MADRID (Reuters) - Two seasons ago Ronaldinho was the undisputed king of world football, enjoying a hero-like status at Barcelona having steered the club to back-to-back league titles and victory in the Champions League.
In 18 months, the Brazilian has suffered a fall from grace and is deemed surplus to requirements at the Nou Camp.
A dilettante attitude to training, a serious loss of form, an apparent weight problem and the rise of a new generation of hungry youngsters account for the change in attitude towards a player who was one of the most prized possessions in the game.
When Ronaldinho joined Barcelona from Paris St Germain in 2003 after a much-publicised fall-out with their coach Luis Fernandez he was hailed as a saviour.
Joining a club trying to extricate itself from a crisis caused by four years of mismanagement, political in-fighting, and underachievement, he was greeted by 30,000 fans on the day of this presentation.
The burden of expectation was immense and yet he made light of the responsibility and restored the club’s shattered morale.
The Brazilian’s vision, passing skills and dazzling party tricks, coupled with his smiling, laid-back attitude to life and childlike enthusiasm were the perfect antidote to the gloom that had descended on the Nou Camp.
Although the team made an unsteady start during his first season, he eventually inspired them to a 17-match unbeaten run that lifted them to a second-place finish in the league, their best placing in four years.
The importance of that achievement was recognised when he was named World Player of the Year in 2004, an award that he retained 12 months later.
After a slow start to his second campaign he was soon back to his best and, together with leading scorer Samuel Eto’o, he guided Barca to their first league title in six years.
The Brazilian then directed the team to a successful defence of their league title and their second-ever European Cup triumph with victory over Arsenal in Paris in May 2006.
During that campaign he produced a sublime performance to lead Barca to a 3-0 victory over arch-rivals Real at the Bernabeu, scoring two stunning solo goals in a display that even brought the normally partisan home crowd to their feet.
He scored a brilliant goal against Chelsea in the Champions League first knockout round, bursting past centre back John Terry before arrowing a shot past keeper Petr Cech and he set up the winning goal in their semi-final victory over AC Milan.
But Ronaldinho’s career has been on the wane since.
He made no impact at the World Cup in 2006, looking stale and lethargic while Brazil limped out of the tournament after a defeat by France in the quarter-finals.
The following season Barca surrendered their league title to Real Madrid and, although he weighed in with 23 goals in all competitions, he was increasingly criticised for an apparent lack of commitment and a loss of form and fitness.
He came under particularly heavy fire when photographs taken after one match showed him with a distinctly unathletic roll of fat hanging over the waistband of his shorts.
Ronaldinho asked to be rested from the 2007 Copa America so he missed Brazil’s triumph but still failed to recover his form.
There were reports of a dressing room rift with striker Samuel Eto’o, while the emergence of Argentine prodigy Lionel Messi and new kids on the block Bojan Krkic and Giovani dos Santos meant the Brazilian no longer seemed indispensable.
Last season he spent several matches on the bench early on after failing to impress coach Frank Rijkaard with his form in training.
A failure to recover form in the second half of the season, combined with a series of unspecified injuries and reports of indiscipline only served to further tarnish his image.
Barcelona have won themselves a reputation for a Saturn-like habit of devouring their own sons; Maradona, Bernd Schuster, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo were all lauded as heroes but ended their careers at the Nou Camp unhappily.
Ronaldinho joined Barca as a toothy-grinned wizard who had the club under his spell for three glorious seasons. He will leave a rather forlorn figure. Whether his magic has been exhausted or he just needs a new challenge remains to be seen.
Editing by Clare Lovell