- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

SAO PAULO, Brazil — He learned his first moves with the help of a mixed-breed dog named Bombom. Today he is the best soccer player in the world, praised by Pele and Diego Maradona.

All eyes will be on Ronaldinho as the 2006 World Cup begins today.

No other player will attract as much attention as the Brazilian midfielder during the monthlong tournament in Germany — thanks to his nifty skills and dazzling moves, and to Bombom.

“He loved to play with me,” Ronaldinho said. “When all my friends got bored, I would go play with him.

“We would stay battling for the ball all day. I had to work hard on my moves to keep him from getting the ball.”

Bombom — and a soccer ball — were by Ronaldinho’s side at all times as he grew up in a poor family in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, at a time when he didn’t even dream of playing in a World Cup.

“We were inseparable, he was my great companion,” Ronaldinho said of Bombom, which means “chocolate candy” in Portuguese.

And when Bombom wasn’t available, Ronaldinho would find other opponents to test his skills.

“When it was raining, I would stay inside the house dribbling past chairs and tables,” he said. “I always spent most of my time as a kid with a soccer ball. That helped me become good at it.”

Now 26 and in his prime, Ronaldinho will enter the World Cup as the tournament’s biggest star.

He has won the last two FIFA player of the year awards, and has led FC Barcelona to two consecutive Spanish league titles and to the Champions League title.

Few dispute his status at the best player in the world.

Maradona said recently Ronaldinho is in a different class from other players, and that it’s “fun to watch him play.”

Pele celebrates his countryman just as highly, saying Ronaldinho is the player who gives fans “the most joy.”

Ronaldinho enchants everyone with his impressive skills and nifty tricks — from the no-look pass to the “elastic” dribble, in which he fakes moving the ball in one direction and suddenly pulls it back the other way.

“I’m always trying to invent new things,” he said recently. “But my goal is to win the World Cup again, I really don’t care about giving a show or scoring a lot of goals.”

Ronaldinho will be the focal point as the Brazilians go for a second consecutive world title — and sixth overall. No other country has more than three.

He was a member of the squad that won the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, playing five matches and scoring two goals, including a spectacular free kick against England in the quarterfinals.

It was Ronaldinho’s first World Cup, before he moved to Barcelona and into the elite of world soccer. He knows everyone will be expecting more from him this time around.

“It’s normal, everyone’s responsibility has increased because Brazil is the defending champion,” Ronaldinho said. “But we are prepared, we’ll do whatever is needed to win the Cup again.”

Ronaldinho has 46 goals in 86 matches in Brazil’s jersey, including a record 16 with the country’s pre-Olympic team.

He led Brazil to titles in the 1999 Copa America and the 2000 pre-Olympic tournament, as well as in last year’s Confederations Cup in Germany.

“Ronaldinho is in the best moment of his career,” Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said. “It’s impressive how he is able to play well match after match.”

The always smiling Ronaldinho began playing professionally not long after his street-ball days in Porto Alegre. He debuted with two-time Brazilian champion Gremio in 1996 as a 16-year-old.

He moved to France’s Paris Saint-Germain in 2000, and then to Barcelona in 2003 in a deal worth $37million. In 2005, he helped Barcelona win the Spanish league for the first time in six years.

Despite all his accomplishments, Ronaldinho thinks he needs to get better.

He recently said he needs to “mature a lot as a player,” and improve in some areas of his game, such as left-footed shots.

And to get better, he still relies on an old habit. Bombom is not around any more, but Ronaldinho has found worthy replacements.

“My dogs in Spain also love to play ball,” he told the Zero Hora newspaper recently. “I keep dribbling [with] them all the time, too.”

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