There is a scene in last Christmas’ comedy Little Fockers in which Robert De Niro is seen to be frolicking in a ball-pool with Ben Stiller. Robert De Niro. Academy Award Winning Robert De Niro. The term ‘fall from grace’ will be readily and justifiably applied and, though such a dilemma is equally endemic in football, there is a new breed of player that has mastered the art of ageing gracefully. Whilst their European counterparts attempt to cling to the last vestiges of an illustrious career, there has has surfaced a cavalcade of Brazilian footballers who elect to retreat to their homeland in the twilight of their careers. Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Emerson each somewhat unceremoniously left the main stage with little inclination for an encore. However, earlier this month Luis Fabiano, at 30 years of age, bid farewell to his beloved Sevilla to return home where presumably he may see out his playing days. Prior to this, Ronaldinho had already left Milan for Flamengo amid very little fanfare. These particular transfers prompt numerous questions as, although neither is any longer the prettiest girl at the dance, lucrative offers to lure them to the premier league wouldn’t have been sparse. As it transpires, their departures are simply a mark of the times and offer as much of an endorsement of Brazilain Football as a criticism of the European game.
Ronaldinho made himself comfortable, said his goodbyes and adjusted the rear-view to take one last glance at his prime before heading back home to where it all began. In truth, the Milan incarnation of Ronaldinho, who departed for Flamengo back in January, never quite assimilated the supremacy of the player who accumulated a Champions League winners medal and two Word Player of the Year awards in Catalonia. However, at 31 his popularity hadn’t wavered so much that a Premier League club or two mightn’t have been interested. Certainly Manchester City would have offered a suitable habitat given their ongoing endeavour to assemble a bigger group of combustible personalities than can be found on an episode of Jeremy Kyle and even Blackburn Rovers at one point regarded themselves as suitors for the Brazilian. But, as it transpired, the Brazlian was yearning for a return home and bewildered many when he signed a 3 and half year deal at Flamengo before subsequently explaining:
‘I dreamt of being able to thank the fans for their support after they put their faith in me from the beginning.’
So, perhaps as we sighed and made remarks about his notable weight gain we neglected to entertain the possibility that such problems were of little relevance to someone who simply loved to play. With his best days behind him, there’s no reason why Ronaldinho should have felt compelled to exhaust his youth with aspirations of conquering mountains in which his flag was already firmly in place. Brevity looms over every football career after all.
Ronaldinho’s sentiments would later be echoed by his compatriot, Luis Fabiano, who made something of a covert exit from Sevilla earlier in March to join Sao Paolo in a deal estimated at around 7.6 million Euro. If the other career trajectories here serve as some food for thought, then Fabiano’s recent transfer serves as a whole buffet for thought. His six year spell at Sevilla yielded no less than 2 UEFA cups and a recall to the Brazilian national squad and, although the team has underwhelmed thus far this campaign, Fabiano had accumulated some 14 goals prior to his swift departure. Even if Fabiano had grown disillusioned with life at Sevilla, offers from elsewhere wouldn’t have been particularly elusive and so the questions which begs itself are: Why leave Europe? Why leave the bells and whistles of football’s primary continent? Why leave the all the money and extravagance behind? Such questions will be rendered cynical by the seemingly candid naivete of Fabiano’s responses:
‘Money isn’t everything in life. Nothing could buy the happiness I feel at wearing the shirt of the team in my heart. I owe everything to Sao Paolo and will be sure that I sweat a lot for its colours.‘
Whether or not this venture is simply a brief hiatus from the intense spotlight remains to be seen but there many players who might benefit from similar escapism.
Certainly such a pursuit is preferable to the trajectory of many European players such as David Beckham who seems to plough on endlessly only to resurface on occasion in a vein attempt to secure a place in the international squad, ultimately serving only to add credence to the notion of diminishing returns. A sincere assessment of European football might outline the somewhat introverted quality from which it suffers, as any player who ventures beyond the shores of our continent can often soon seem lost to the football wilderness. As such, Erstwhile European heavyweights tend to gravitate towards the role of ‘small fish in big pond’ only to be ridiculed by those who recollect their more prosperous days. To identify one player as the epitome of this phenomena seems unfair but is perhaps worth alluding to Edgar Davids, recently of Crystal Palace; Roberto Carlos of Anzhi Makhachkala; and, until a few years ago, Teddy Sherringham of Colchester. Each one was once a Champions League finalist but will now be regarded by many with an air of pity and mockery that seems unwarranted. Still, they endure and soon the forgettable twilight of their careers are succeeded by either a diet of coaching and stress or punditry and the occasional wii fit/ Morrisons advert.
Now that we have all collectively cringed at the memories prompted by that last reference, football’s periphery seems an all too appealing venue for the epilogue of any player’s career. When Ronaldo, a former European football heavyweight (pun possibly intended) returned to Brazil, the fans didn’t dwell on the unfortunate fact his physique had been a regrettable casualty of his lively lifestyle. Nor did they frequently cite his indulgences involving those prostitutes with the ever ambiguous gender. They recognised the FIFA World Cup all-time leading scorer. They recognised the 3 time FIFA world player of the year. They recognised the Brazilian National Hall of Fame’s 2006 inductee and his fortitude for scoring that had persisted even into the later phase of his career. In Brazil, Ronaldo, along with a number of his compatriots, will forever be heralded as icons of the game and, as such, it isn’t difficult to account for the recent decisions of Ronaldinho, Fabiano and Adriano, among others, to return to where their reputation is cemented, regardless of what the future holds. Following his transfer to Sao Paolo, Fabiano remarked that ‘Brazilian football is going through an exciting time, many players are returning there and we have the World Cup in three years.‘ Well, he may very well be right, as even the most ambitious of players in European competition might be drawn towards a place where the sun shines brighter than the spotlight and the fans are louder than the critics. And, for those who aren’t enticed by this idyllic scenario, well, the ball-pool awaits.
By Brendan Timmons