Dear eight-year-old Ronaldinho,
Tomorrow, when you come home from playing football, there will be a lot of people in your house. Your uncles, friends of your family and some other people you won’t recognize will be in the kitchen. At first, you’ll think you’re just late for the party. Everybody’s there to celebrate the 18th birthday of your brother, Roberto.
Usually when you come home from football, mom is always laughing or joking around.
But this time, she’ll be crying.
And then you will see Roberto. He will put his arm around you and bring you inside the bathroom so you can be alone. Then he will tell you something you won’t understand.
“There was an accident. Dad is gone. He died.”
It won’t make sense to you. What does that mean? When is he coming back? How could dad be gone?
Dad was the one who told you play creatively on the football pitch, the one who told you to play with a freestyle — to just play with the ball. He believed in you more than anyone. When Roberto started playing professional football for Grêmio last year, Dad told everyone, “Roberto is good, but watch his younger brother coming up.”
Dad was a superhero. He loved football so much that even after working at the shipyard during the week, he would work security at Grêmio’s stadium on the weekend. How could you never see him again? You won’t understand what Roberto is telling you.
You’re not going to feel sadness right away. That will come later. A few years from now, you will accept that Dad is never coming back on earth. But what I want you to understand is that every time you have a ball at your feet, Dad will be with you.
When you have a football at your feet, you are free. You are happy. It’s almost like you are hearing music. That feeling will make you want to spread joy to others.
You are lucky because you have Roberto. Even though he’s 10 years older and already playing for Grêmio, Roberto will be there for you always. He won’t just be a brother, he will become like a father to you. And more than anything, he’ll be your hero.
You’ll want to play like him, you’ll want to be like him. Every morning, when you head to Grêmio — you will play for the youth side, while Roberto plays for the senior team — you’ll get to walk into the locker room with your big brother, the football star. And every night, when you go to bed, you’ll think, I get to share a room with my idol.
There are no posters on the walls in the bedroom you share, there’s only a small TV. It won’t matter anyway, because you won’t have time to watch any matches together. When he’s not traveling for matches, Roberto is taking you outside to play more football.
Where you live in Porto Alegre, there are drugs and gangs and that kind of stuff around. It’s going to be tough, but as long as you are playing football — on the street, at the park, with your dog — you will feel safe.
Yes, I said your dog, by the way. He’s a tireless defender.
You’ll play with Roberto. You’ll play with other kids and older guys at the park. But eventually, everyone will get tired — and you will want to keep playing. So make sure you always take your dog, Bombom, out with you. Bombom is a mutt. A real Brazilian dog. And even Brazilian dogs love football. He’ll be great practice for dribbling and skills … and maybe the first casualty of the “Elastico.”
Years from now, when you are playing in Europe, a few defenders will remind you of Bombom.
Childhood is going to be very different for you. By the time you’re 13, people will have started talking about you. They’ll talk about your skills and what you’re able to do with a ball. At this time, football is still just a game to you. But in 1994, when you are 14, the World Cup will show you that football is more than just a simple game.
July 17, 1994, is a day every Brazilian remembers. On that day, you’ll be traveling with the Grêmio youth team for a match in Belo Horizonte. The World Cup final is on TV, and it’ll be Brazil against Italy. Yes, that’s right, the Canarinho will be in a World Cup final for the first time in 24 years. The whole country will seem to stop.
Everywhere in Belo Horizonte, there will be Brazilian flags. There will be no colors except green and yellow that day. Every single spot in the city will have the match turned on and be filled with people.
You’ll be watching with your teammates. The final whistle will blow with the score tied 0–0. The game will go to a penalty shootout.
Italy misses their first PK, and so does Brazil. Then Italy scores. And then … Romario steps up. His shot curves to the left … hits the post … and flies in the goal. The guys on the team are screaming and yelling.
Italy scores and there’s silence again.
Branco scores for Brazil … Taffarel makes a save for Brazil … Dunga scores for Brazil.…
Then, the moment that will not just change your life, but the lives of millions of Brazilians.…
Baggio steps up to the spot for Italy and misses.
Brazil are World Cup champions.
During the crazy celebration, it’s going to become clear to you what you want to do for the rest of your life. You’re going to finally realize what football means to Brazilians. You’re going to feel the power of this sport. Most importantly, you will see the happiness that football can bring to regular people.
Bruno Luca/AP Images
“I’m going to play for Brazil,” you’ll tell yourself that day.
Not everyone is going to believe in you, especially with the way you play.
There will be some coaches — alright, one in particular — who will tell you not to play the way you do. He will think you need to be more serious, that you need to stop dribbling so much. “You’ll never in your life make it as a footballer,” he’ll say.
Use those words as motivation. Use them to keep you focused. And then think about the players who did play the game beautifully — Dener, Maradona, Ronaldo.
Think about what Dad said, to play free and to just play with the ball. Play with joy. This is something that many coaches will not understand, but when you are on the pitch, you will never calculate. Everything will come naturally. Before you have time to think, your feet have already made a decision.
