When great footballers fall they fall hardest

What happens to footballers when the game’s up?

By Robert Rigby

It was one of those rare, ‘I was there’ sporting moments. November 2005, a chilly Saturday night in Madrid for El Clásico, the always hugely anticipated encounter between Spanish heavyweights, Real Madrid and Barcelona. And this Clásico promised to be extra special, coming at the pinnacle of the first era of the Galácticos, the superstar players that Real president, Florentino Pérez, was relentlessly recruiting in his determination to build the world’s greatest club team.

Lining up in the all white of Madrid under the floodlights of the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium that night were many of the very best: Zinedine Zidane, the Brazilians, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, and of course, David Beckham.

The Barcelona players facing them were no slouches themselves and included the world’s most exciting youngster at that time, a certain Lionel Messi, and striker Samuel Eto’o, once of Real Madrid and with a point to prove. And then there was another Brazilian, Ronaldinho, he of the impish, toothy grin and the dazzling footwork. It promised to be a match that would truly live up to its billing, a closely fought and memorable encounter.

No words, no cheers, just sustained, ringing applause

As it turned out, it was certainly memorable, but it was a massacre, with Real the victims. Eto’o started it after fifteen minutes, the Cameroon international spinning round a trio of static Real defenders before poking the ball past Casillas.

Brilliant in the first half, Ronaldinho was simply magical in the second, scoring two wonderful goals, tormenting and toying with Real, leaving the Madrid maestros chasing his jinking shadow. His first goal came when he collected the ball forty metres out, left Sergio Ramos sprawling, skipped by another defender and fired a perfectly placed shot into the net.

A little later he did it again, cruising past the by now humiliated Ramos to curl a magnificent strike beyond ‘keeper, Casillas, who stood rooted to the spot, hands on hips, shaking his head, as if to say: ‘How do you possibly deal with that?’

And then came that ‘I was there,’ moment. There was a brief, stunned silence then Madrid supporters began to get to their feet to applaud.

Within seconds it seemed as though the entire 80,000-strong crowd inside the vast stadium was standing and applauding. No words, no cheers, just sustained, ringing applause. It was spine-tingling, and the long-time Madrid supporter next to me leaned across to say that the only other Barcelona player ever to receive such a tribute was the great Argentine, Diego Maradona, back in 1983, after he had similarly tortured Real.

That night I knew I had watched the best player in the world at that time. He had already won a World Cup with Brazil and would claim the Champions League and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona. Later, back in his homeland, he won everything that Brazilian and South American continental football had to offer.

Ronaldinho had the footballing world at his feet, and with it the accompanying fantastic riches, as reward for his sublime skills and his success.

How sad, then, has it been recently to see that same Ronaldinho brought to his knees in shame. The partying and hedonistic lifestyle since his retirement from football is stuff of legend. Last year there was a lawsuit from an ex-fiancée for a share of his fortune, then serious and costly legal battles and fines over property developments, followed by investigations into a financial pyramid scheme involving crypto currencies.

Most recently, Ronaldinho and his brother, Assis, his long-term business manager, were arrested in Paraguay for possession of false passports. They spent a month in prison and then paid $1.6m bail and were transferred to a luxury hotel as police investigations continued. The feeling remains that the Ronaldinho saga has a way to run.

Footballers, particularly South American footballers, are often from humble and sometimes poverty-stricken backgrounds. It frequently seems that the most brilliant of all are also the most fragile. Ronaldinho is clearly in that category, the great Maradona is another, and his battles with cocaine abuse and obesity when his playing career ended are well-documented.

And it is by no means only a South American problem. Here at home, Paul Gascoigne, generally beloved by football fans in Britain and around the world, has had very public battles with alcohol and his mental health, and has been jailed and sectioned on a number of occasions. And Gascoigne is far from the only one to have had problems – think back, if you can remember that far back, to the troubled genius, George Best.

And it isn’t just footballers who often seem to tumble too easily into trouble. During the summer, the Manchester United captain and England centre-back, Harry Maguire, on holiday with friends and family in Greece, was handed a suspended prison sentence of 21 months and 10 days after a trial on the island of Syros.

Maguire was found guilty of repeated bodily harm, attempted bribery, violence against public employees and insult, following an alleged altercation in a police station on the island of Mykonos. A police officer claimed that while at the station, Maguire said: ‘Do you know who I am? I am the captain of Manchester United. I am very rich. I can give you money. I can pay you. Please let us go.’

Maguire’s defence argued that this request may have been lost in translation and suggested that Maguire, who was convicted along with his brother and a friend who faced similar charges, may have been asking to pay a ‘fine’ to be released.

And after the verdict, Maguire, who had denied all charges, as had his brother and friend, maintained their innocence and added that ‘if anything myself, family and friends are the victims.’ His legal team quickly lodged an appeal against the guilty verdict, meaning that under Greek law the conviction is nullified and there will be a full retrial in a more senior court.

These incidents, however, continue to occur. Millionaire footballers are praised, pampered and protected whilst cocooned within the safety of their clubs.

Sometimes, when on the loose, they can run into trouble, but that can happen to anyone, not just football stars. More importantly, it seems that much is still to be done by the clubs, perhaps in conjunction with the various international professional footballers’ associations and the game’s ruling bodies, to help many of the top stars learn simply how to be, how to live, both whilst they are playing the game and when the cheering stops and the constant hero worship has ended.

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