Dear Ronaldinho eight years,
Tomorrow there will be a lot of people in the house when you get home from soccer. Your aunts and uncles, family friends and even some people you won’t recognize will all be gathered in the kitchen. At first you’ll just think you’re late for the party and everyone is gathered to celebrate your brother Roberto’s birthday. Roberto will be turning 18 years old.
Normally when you come home from soccer mom is always laughing or happy.
But this time she’ll be crying.
Then you will see Roberto. He will hug you and take you to the bathroom so you can be alone. There he will tell you something that you won’t understand at the time.
“There was an accident. Dad died.”
This won’t make sense. What does this mean? When are you coming home?
How could Dad be gone?
Dad was the one who always told you to play football with creativity. He was the one who told you to play free – to just play with the ball. He always believed in you more than anyone else. When Roberto started playing professional soccer with Grêmio last year, he would always tell everyone, “Roberto is good, but wait until you see his younger brother.”
Dad was a superhero. He loved football so much that after working at the shipyard all week he went to work as a security guard at Gremio’s stadium at weekends. How can it be that you’ll never see him again? You won’t be able to understand what Roberto is saying to you.
You’re not going to feel sad right away, that will come later. In a few years you will be able to accept that Dad will never come back. But I want you to understand that every time you have a ball at your feet, Dad will be there with you.
When you have a ball at your feet, you are free. You are happy. You feel like you’re listening to music. That feeling will make you want to spread that same happiness to others.
You are very lucky to have Roberto. Roberto will always be there for you with everything even though he is 10 years older and is already playing for Gremio. He will stop being just your brother and become a father to you. And most of all, he will be your hero.
You’re going to want to play like him, you’re going to want to be like him. Every morning when you go to Gremio’s stadium – you’ll be playing with the youth team while Roberto plays with the professional team – you’ll be able to go into the locker room with your older brother, the soccer star. And every night before you go to sleep you’ll think, I’m sharing a room with my idol.
You won’t have any posters in the room, just a small television. That won’t matter because they’ll never have time to watch games together anyway. When Roberto is not travelling with the team, he will always take you to continue playing football.
When you are living in Porto Alegre, you will see all kinds of drugs and gangs. It’s going to be tough, but as long as you’re playing soccer – on the streets, in the park, with your dog – you’ll feel safe.
And yes, I did say your dog. He is a tireless defender.
You will play with Roberto. You’ll also play with other kids your age, and with older kids, but eventually everyone will get tired of playing – and you’ll want to keep playing. So make sure you always take your dog, BomBom, with you. BomBom is a stray dog. A real Brazilian dog. And even Brazilian dogs love football. He will be very good at practicing dribbling and dribbling … and maybe he will be the first victim of the elastic.
Years from now, when you’re playing in Europe, some defenders will remind you of BomBom.
Your youth will be very different from everyone else’s. By the time you’re 13, there will be a lot of people talking about you. They will talk about your skills and what you can do with the ball. At that point football will just be a game for you. But in 1994, when you are 14 years old, the World Cup will show you that football is much more than just a game.
July 17, 1994 is a day that all Brazilians remember. On that day, you’ll be travelling with Gremio’s youth team for a match in Belo Horizonte. They’ll be showing the World Cup final on TV. The match will be Brazil vs. Italy. Yes, the Canarinha will be in the World Cup final for the first time in 24 years. It will feel like the whole country came to a standstill.
In Belo Horizonte you will see Brazilian flags everywhere. On that day, there will be no other color except green and yellow. Everywhere in the city will be packed with people to watch the game.
You will be watching the game with your teammates. The final whistle will blow with the match tied at 0-0 and it will go to penalties.
Italy will miss the first as will Brazil. Then Italy will score. And then… it will be Romario’s turn. His shot goes to the left… hits the post… and goes in. Everyone on the team screams with excitement.
Italy score and again there is silence.
Branco scores for Brazil … Taffarel blocks a shot for Brazil … Dunga scores for Brazil…
Then, the moment that will not only change your life, but the lives of millions of Brazilians?
It’s Baggio’s turn for Italy and he misses.
Brazil is World Champion.
During the celebration, you will realize what you want to do for the rest of your life. You’ll finally realise what football means to Brazilians. You will feel the power of the sport. The most important thing is that you see the happiness that football can bring to normal people.
On that day you’ll say to yourself, “I’m going to play for the Brazilian national team.”
Not everyone will believe in you, especially the way you play.
There will be some coaches – well, one in particular – who will tell you to change the way you play. He’ll think you need to be more serious on the pitch, that you need to stop dribbling so much. He’ll tell you “You’ll never become a professional footballer in your life.”
Use those words as motivation. Use them to keep you focused. And then, think about those players who did play wonderfully – Dener, Maradona, Ronaldo.
Remember what dad told you, to play free, to just play with the ball. Play with joy. This won’t be understood by many coaches, but when you’re on the field, you’ll never calculate. Everything will come naturally and instinctively. Before you can think your feet have already made up their minds.
Creativity will take you further than calculation.
