Ronaldinho retired on this day in 2018. A still-mourned loss to football, the precocious entertainer instilled a love of the sport in an entire generation. But in recent years, a generation that didn't experience his genius firsthand is keen to undermine him. Ronaldinho is on the chopping block as people who say they “know ball” have decided the iconic Brazil star was overrated and birthday party enthusiast Neymar is far better than he ever was. Enough is enough, quite frankly.
Why did you get into football in the first place? Think back to your formative memories of the sport. Consider what drew you in. Was it the roar of a packed stadium? A jaw-dropping goal? The intoxicating splendour of a fine kit? I can guarantee what wasn’t responsible for your footballing epiphany. Statistics. If you can honestly say you got into football because you found out James Milner has more Premier League assists than David Beckham then you’re either lying or you’re a robot.
Yet statistics are the battleground for this Neymar vs Ronaldinho debate. Viral images were produced showing Neymar’s 439 goals compared to Ronaldinho’s 313. The younger man has 252 assists to the elder’s 187. Neymar has accomplished all this with just 717 games to Ronaldinho’s 816. It is, for all intents and purposes, an open and shut case. Neymar is better, right? Wrong.
Of course if the Al-Hilal forward is your preference that is up to you. But a series of digits on a phone screen should not be the sole reason you hold that opinion. Data does matter in football, as evidenced by the raft of number-crunchers every major club in the world now employs. Marginal gains are a crucial part of the game. But they are not the most important part. Football is about what you feel.
If football was just about pure numbers then we would not even need to watch. We could just read the results online or in the newspaper the next morning and get on with our day. But watching a match play out takes you through the gamut of emotions. Your team scoring or conceding is numerical. But those moments are about the feelings, glory or desolation, rather than the reality of a 0 changing to a 1.
What of the moments that make up a match? A crunching tackle, an artful pass, a beguiling dribble. There is no quantifiable measure of these things. A 40-yard, outside-boot defence-splitter is a completed pass in the same way a 10-yard sideways ball is. But only one gets you out of your seat and bear-hugging people you’ve never met before in the row in front.
The nuance in football debate is being lost. A generation raised on the Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi civil war have been taught that everything comes down to the data. But are those two players the defining footballers of a generation because they scored a boatload of goals or because they did so with such verve, such excitement, such highlight-reel absurdity? Were they fun to watch because they scored so often or because they found new, baffling ways to do so?
Football used to be about aesthetics as much as it was about statistics. Diego Maradona scored 310 club goals, less than Neymar. But he is one of only two players, along with Pele, who are credibly pitched against Messi and Ronaldo in the eternal ‘GOAT’ debate. Why is that? Because he played football with an aesthetically beautiful and impishly impetuous brilliance. Watch his artistic slalom against England at the 1986 World Cup and tell me that counts the same as a rank-and-file 5-yard tap-in. His other goal in that game perhaps shouldn’t have counted at all but that is the sort of box office moment you signed up for with Maradona. Today’s players are expected to be perfect machines. Maradona’s genius has endured nearly three decades since his retirement specifically because he wasn’t perfect. He was packed with personality and that sets pulses racing more than any amount of efficiency.
Which brings us back to the Neymar and Ronaldinho debate. Is Neymar better because he has lodged more goals and assists? Not really. His work seems unlikely to endure in the same way Ronaldinho’s has. Ronaldinho’s light burned more brightly even if it was for a shorter period of time. But like Maradona and other aesthetes such as Paul Gascoigne, he made the game look simple. He did not require specific tactical systems or rehearsed movements from the training pitch to shine.
It is no coincidence Ronaldinho and ‘Gazza’ were noted for a laid-back approach to preparation. It’s because at their best they didn’t need to prepare. They just needed a ball and a crowd. Their genius would do the rest. An eternal debate exists comparing Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Not one of those men produced a moment like Gascoigne’s stunning goal against Scotland at Euro 96. Similarly, Neymar has never given us a highlight like Ronaldinho almost goading David Seaman with that frankly disrespectful free kick at the World Cup in 2002.
We watch football because of how it makes us feel and players like Ronaldinho made us feel incredibly lucky to watch them. Perhaps Neymar does the same for you. But don’t fall into the trap of rating him highly simply because a spreadsheet tells you to. Football is a game of physicality and heart rather than data and science. It is a game of emotion and wonderful moments of aesthetic brilliance. After all, they call it “the beautiful game” for a reason.
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