It was supposed to be a fairytale return for one of Brazil's greatest sons: Ronaldinho had been greeted as a returning hero by the Flamengo masses upon his return to his homeland in January 2011. Brazil's biggest footballing icon of recent times was joining the country's best supported club in a deal that heralded a new dawn for domestic football in the world's most successful footballing nation.
The tide of optimism that swept through the country's game was immediate and although he took a while to get up to speed, just four months later, Ronaldinho was leading Flamengo to the Rio de Janeiro state championship title. This was the dream; this was Ronaldinho's Flamengo. The summer came and the pony-tailed forward rolled-back the years to push the Rubro-Negro to the upper-regions of the Brazilian championship, scoring freely and playing with a swagger that had rarely been seen in his uninspiring spell in Milan. Were we seeing the old Ronaldinho again? Brazil certainly thought so and Ronaldinho was recalled to the national side.
Fast forward eight months and the picture could hardly be more contrasting. The dream of mid-2011 had quickly descended into a nightmare that few could have predicted - a nightmare that both player and club had created. As Ronaldinho walked out on Flamengo on Thursday, he cited over £10 million in unpaid wages and bonuses from the club, whilst Flamengo for their part have lost patience with the misfiring star's lack of professionalism.
Flamengo are nothing short of an institution in Brazil, a South American powerhouse of Real Madrid or Manchester United proportions. With a new £40 million a year TV deal signed for the 2012 season, Ronaldinho was the vanity project that president Patricia Amorim wanted to boost her standing at the club. Ronaldinho was going to provide the marketing potential that Flamengo needed to bring itself up to European levels, or so it was thought. A deal with player rights agency Traffic was signed and Flamengo saw themselves paying just a fraction of the star's €500,000 a month wages.
As Ronaldinho's performances and professionalism waned in Autumn 2011, Traffic were about to present the club with a major problem. With Flamengo having side-stepped some contractual obligations with the agency, deciding instead to negotiate a new sponsor with Ronaldo's company 9ine, Traffic took decisive action and tore up the contract citing the club's actions. Ronaldinho was left unpaid and Flamengo were now solely responsible for his colossal earnings. Despite the obvious financial burden, president Amorim still announced in December that the club would be unilaterally funding the player's wages. By May, though, Ronaldinho had gone unpaid in four months.
Like most clubs in Brazil, Flamengo are in a financial mess of their own making. The club's debts are rising and to put it into context, amongst those still claiming money from the club is Romario who last pulled on the scarlet and black jersey in 1999. Hamstrung by the socios system, which sees each president look to sign marquee players to preserve their status, debts have mounted rapidly and accountability is minimal. Each time money owed is called-in, it is simply refinanced and spread over an ever-increasing timescale. This is the all too familiar routine at many of Brazil's giant clubs.
Ronaldinho, though, has not helped himself in the slightest. The Brazil call-up of August proved to be a turning point, since when the goals have dried up and the fans have started to question his commitment to the cause. By January 2012, things were reaching breaking-point between the two parties as Ronaldinho's lax attitude to the demands of professional sport caused friction with then-manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo. The buck-toothed star would eventually overcome the former-Real Madrid manager, following a bust-up when he had been caught sneaking women into the club's pre-season training camp, but the club's backing would extend little longer.
By the start of May, Ronaldinho had missed 12 training sessions since the turn of the year due to an array of ailments that would make even a teenage truant blush - from insomnia to an ophthalmologist appointment on new coach Joel Santana's first day in-charge, the former-Barcelona star has tried them all. It was becoming an increasingly embarrassing situation for the club and their attempts to rectify the situation were being made public on an almost daily basis. The fans, who saw their captain's on pitch performances declining, were turning on the star and when the side unexpectedly crashed out of the Copa Libertadores during the group-stage, Ronaldinho became the target of their frustrations.
A slow start to the league campaign followed and the past week has seen the already bizarre situation turn ridiculous. Brother and agent Assis attempted to help himself to items from the club shop, as compensation for the lack of payment, before Ronaldinho failed to link-up with the squad for a friendly with Piaui having been granted permission to visit his mother after an operation. This was the last straw for some at Flamengo, with vice-president Paulo Cesar Coutinho recorded telling fans, "Ronaldinho doesn't do a f*****g thing".
Rumours abounded that Ronaldinho would be suspended, or sacked, for his latest indiscretions, but the star beat the club to the courtroom in order to claim his unpaid wages and successfully seek the termination of his contract. What will follow for the fallen star, is still not clear. There is talk of a return to his childhood side Grêmio, but Ronaldinho would have to accept a massive pay-cut in order for that move to come about, as well as reconcile with the club he jilted in order to join Flamengo. For most other clubs in Brazil, however, he is considered too disruptive a figure to gamble upon at such an outlay.
Ronaldinho struggled in his final years in Europe, so talk of a move to the Middle East or China would require him putting aside his party lifestyle in Rio de Janeiro to move to a far-flung destination - an unlikely solution. Could the MLS be an option? Only time will tell. But, the sad reality remains that we have already seen the best of Ronaldinho - a once in a generation talent and one of football's great entertainers.
Note - Since this article was written Ronaldinho has joined Atletico Mineiro