BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (Reuters) - A rejuvenated Ronaldinho has established unheralded Atletico Mineiro as favourites to win their first Brazilian league title in four decades with the scintillating form that marked his time at Barcelona.
The charismatic forward has been resplendent in a campaign that has seen Atletico beaten just once in 19 games. With the season half over, his team is top of the table, a point ahead of Fluminense with a game in hand.
Former Manchester City striker Jo is scoring goals, midfielder Bernard has staked a claim for the young player of the season, and Ronaldinho has shown glimpses of the form that won him FIFA World Player of the Year awards in 2004 and 2005.
“I feel like this is the happiest moment of my career,” Ronaldinho told Reuters in an interview at the team’s base near Belo Horizonte.
“Once you have a certain amount of experience you learn the value of things and, at the age I am at, I feel competitive, quick, sure of myself. I feel accomplished, like I’m doing what I set out to do.”
Atletico are one of the oldest and most popular clubs in Brazil, but their only league title came in 1971 and they have never enjoyed the national success their fanatical fans merited.
The club’s chairman has spent money to change that. In addition to signing Jo and Ronaldinho, he has hired some of the best backroom staff in the country and invested millions in a training ground recently named the best in Brazil.
Ronaldinho’s arrival at the club two weeks into the new season was a surprise after an acrimonious departure from Flamengo. He spent 16 months at the Rio de Janeiro club, but after a decent first year things went downhill fast.
When Flamengo were knocked out of the Copa Libertadores, Ronaldinho was criticised for turning up late for training and sneaking women into his hotel room on the eve of games. He walked out on Flamengo in May and sued the club for 40 million reais ($20 million) in unpaid salaries and bonuses.
Although many believed Ronaldinho to be a lazy shadow of the player who wowed the world at Barcelona and helped lead Brazil to its fifth World Cup title in 2002, Atletico wanted him to boost their national aspirations and signed him for the season.
His move to the relative backwater of Belo Horizonte was seen by some as one more slide in a slow decline that started when he left Barcelona for AC Milan in 2008.
However, there is also reason to believe this could be a stellar swan song for the 32-year-old: he has excelled in a central role in a three-man midfield.
No longer stuck out on the left, Ronaldinho has been forced to take on more responsibility, and statistics show he has covered more ground and been more involved in the game than he ever was at Flamengo.
The club has benefited both in attack and defence. Atletico have scored more goals than any other team in the league and only second-placed Fluminense have conceded less. And his experience has been vital for the club’s youngsters.
“He gives us a certain calm,” said Bernard, a 19-year-old who giggles about lining up alongside a player he used to pick for his team on Play Station.
“He is an experienced player and he exudes tranquility, so even when we’re up against it he lets us know that we’re a good team, that we’re playing well and that we are capable of turning things around.”
Another reason for his ascendancy is that Atletico are not Barcelona or Flamengo, and Belo Horizonte is not Milan or Rio.
His salary is a fraction of what it once was, there are fewer distractions, and expectations are much lower, said Tostão, the former World Cup winner and now a newspaper columnist.
“At Flamengo, the hope was that Ronaldinho would play like he did at Barcelona,” Tostão wrote last week. “The higher the expectation, the greater the frustration. At Atletico-MG he has played better than expected.”
Ronaldinho’s revival was on display last weekend in what was arguably the biggest game of the season so far, a city derby away to Cruzeiro. Atletico fans were banned from the stadium for security reasons and there was a tense atmosphere.
With the scores level at 1-1, Ronaldinho won the ball in midfield, dribbled past two defenders and wrong-footed a third before coolly slotting it into the net.
The match ended 2-2, but the goal made headlines around the world.
Ronaldinho, exuding the same shyness that has always marked his interviews, put it down to luck. He was less modest when considering what a title would mean for his new side.
It might not make the headlines of a Champions League triumph, nor be enough to get him a spot on the Brazilian national team for the 2014 World Cup that Brazil will host, but it would give him god-like status in Belo Horizonte.
It would also fulfil a boyhood dream.
“The club’s president told me about how I’d write my name in Atletico’s history if we could win the title after 41 years,” he said, flashing his trademark toothy smile. “Everyone wants to make history and that was what most motivated me to come here.”
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve dreamt about winning the Brazilian league and I still dream about it now. I am doing everything I possibly can to make my dream come true.”
Editing by Matt Barker