Ronaldinho has landed in the “beautiful” city of Paris; a place that brings back fond memories for the Brazilian. “I made lots of friends in this city and left many behind,” he tells SPORTbible from the French capital. “So when I have the chance to come back, it’s a real pleasure. I love this place.”
Gaucho, a man responsible for inspiring a generation to fall in love with the beautiful game, is reminiscing about his time in France and the pleasures of living in one of the world’s most visited cities. “Paris was the first city where I lived outside Brazil and in Europe,” he smiles. “It’s a place that I hold close to my heart.”
Back in 2001, after impressing both at club level with Gremio and throughout the Copa America for his national team, French club Paris Saint-Germain beat a host of top European clubs to the signing of Ronaldinho, who was described by many as the next Brazilian prodigy.
It was seen a massive coup for the Ligue 1 side. He would join the likes of Mauricio Pochettino, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nicolas Anelka in the capital but despite having a “peaceful transition” to life in France, he admits to struggling in the early stages of his PSG career.
He would record just one goal and two assists in his first 13 games. “It was not easy in the beginning,” the 43-year-old tells us, 20 years on from his spell at the club. “The football in Brazil that I was used to was completely different compared to playing in Europe.”
It took a few months to get going on the football pitch, but Ronaldinho made 2002 his own. From two sublime free-kicks against FC Lorient and Rennes at the start of the year to two more goals from the penalty spot, he was quickly making a name for himself on a global scale.
In fact, rumours of a move to England emerged in the summer of 2002, with Manchester United keen on bringing the attacking midfielder to Old Trafford in a big money move. “I was really close to joining United,” he says when asked about the interest. “I had that chance and I was really close but in the end, I decided to sign for Barcelona.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. We all know what happened next. Gaucho would not only pick up the Ballon d’Or trophy in 2005, two years after joining Barca for a reported £21 million, but he would help the Catalan club become a great force in world football once more.
Now, the World Cup winner is back in the place where his European journey began.
With the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid just days away, Ronaldinho has confirmed that he will become a tour guide on Saturday night when he takes some lucky football fans around central Paris on a 90-minute open top bus tour.
The 42-year-old will perform freestyle tricks during the tour hosted by Expedia so he can pass on his love and passion for the city of Paris.
He will then join thousands of others in the northern suburbs of Paris to witness the likes of Mohamed Salah and Karim Benzema do battle inside the Stade de France; a place where he memorably lifted the Champions League in 2006 with Barcelona after they beat Arsenal.
So who does he think will win Europe’s biggest prize on Saturday night? Ronaldinho was speaking at the launch of his Expedia Route 10 Freestyle Bus Tour of Paris when he made his prediction.
“Liverpool and Real Madrid are very similar teams when it comes to the will to win and they both fight until the last minute,” he said. “They are two incredible teams with incredible players.
“I hope it is a very beautiful final with many goals,” he added. “Madrid showed a lot of spirit and came back from difficult situations this season, but in the current form I think Liverpool can surprise if they score goals at the beginning.
“I think defensively they have a well-experienced team and I don’t believe they made the same mistakes that other teams have made.”
Ronaldinho is clearly a big fan of Liverpool’s capabilities at the back. In our chat, he heaps praise on centre-back Virgil van Dijk, who has once again been a colossus at the back for Jurgen Klopp’s side this season, both in the Premier League and Champions League.
“I love him,” the Brazilian says with a grin on his face. “In my opinion, he is the best defender in world football at this moment. I have lots of love and respect for him, and he is an amazing player.”
The former Barcelona and AC Milan player is also a huge admirer of Mohamed Salah. In fact, when we mention in our chat that Salah recently said he was “better than any player in his position” in world football, Ronaldinho agreed.
“Yeah, I think he must be among them,” he said. “I’ve been following him for a few years. He is a player I truly love to watch play. He is one of the best players in the world.”
One of the standout players in world football of late has been Karim Benzema. The Frenchman has scored 15 goals in the Champions League this season, including four goals against Chelsea in the quarter-finals and three in the semi’s against Manchester City.
Ronaldinho has tipped both Benzema and Salah for the upcoming Ballon d’Or.
“It’s difficult to say,” the Brazilian says after being asked about the prize. “Benzema has had an amazing year, and so has Salah, and then there’s Mbappe.
“I believe that in every part of the world there is a footballer that has done something incredible during this season but usually, those who go to the big competitions have a bigger chance to receive individual trophies. One of the two in the final has a bigger chance of winning.”