidence soared as well. After scoring his debut goal for PSG against Lyon, he followed up with two goals against Rapid Vienna. By the beginning of 2002, the brilliance of his skills became more evident as he secured a regular spot in the starting lineup. Okocha was away with the Nigerian national team, while Anelka was loaned to Liverpool, creating an opportunity for Ronaldinho to fill the void.
His six goals in six matches in January were a remarkable response to the challenge: two composedly converted penalties, two equally confident finishes from open play, and two direct free-kicks against Rennes and Lorient. The crowd at Parc des Princes consistently enjoyed some of his emblematic tricks and quickly became accustomed to another aspect of his game that will never be forgotten: his goals following mesmerizing dribbles that left several defenders humiliated.
However, Ronaldinho‘s relationship with head coach Luis Fernandes worsened during this time. The coach complained that the star player was more interested in Parisian nightlife than football, and he frequently returned late from his vacations in Brazil. Given Ronaldinho‘s personality, Fernandes‘ concerns seemed valid. After completing his first season at PSG, the playmaker had an unforgettable World Cup in Japan and South Korea, where he was an integral part of Brazil’s team and won the World Cup in great union with Ronaldo and Rivaldo.
However, things didn’t go as planned upon his return to the French capital. He continued to indulge in partying whenever he had the chance, and an anonymous teammate complained to The Guardian, stating that Ronaldinho had become too self-centered and did whatever he pleased.
In response to his coach Fernandez, who couldn’t tolerate the lack of discipline, Ronaldinho retorted, “It seems like my happiness bothers him.” He failed to live up to the standard he had set in his first season at PSG, and during the Christmas break in late December, he extended his stay in Brazil by five days, resulting in a hefty fine.
Owner Xavier Couture justified Ronaldinho’s prolonged absence by saying, “It’s summertime, I understand why he wanted to spend a few extra days there,” leaving no doubt about the player’s favored status with the boss. The truth was that Ronaldinho had become indispensable to PSG, not just in terms of his on-field performance but also financially, as the team struggled in the league.
Despite his occasional moments of brilliance that delighted the fans, Ronaldinho‘s focus was never solely on scoring or assisting; he aimed to do so in a flamboyant and unforgettable manner. It was almost as if goals and assists didn’t matter unless they were accompanied by a touch of magic. While the playmaker toyed with defenders in France, newly appointed Barcelona president Joan Laporta had a vision for the club’s progress. They needed a captivating new figure in the locker room to embody the club’s ambitions.
“I said we would lead Barça to the forefront of world football, and to achieve that, we need to sign one of these three players: David Beckham, Thierry Henry, or Ronaldinho,” declared Laporta before the start of the 2003 summer transfer window. Once Barcelona expressed their interest, Ronaldinho’s move seemed inevitable. PSG, like Grêmio before, reluctantly accepted that they would lose their star player.
Manchester United also aspired to secure the mesmerizing talent of Ronaldinho, making it clear that the team, which had only finished 11th in the French league, had little chance of retaining him. Although Sir Alex Ferguson may have been concerned about Ronaldinho’s sightings in London nightclubs, he didn’t end up joining any of Manchester United’s local rivals. Laporta emerged victorious in the bidding war, acquiring the player who would become the emblem of the new Barcelona for the next few years, for a fee of €30 million.
Thus began another legendary chapter in football, where Ronaldinho left behind an infuriated coach and discontented teammates in Paris, while garnering thousands of adoring fans. Despite everything that transpired at Paris Saint-Germain thereafter, no one was able to bring the same level of football magic to the city as Ronaldinho did. If anyone can carry on that legacy from this point onward, it’s Messi—to complete the circle that unites these two footballing geniuses.