Ronaldinho is now the highest-earning footballer in the world. It is a victory for both his footballing genius and skin-colour.
Good news, for a change. I read this morning that, according to the magazine France Football, Ronaldinho has overtaken David Beckham as the highest paid footballer in the world. Good news for two reasons.
First, it is good to think that the greatest footballer in the world is also the highest paid in terms of salary, sponsorship and the rest of it. Beckham is a player of distinctly limited talent: he probably never rated in the world’s top 20 in terms of ability, and certainly does not now. His value has been to do with his looks rather than his skill. Beckham is about celebrity, about the Hollywoodisation of football. On the eve of the World Cup, it is good to think that footballers are, above all, appreciated for their footballing skills. And Ronaldinho is a magician who is about to delight hundreds of millions of people around the world with his special brand of magic.
Second it is good because Ronaldinho is black. Of course, ever since Pele’s extraordinary talents blessed the world of football, black footballers have been accepted in the pantheon of the greats. But to achieve commercial recognition is somewhat different: it requires a form of adulation that also spells identification and role model. It would still be extremely difficult for a black footballer to receive anything like the celebrity that Beckham has enjoyed in Britain over the last few years. For whites, black means different and therefore identification remains, for many, a step too far. Thierry Henry is hugely respected – both for his football and his dignity – but it is difficult to imagine him gaining that kind of acclaim, even though he certainly deserves it. I can’t think of a better role model in the Premiership today.
But all this is too parochial. I write from east Asia, where I have spent most of the last year. Its appetite for football, as we know, has grown hugely over the last decade, and being home to a third of the world’s population and getting ever richer by the minute, that means, in footballing terms, mega bucks. This is also a region of the world that has a profound hang-up about colour. People want to be as pale as possible: they yearn to be white. Put bluntly, it would be quite impossible for a black footballer to be the recipient in these parts of the kind of adulation that Beckham receives. He has a huge following in countries like Japan and South Korea, and indeed throughout the region. That’s the main reason why Real Madrid bought him: one of their top officials boasted that the whole of Asia wanted to shag Beckham.
And Ronaldhinho? In north east Asia – Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan – it is still rare to see a photo of a black or brown person in any kind of advert, sport, fashon or otherwise: and unimaginable that they might be granted the status of role-model. The only such photo I ever saw in over two years in Hong Kong was one of Andy Cole in his Man United kit in the window of a sports shop. Apart from that, there was a “black man” portrayed as an idiot in a disgustingly racist TV advert for San Miguel beer: I guess the Hong Kong Chinese must have thought it was funny. It is utterly inconceivable, therefore that Ronaldinho could receive the same kind of adoration in East Asia as David Beckham, even less that they would want to bed him.
But Ronaldhindo’s rise to the top of the global money-making league suggests that there are growing numbers of people who see him as a role-model, who enjoy his other-worldly skills, and who can readily identify with him. That has got to be good news. And I have even noticed the odd photo of him – bearing his joyous toothy grin, wearing Brazilian or Barca colours, and, of course, his Nike boots – beginning to be displayed in sports shops here in east Asia.
May this summer see him acclaimed as a global superstar. His talents can only inspire and enoble us all: football as an art form rather than as a branch of the pop industry. And his colour can only serve to educate a bigoted world, in however small a way. I cannot wait.