Friday, June 1, 2012
Ronaldinho out of form, out of pocket
"You're not paying my brother," exclaimed Assis, sibling and agent of a certain Ronaldinho, as he pushed a trolley full of merchandise towards the exit of the Flamengo club shop. "So I'm not paying either."
An hour and a half later, after frantic discussions with Fla's director of finance Michel Levy, Assis left the store with 25 free shirts - the number to which Levy was entitled through his role at the club. Brilliantly, this didn't quite satisfy the 41-year-old Assis, who grabbed - and proceeded to pay for - two towels emblazoned with his brother's image before storming out.
If this story sounds apocryphal, you don't know Flamengo Football Club. The Rio de Janeiro outfit - the best-supported team in Brazil - has become known for this sort of kitchen sink drama in recent times. This year, however, has been particularly fraught, and Ronaldinho has been at the centre of it all.
Warning signs appeared at the beginning of the year, when it was reported that Ronaldinho was over £1 million out of pocket after delayed payment of wages. To lure Ronaldinho to Rio in the first place, Fla had established a partnership with Traffic, a firm that invests in the economic rights of many players in Brazil. In return for paying three-quarters of Ronaldinho's £400,000-a-month salary, Traffic were allowed to take control of his image rights and set up sponsorship deals.
Things didn't quite work out, however. Hindered by Flamengo's outdated commercial strategy, Traffic were unable to exploit the player's image rights to the extent that they had hoped. Then, rather than working around the problem, they simply didn't pay Ronaldinho for five consecutive months. Alarmingly, it emerged that a formal deal between Fla and Traffic had never actually been signed. "Nothing was officialised," admitted Leonardo Ribeiro, chairman of Fla's finance committee.
At the same time as his financial plight was coming to light, R10's working relationship with first-team coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo began to deteriorate.
A strict authoritarian, Luxa initially turned a blind eye to Ronaldinho's partying tendencies - no small task, given that the player's decision to join Fla was heavily influenced by the allure of Rio's nightlife. Luxemburgo remained tight-lipped last year, even when the club set up a "party hotline" that fans could call to report sightings of the star at nightclubs.
But Luxa's patience ran out in January. He suspected nocturnal antics at the club's pre-season training camp, to the point where he began to trawl through CCTV footage, looking for evidence that Ronaldinho was sneaking a woman into the team hotel. He never found the proof but remained convinced of the midfielder's guilt.
That friction soon blossomed into a full-scale revolution. After other players began to complain about Luxemburgo's dictatorial demeanour (sample quote: "You're a shit. You're poor. I own three aeroplanes."), the Flamengo hierarchy stepped in to bring down the curtain on his reign. In the eyes of many, this was evidence of player power: one of Brazil's most successful coaches cast aside in an attempt to placate Ronaldinho and his friends.
New coach Joel Santana arrived with the promise of a more conciliatory stance towards Ronaldinho. "He'll play wherever he wants," said Santana. "We'll build the side around him." Unfortunately for Papai Joel (a play on the Portuguese for Father Christmas, illustrating Santana's reputation as a loveable - and rotund - father figure), Ronaldinho has not proved a stable building block.
After a reasonable debut season back home, the 32-year-old's form has tailed off severely this term, with dire consequences for his side. A poor Rio state championship campaign would have been forgiven if the Rubro-Negro had enjoyed a decent Copa Libertadores run, but Fla were dumped out in the group stage.
The issues surrounding Ronaldinho's wages came to a head this week, first with Assis' amusing outburst and then in far more significant style. It was rumoured that Ronaldinho would be suspended by the club after skipping training sessions to visit his mother. Caught on candid camera by a fan on his phone, club vice president Paulo Cesar Coutinho confirmed that Ronaldinho would be sidelined.
This, however, proved to be just an appetiser for what was to come. On Thursday evening, it was revealed that Ronaldinho has taken Flamengo to court over unpaid wages, claiming that the club owe him a staggering sum of more than £12 million. In so doing, he rescinded his contract, and is now free to sign for another club.
This, of course, is unlikely to be the end of the saga, with a drawn-out legal battle now a distinct possibility. The situation clearly reflects badly on Flamengo, and on Brazilian football more generally; that a player could be denied of such a huge amount of money for such a sustained period of time smacks of amateurism at best.
With some luck, these events will serve as a warning to clubs considering enlisting the help of third parties to attract big name players back home. While the benefits may be felt on the pitch, the long-term damage caused when such schemes unravel might be irreparable. Players, too, must beware. Sometimes the promise of riches is just that: a promise.
Follow Jack Lang on Twitter - @snap_kaka_pop