Ronaldinho dropped to one knee, bowed his head, covered his eyes, and burst into tears. Young Bernard embraced his idol with a poignant blend of delight and concern: as much as congratulating his team-mate, the 19 year-old was comforting a friend.
Fillipe Soutto arrived shortly after, throwing his arms around his distraught colleague, before the former FIFA World Player of the Year was lost in the pile. As the crowd dispersed, Ronaldinho tried desperately to compose himself. Looking to the heavens, he puffed out his cheeks and trotted back to the halfway line. It was the first of a hat-trick that would give Atletico Miniero a 6-0 win over Figueirense. His curling effort that sailed into the top corner may well have been a cross. But that mattered little.
It was a victory that would keep Atltieco Mineiro within six points of league leaders Fluminense – a gap that was beginning to look a stretch too far, even with eleven rounds of fixtures remaining. O Galo, who were runaway leaders of the Brazilian championship at around the halfway stage, had already lost the league title, said the doubters. But that was a prospect deemed almost immaterial by the events of just two days previously, when Ronaldinho has lost a father. For the second time.
“The goals from today, I dedicate it to my family and thank you for the messages of affection I received. The gap [my stepfather] leaves is irreparable,” he tweeted. Vanderlei had passed away after suffering a hear attack.
This one's for you: an emotional Ronaldinho after opening the scoring against Figueirense
Fast forward a few weeks and a slightly less significant gap remains at just six points after a thrilling 3-2 victory over Fluminense on Sunday night. “It was a match with all the ingredients of a title decider, especially the emotion,” said coach Cuca. Emotion has been omnipresent throughout the season for his side, and that was once again evident when Leonardo Silva’s dramatic 93rd minute winner claimed all three points and kept his side in the title race.
Fluminense have consistently looked the best side of Brasileirao 2012. They’re very Brazilian: compact, organised, athletic and reactive to often devastating effect. Abel Braga’s side have lost just three of their 32 games, and conceded the fewest in the league. In Fred they boast perhaps the best centre forward on the continent right now; Wellington Nem’s stock continues to rise, with a winter move to Europe looking likely for the pint-sized support-striker; they can also rely on the experience of Deco, the guile of Thiago Neves, and the security provided by the double-pivot of Edinho and Jean.
In contrast, Cuca’s more expansive group – the league’s current top scorers – is made up of misfits: Ronaldinho arrived on a free after an underwhelming few years for the once world’s greatest, and amidst the controversy of his contractual dispute with Flamengo; Jo has spent more time partying than playing football since deciding to take his own winter break whilst playing in England; Danilinho and Guilherme are trying to get their careers back on track after their careers abroad appeared to fizzle out; while Richarlyson is trying to recover his enthusiasm for the game following allegations about his private life that halted his progression at Sap Paulo.
On Wednesday night, the Rooster’s unlikely title challenge continues against Ronnie’s old foes, Flamengo – and his contribution will be key. “[Ronaldinho] has a technical quality different to the others,” says Cuca. “He has had games when he hasn’t played as well, but when he does well, the team does well.” With just six games remaining, there’s little room for error.
A revitalised Jo now has has ten league goals in Brasileirao 2012
They may well yet be a fairytale end for a club who last won the league 34 years ago, though the sensible money remains on Flu. If Cuca’s side do slip-up and eventually lose the title to Flu, the black-and-white section Belo Horizonte can be proud of their team the season. After all, they were never supposed to be here in the first place.
If, in a few weeks’ time, Cuca, Ronaldinho and co. are forced to look on as Fred raises the championship crown, they can take solace in the fact they will have achieved something that, though less tangible, is arguably just as important.
Because the league table come the end of the season will once again be little more than a preface to the novel that has been this year’s Brazilian championship – and everyone at Aeltico MG has a story to tell.
Cuca’s approach has shown that daring can still produce victories in a league as pragmatic as any in the world. Bernard, perhaps the stand-out player of the season, has enjoyed a fascinating opening chapter to his career. Jo has achieved a certain vindication, his ten goals proving he still has something other than the social event of the year to offer; and Richarlyson appears to have rediscovered his joy for the game after what has been a difficult few years for the former Brazilian international.
Ronaldinho, meanwhile, has been at the centre of all. “He has helped me a lot,” says Bernard. “He has talked to me and told me that I must enjoy playing football.” He himself appeared at one stage to have lost that joy, but amidst the tears and cries of frustration, that contagious smile has been slightly more frequent in the second half of 2012.
Perhaps most importantly, however, he has proven to us all that the game can be used to help overcome tragedies that far outweigh what happens on a football pitch.