Creativity will take you further than calculation.
One day, just a few months after you watch Romario lift the ’94 World Cup, your coach at Grêmio is going to pull you into his office after training. He’ll tell you that you’ve been called up to the Brazilian under-17 national team. When you get to the training camp in Teresópolis, you will see something that you will never forget: When you walk into the cafeteria, you’ll notice the framed photos hanging on the walls — Pelé, Zico, Bebeto.
You’ll be walking the same halls as those legends. You’ll sit at the same cafeteria tables that Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo sat in. You’ll eat the same food they ate. You’ll sleep in the same dorms they slept in. When you put your head down to sleep, your last thought will be, I wonder which of my heroes slept on this pillow, too.
For the next four years, you will do nothing but play football. You will spend your life on buses and training pitches. In fact, from 1995 to 2003, you will never take a vacation. It will be very intense.
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But when you turn 18, you will achieve something your father would have been very proud of. You will make your debut for Grêmio’s senior team. The only sad part is that Roberto won’t be there. A knee injury will cut his time at Grêmio short and he’ll go to Switzerland to play. You won’t get to share the pitch with your hero, but you’ve spent so many years watching Roberto that you’ll know what to do and how to act.
On match days, you’ll walk through the car park where your father used to work security on the weekends. You’ll enter the dressing room where your brother used to take you as a kid. You’ll pull on the blue and black Grêmio shirt. You’ll think: Life can’t get any better than this. You’ll think you have finally made it, playing for your hometown club.
But this is not where your story ends.
The next year, you will play your first senior match with the Brazilian national team. A funny thing will happen. You will actually show up to your first training camp a day later than your teammates. Why? You’ll be delayed by a match with Grêmio in the final of the Campeonato Gaúcho tournament against Internacional.
Playing for Internacional will be the captain of the ’94 World Cup team, Dunga.
You will play very well in this match. So when you arrive to the pitch for your first day of training with Brazil, your new teammates — the guys you watched win the ’94 World Cup — will be talking about one player: the small kid wearing number 10.
They’ll be talking about you.
They’ll be talking about how you dribbled past Dunga. They’ll be talking about your title-winning goal. But don’t get too confident, because they’re not going to go easy on you. This will be the most important moment of your life. When you get to this level, people will expect many things of you.
Will you keep playing your way?
Or will you start to calculate? Will you play it safe?
The only advice I have to give you is this: Do it your way. Be free. Hear the music. This is the only way for you to live your life.
Playing for Brazil will change your life. All of a sudden, doors you never even knew were available to you will start to open.
You’ll start to think about playing in Europe, where a lot of your heroes went to prove themselves. Ronaldo will tell you about life in Barcelona. You’ll see his awards, his Ballon d’Or, his club trophies. Suddenly, you’ll want to make history too. You will start to dream beyond Grêmio. In 2001, you will sign with Paris Saint-Germain.
How can I tell a kid who was born in a wooden house in a favela what life will be like in Europe? It’s impossible. You will not understand, even if I tell you. From the time you leave for Paris, then Barcelona, then Milan, everything will go by very, very fast. Some of the media in Europe will not understand your style of play. They will not understand why you are always smiling.
Well, you are smiling because football is fun. Why would you be serious? Your goal is to spread joy. I’ll say it again — creativity over calculation.
Stay free, and you’ll win a World Cup for Brazil.
Stay free, and you’ll win the Champions League, La Liga and Serie A.
Stay free, and you’ll win a Ballon d’Or.
What you’ll be most proud of, though, is helping to change football in Barcelona through your style of play. When you arrive there, Real Madrid will be the power of Spanish football. By the time you leave the club, kids will be dreaming of playing “the Barcelona way.”
Listen to me, though. Your role in this will be about much more than what you do on the pitch.
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
At Barcelona, you’ll hear about this kid on the youth team. He wears number 10 like you. He’s small like you. He plays with the ball like you. You and your teammates will go watch him play for Barcelona’s youth squad, and at that moment you’ll know he’s going to be more than a great footballer. The kid is different. His name is Leo Messi.
You’ll tell the coaches to bring him up to play with you on the senior side. When he arrives, the Barcelona players will be talking about him like the Brazilian players were talking about you.
I want you to give him one piece of advice.
Tell him, “Play with happiness. Play free. Just play with the ball.”
Even when you are gone, the free style will live on in Barcelona through Messi.
A lot will happen in your life, good and bad. But everything that happens, you will owe to football. When people question your style, or why you smile after you lose a match, I want you to think of one memory.
When your father leaves this earth, you won’t have any movies of him. Your family doesn’t have much money, so your parents don’t own a video camera. You won’t be able to hear your father’s voice, or hear him laughing again.
But among his possessions, there is one thing you’ll always have to remember him by. It’s a photo of you and him playing football together. You are smiling, happy — with the ball at your feet. He is happy watching you.
When the money comes — and the pressure, and the critics — stay free.
Play as he told you to play.
Play with the ball.