The goofy teeth were still there, the hair still unruly and straggly, even the gait and build were familiar despite his advancing years, but there was something unmistakably missing as Ronaldinho wore a Brazil shirt again at Wembley last night: it. He just didn’t have it.
We were told the sumptuously talented forward had rediscovered some of his best form. Winner of the 2012 Bola de Ouro, awarded to the best player in the Brasiliero, this was supposed to be the contest that relaunched Ronaldinho as Brazil’s once undisputed number 10 with the 2014 World Cup in mind. A reboot to match that of returning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari as the two sought to replicate their famous win in 2002.
The man who once inspired the hostile Bernabeu to rise to its feet to acclaim him had another enraptured audience at his mercy last night. Ronaldinho was afforded an enthusiastic reception when being awarded with a shirt to mark his 100th Brazil appearance prior to kick-off, and when the teams were read out, the 32-year-old’s name drew the loudest cheers from the away contingent - even more than that of Neymar, the latest wunderkind to manifest Brazil’s genetic disposition for fantasy.
This was a comeback of sorts, and everybody loves a comeback. Though Scolari's predecessor Mano Menezes used him sporadically – and only recently in London in a friendly against Ghana at Craven Cottage last season - this was to be Ronaldinho’s return to star billing, the game when Europe would once again fall in love with a player whose talents had mostly been obscured in South America since his move from AC Milan to Flamengo in January 2011.
But after a missed penalty and a desperately ordinary 45 minutes, Ronaldinho’s rejuvenation must wait.
As the 2004 and 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year ambled off at the break, missed passes scattered in his wake, this failure to provide a glimpse of his past brilliance, despite the best wishes of a crowd that so desperately wanted to see it, brought to mind Ricky Hatton, bent double by a body shot from Vyacheslav Senchenko at the Manchester Arena in November.
Hatton – whose career-defining moment, a bruising victory against Kostya Tszyu, came only five months before Ronaldinho, then a Catalan icon, earned a standing ovation in Madrid in November 2005 – was battered into a moment of painful introspection by Senchenko as his own comeback was curtailed, admitting: "I needed to know if I still had it and we found out tonight - I don't have it."
The two cases are not equivalent. Importantly, Ronaldinho had persuasive mitigating circumstances in the fact Brazil have hardly trained together under Scolari and the Brazilian season is still in its infancy. On what was a bitingly cold night in North West London, to expect Ronaldinho to perform at his vintage would be wildly optimistic. But his hesitancy and sloppiness were nonetheless alarming. We are still left wondering whether, to paraphrase Hatton, he still has it.
Quite aside from his poor attempt from the penalty spot and failure to follow-up, Ronaldinho’s performance in the 45 minutes he was on the pitch hinted strongly at decline, however much he was lacking match fitness or hadn’t yet mastered Scolari’s fresh tactical and strategic demands.
There were glimpses of that once alluring talent – a raking 45-yard pass to the left channel; a lovely take on the forehead followed by a clever touch with the boot; another expert piece of close control that demonstrated his technical faculties are still sound – but they were all too fleeting on a night when a more accurate representation of his contribution came on 24 minutes when he failed to execute a five-yard pass to Adriano.
Ronaldinho wasn’t so much a shadow of his former self as a crude sketch: the form was recognisable, but the exact definition rather messy.
His malaise was all the more resonant as this was once a man who entranced us like few others have in the history of the game. Before the ultra-devastating, ultra-athletic talents of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo laid waste to La Liga with ultra-contempt, the best player in the world was a more carefree, free-form exponent of the attacker’s trade at his Barcelona peak. Highly efficient at winning matches, yes, but blessed with more imagination and a greater ability to enchant.
Ronaldo can and has played outrageous passes off his back, Messi’s footwork is just as intricate, but neither possess the sheer unpredictability that Ronaldinho had at his peak – nor the rather more relaxed definition of professionalism, it must be said. A penchant for partying contributed to his Pep Guardiola-mandated exit from Barcelona in 2008 and dogged his time at Milan, too.
But ultimately this is a player who, when once asked if he had a girlfriend, replied: “the ball”, and also admitted to sleeping with one when growing up in Porto Alegre. Football has always been his first love, and at his best he caresses that leather sphere like Casanova.
All football romantics want to bear witness to a Ronaldinho reinvention in time for the 2014 World Cup, and that includes Scolari too, who was supportive of Ronnie in a genial post-match press conference that concluded with the Brazil boss officially inviting English journalists to enjoy his hospitality for the tournament next summer.
Scolari said of Ronaldinho: "He has played 90 minutes for the first time this year last week, so it's to be expected that he is not fully in the condition that he wants. But if he continues working normally, he will comfortably make the next squad."
No one is writing Ronaldinho’s footballing obituary just yet, not least Scolari, but after a night when heady predictions of renewed brilliance were thwarted, the onus is now on the fading superstar to prove he still has it.