A few months after watching Romario lift the World Cup in ’94, your coach at Gremio is going to call you into his office after training. He’ll tell you that you’ve been called up to play for Brazil’s U-17 national team. When you arrive at the training camp in Teresópolis, you’ll see something you’ll never forget: As you enter the cafeteria, you’ll notice the posters hanging on the wall – Pelé, Zico, Bebeto.
You will be walking the same corridors as those legends. You will sit at the same tables that Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo sat at. You will eat the same food they ate. You will sleep in the same dormitories where they slept. When you put your head on the pillow before you go to sleep your last thought will be: Which of my heroes used this pillow?
For the next four years, you’ll do nothing but play football. You will spend your life in buses and training camps. What’s more, from 1995 to 2003 you will not take a vacation once. It will be very intense.
But when you turn 18, you’re going to do something your dad would be very proud of. You will make your debut with Grêmio’s professional team. The only bad thing is that Roberto will no longer be with Gremio. Roberto suffered a knee injury which cut short his time with Gremio, after that Roberto will go to play in Switzerland. You won’t be able to play with your hero, but you’ll have spent enough time watching him play that you’ll know what to do and how to act.
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Image
On game days, you’ll walk through the parking lot where your father worked as a security guard on weekends. You’ll enter the locker room your brother used to take you to when you were a kid. You will wear the blue and black shirt of Grêmio. You’ll think: Life doesn’t get any better than this. You’ll think you’ve made it, playing for your hometown team.
But this is not where your story ends.
The following year you will play your first game with the Brazilian senior national team. Something funny will happen. You will arrive at your first training session with the national team a day after all your other teammates. Why? Because you had a game with Gremio in the final of the Campeonato Gaucho against Internacional.
The captain of the ’94 World Cup winning team will be playing for Internacional. Dunga.
You will play very well in this match. So when you arrive on the field for your first training session with Brazil, your teammates – all those players you saw at the ’94 World Cup – will be talking about one player: the little boy wearing the number 10.
They’ll be talking about you.
They’ll be talking about how you took Dunga dribbling. They’ll be talking about your goal to win the cup. But don’t get overconfident, because they won’t make it easy for you in training.
This will be the most important moment of your life. When you get to this level, there will be a lot of people who will expect a lot from you.
Will you continue to play your way?
Or will you start playing in a more calculated way?
Will you play with less risk?
The only advice I have for you is to do this: Do it your own way. Be free.
Listen to music. This is the only way you can live your life.
Playing for Brazil will change your life. Suddenly, doors will open that you never thought existed.
You’ll start to think about playing in Europe, where many of your heroes went to prove themselves. Ronaldo will tell you about life in Barcelona. You will see all his trophies, his Ballon d’Or, his trophies with the club. At that point, you’ll want to make history too. You will begin to dream of much more than the Guild. In 2001, you will sign a contract with Paris Saint-Germain.
How can I tell a child who was born in a slum, in a favela, what life will be like in Europe? It is impossible. You wouldn’t understand me if I told you.
The time when you move to Paris, then to Barcelona, then to Milan, it all goes by very, very fast.
The media won’t understand the way you play.
They won’t understand why you’re always smiling.
The truth is that you’re always smiling because football is fun.
Why should you be serious? Your goal is to spread joy.
I’ll say it again – Creativity over calculus.
Stay free, and you’ll win a World Cup for Brazil.
Stay free, and you’ll win the Champions League, La Liga and Serie A.
Stay free, and you’ll win a Ballon d’Or.
Even with all this, what you will be most proud of, will be to change football in Barcelona with the way you play. When you get to Barcelona, Real Madrid will be the best team in the Spanish league. By the time you leave there, kids will be dreaming of playing “the Barça way.”
Pay attention. Your role in all of this is going to be much bigger than just on the field.
When you’re in Barcelona, you’ll hear about a young man from the youth team. He wears number 10 like you. He is small like you. He plays with the ball like you do. You will go with your teammates to see him play with the Barça youth team, and at that moment you will know that he will be much more than a great football player. He is different.
His name is Leo Messi.
You will tell your coaches to bring that young man to train with you and the senior team. When he arrives, the Barça players will talk about him like the Brazil players talked about you. I want to give you some advice.
Say, “Play with joy. Play free. Just play with the ball.”
Even after you leave Barcelona, the free-flowing style of play will live on through Messi.
Many things will happen in your life, some good and some bad. But whatever happens, you’ll owe it to football. When people criticise the way you play, or because you smile after losing a game, I want you to remember one thing.
When your father leaves this world, you won’t have any video of him. Your family doesn’t have much money, so your parents don’t have a video camera. You won’t be able to hear your father’s voice, or hear him laugh again.
But among his possessions, if there is one thing you will always have to remember him by. It’s a picture of him playing soccer with you. You are smiling, happy with the ball at your feet.
He’s happy to see you.
When the money comes – and the pressure and criticism – stay free.
Play as he told you.
Play with the ball.
(Letter published in The Players Tribune on January 11, 2017)