It’s not every day that you get the chance to sign a player of Ronaldinho‘s stature. On Thursday, the Brazilian soccer star became a free agent after terminating his contract with Flamengo. Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs should be tripping over themselves in a rush to throw money his way.
The 32-year-old finally fell out with Flamengo after watching their relationship deteriorate over the last year. He’s been criticized for his love of the nightlife and lack of discipline. This week, he missed practice in order to visit his sick mother. Although he was supposed to return in time to play in an exhibition game on Wednesday, he never showed up. That was the last straw for club directors. They publicly ridiculed him for his attitude and performances. Their shots echo those of fans who had turned on him long ago.
But Ronaldinho is a professional soccer player. He plays for money, and Flamengo has not paid him on time for the last several months. It has been unable to foot his $8.4 million salary after the sports marketing firm Traffic Sports, which had been paying the bulk of his wages, severed ties with the club. On Thursday, Ronaldinho sued Flamengo for nearly $20 million in unpaid salaries and delayed payments. His contract with Brazil’s biggest club was terminated, and he is looking for a new home.
MLS has flirted with the Samba star in recent years, but now is the time to make a move. The league is rightfully trying to shed its reputation as a retirement home washed-up veterans, instead investing in talented young players. But MLS desperately needs star power in order to increase television ratings, and Ronaldinho has it to spare.
From 2001-2011, he starred in Europe’s top leagues. He won a Serie A title with AC Milan, and led FC Barcelona to two La Liga championships and one UEFA Champions League crown.
While conquering Europe at club level, he became a global superstar wearing the yellow jersey of Brazil’s national team. He was a key figure in its triumphant campaign at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Since then, Brazil has regularly played lucrative friendlies around the world, as fans flocked to see Ronaldinho and his fellow samba kings.
Signing him would win his new team legions of fans, and take the league and its brand into new markets around the world. He is also one of the few players that the average American sports fan would recognize and tune in to watch.
On the field, Ronaldinho is well past his best. He probably wouldn’t lead his new team to a championship, may not be the best role model for young players, and would certainly be the top earner at a North American club. Rather than a string of wins, he’d be good for a few highlights — maybe an eye-catching goal or two — and a number of interesting headlines.
That’s not what signing him is about. More than any other player who has played in the last 15 years, Ronaldinho embodies the phrase “Latin-American flair.” It’s something that is largely missing from MLS and American soccer, and the lack of flair players in the league makes it harder to grow the sport here. He would expose more people to one of the best things about the game: pure skill.
It wouldn’t be a bad thing for the league to have the pop-stardom of David Beckham, the urban cool of Thierry Henry and the frustrating genius of Ronaldino on display at the same time. Although he wouldn’t fit into the new ethos of No Country for Old Men, he’s an exception an MLS team needs to make.
If an MLS team — FC Dallas, Chivas USA, Toronto FC or Montreal Impact come to mind — can sign him for half of what he makes now ($4.2 million), it would be a steal. Players around the world recognize the league as one that is well-run and pays its players on time. Ronaldinho is probably interested in such an arrangement at this point in time.