Vol. 5 Num 698 Wed. May 17, 2006  

On the threshold of greatness

Pele, Maradona, Cruyff -- Ronaldinho? The world's best footballer is already being mentioned in the same breath as some of the greatest players to grace the game.

And if the Brazilian genius inspires Barcelona to Champions League glory on Wednesday and leads his country to a sixth World Cup on July 9, his elevation to the pantheon will be assured.

Ronaldinho's CV commands awe. Winners medals for the 2002 World Cup, Confederations Cup and Copa America as well as back-to-back Spanish league titles, augmented by two World and a European Footballer of the Year crowns.

Now he stands on the brink of joining the elite club of footballers whose names immediately conjure up mental images of some of the beautiful game's most iconic moments.

Ronaldinho's logic-defying skills are on their way to being bracketed with the Cruyff turn, Maradona's miraculous slalom through the entire English team at the 1986 World Cup and Pele's outrageous attempt from the halfway line against the Czechs in 1970.

"He could be a Champions League victory and World Cup win away from being classed as one of the all-time greats, alongside Pele and Maradona," says former England and Barcelona striker Gary Lineker.

"I look at some of the tricks he does and just can't understand how they are physically possible," Lineker wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.

"What is more important is that his tricks are designed to hurt the opposition - he might be fun to watch but he is also effective, scoring and making goals. And to cap it all, he plays with a smile on his face."

Other greats of the game have been similarly won over.

"Ronaldinho just makes the game so beautiful. He makes everyone happy, and his smile when he's playing says it all," said France and Juventus legend Michel Platini, one of three three-time winners of the Ballon d'Or.

Johan Cruyff, one of the pioneers of the flowing game in the 1970s known as 'total football' said Ronaldinho was ability to entertain while delivering match-winning performances was what singled him out.

"He animates the game and people love watching him when he's playing," said the former Barcelona and Netherlands great.

"Every one of his gestures is potentially dangerous and that, obviously, is what the fans want to see."

Diego Maradona, meanwhile, says Ronaldinho's willingness to test the boundaries of flamboyance were what thrilled him.

"If he wants to try a nutmeg in a risky situation, he tries it," said the Argentinian great. "On the pitch he, he is the happiest man in the world."

Ironically, the only footballing great who declines to gush unreservedly about Ronaldinho is the man widely held to be the greatest player ever -- Pele.

While the three-time World Cup winner is an admirer of his compatriot, he says judgement should be reserved until Ronaldinho nears the end of his career.

"For me, Zinedine Zidane has been the best player in the world for the last 10 years," he said in an interview with Britain's FourFourTwo magazine.

"Ronaldinho is a good player, he has some nice skills and he's playing well. But let's see if he can keep it up. Let's see how he plays in three or four or five years time."