Jack Lang argues that since his big-money move to Flamengo, which angered his hometown club, Ronaldinho has not profited as expected
"Don't throw coins at Ronaldinho: he'll only start collecting them" read one handmade sign. Hundreds of others simply bore the words "crook" and "mercenary". Some pioneering fans even went to the effort of printing fake R$100 notes with his face on them. This was not the homecoming Ronaldinho had hoped for, but he could have expected nothing less. His return to boyhood team Grêmio in October was always going to be a tense affair, following his decision to snub the club earlier in the year.
In early 2011, when Ronaldinho announced he was returning to Brazil, Grêmio fans rejoiced. If he is coming back, they thought, he will come back to us. But Ronaldinho chose to sign for Flamengo, ostensibly for their enormous fanbase, but mainly for the beaches, the nightlife and the glamour of Rio de Janeiro.
Money, of course, also played a factor. The forward was to be offered a generous wage, funded in large part by third-party investors. Herein, however, lay the root of the problems that threatened to derail Flamengo's 2012 season almost before it has begun. The Grêmio fans at the Olímpico that day had no idea just how prescient their banner would prove to be.
When Ronaldinho arrived in Brazil, Flamengo enlisted the help of Traffic, a marketing agency with a penchant for investing in promising footballers, to pay around three-quarters of the player's wages. In return, Traffic took control of Ronaldinho's image rights and were granted permission to set-up sponsorship deals. Under this arrangement, the former Barcelona man earned just over a R$1 million (£400,000) a month – far more than his team-mates.
The deal did not, however, go to plan. Traffic were unable to profit from Ronaldinho's image in the manner they had hoped. One notable success aside – a shirt sponsorship deal with Visa for the 31-year-old's debut – the firm struggled to turn public interest into hard cash.
The blame cannot be laid at the player's door. Ronaldinho has sparkled only intermittently on the pitch, but he remains a huge draw for football fans around the country. A more feasible explanation is that Flamengo have been lax in coming up with a coherent strategy to market the player. While other Brazilian clubs have made huge strides in pursuing commercial revenue streams (see Santos' attempts to cash in on the fame of Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso), Flamengo continue to be hamstrung by boardroom bickering and a lack of long-term thinking.
The problem came to a head earlier this year, when it emerged that Traffic had not paid their share of Ronaldinho's wages for five months, leaving the player well over £1m out of pocket. With the media spotlight shining, the accord between marketing agency and club began to fracture. Worryingly, it became apparent that the deal had been only verbal all along. "Nothing was official," admitted Leonardo Ribeiro, the chairman of Flamengo's finance committee.
Weeks of uncertainty followed. Traffic assured Flamengo that Ronaldinho's money would be forthcoming, provided the partnership between the two parties was made official, while the club flirted with other potential sponsors. The affair cast a shadow over the early stages of the current campaign, with Flamengo uncertain over the future of their star player. Ronaldinho has always seemed keen to stay, but the nefarious influence of his widely despised brother and agent Assis (nicknamed A$$I$ by some typographically creative soul) ensured an extra element of doubt.
To the relief of many, Flamengo finally announced that they were to assume the responsibility of paying all of Ronaldinho's wages, thus severing ties with Traffic. The company, however, is yet to settle its considerable debt with the player. The saga reflects badly on the administrative side of the game in Brazil. While the financing of wages by third parties is a relatively common occurrence in Brazil – players such as Fred and Neymar are not paid solely by their clubs, for instance – it still tends to alarm those more accustomed to football on the other side of the Atlantic.
This concern is understandable. Third parties cannot always be relied upon to have the best interests of players at heart. The real problem, however, arises when such arrangements are not protected by official contracts. Such deals could leave players with less financial security than Ronaldinho in a very tricky position indeed.
From WSC 302 April 2012