Watching Ronaldinho in his prime—nipping the ball around defenders with moves you’d either never seen someone pull off in real life or at least never, say, against some of the world’s best defenders, in the middle of the sport’s fiercest rivalry, in front of 80,000 opposing fans, with supporters so moved that they were compelled to stand and applaud their team’s executioner—it would’ve been a perfectly understandable response to think to yourself, I hope this man plays forever.

You probably haven’t noticed outside of the increasingly frequent reports of his comings and goings that in fact, Ronaldinho is still playing soccer—or, at least, he was as of earlier this week, and plans to continue. But the Ronaldinho that was released from his contract with Brazilian Série A club Fluminense by mutual consent on Monday and is now planning on taking time off before finding a new club come December/January shares almost nothing in common with the one at PSG and Barcelona or even AC Milan and Atlético Mineiro.

Ronaldinho is the star of countless Youtube videos, more than a handful of which have view totals in the tens of millions. There, the remnants of his greatest moments play over and over again, showing glimpses of his mind-bending genius at work. Highlight after highlight shows lightning-quick footwork, vision so complete he’d often look away right before playing a pass to show it off, and a way of seeming to incorporate his consciousness into the ball, enabling him to make it move exactly how he wanted, time or space be damned.

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Accompanying each unique passage of play’s conclusion—whether his elasticos and stepovers result in a curled shot that finds the top corner of the goal or with a fourth defender finally succeeding at sneaking the ball off the Brazilian where three teammates had failed—is that enormous smile, at times stretching so wide he can hardly keep his eyes open, his beaming teeth communicating that yes, being able to perform magic felt about as exhilarating as watching it.

If you search Youtube for “ronaldinho fluminense,” you’ll find an altogether different set of compilation videos. As primarily uploaded by user iKhoStyleR10 HD, there are a number of individual “highlight” videos from Ronaldo’s short-lived run with Fluminense. Watch Ronaldinho take on Avai in a 1-0 loss, as the visibly out-of-shape forward lolls around the middle of the pitch, collects the ball and sends wayward passes right into the teeth of the defense, and swings in harmless free kick after free kick after corner before the video mercifully comes to an end. Or watch him do it against Figueirense in a 2-1 win, with the same mirthless gait and as many errant crosses for five minutes.

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The one video with anything approaching a traditional highlight comes from the video of a match against Internacional, which is replayed four times and takes up a good 30 seconds of the video’s 3:49 running time. The former dribble wizard doesn’t even attempt to take on an opponent, and on the rare occasion he moves far enough from the center line to receive the ball in a somewhat dangerous position, it’s either stripped from him with ease or he gives it away by kicking it straight into an opponent or flopping any time someone gets within arm’s length. Of most concern, that ebullience and the smile it came with, is almost never seen. He’s out there on the pitch, technically still playing soccer, but it looks like it’s the last place he wants to be.

So why does he still play?

Ronaldinho’s brother and agent, Roberto Assis, was the man who got him that contract back in Brazil’s top flight with Flu. Ronaldinho signed that deal just a couple months ago in July after lasting less than a year with Querétaro in Mexico. At both destinations, fans and the club’s higher-ups grew tired of the player’s lackluster approach to his profession and eventually cut him loose before the contracts were up. He lasted less than three months with the Rio club, appearing in nine matches and failing to accrue a single goal or assist.

As Globo Esporte reports, Assis now has an eye on finding his brother a new destination. The prospects are not promising:

In this case, the options are few and unimpressive, such as Australia, Guatemala, Lebanon and New Zealand, reports the FIFA website. Scenarios that do not look attractive to the star even at the worst moment of his career. At 35 and after short and frustrating stints with Querétaro in Mexico, and [Fluminense], he is rethinking his career. In conversations with friends, he makes it clear he does not want to retire now, although the possibility has increased after his experience in Rio. But at the same time he recognizes that the timing is not good.

One club that has reportedly shown interest in Ronaldinho is Corinthians USA, a Californian team that seeks to make a deeper run in the U.S. Open Cup. They play the bulk of their games in a small-time, amateur local state league on various high school and college pitches around the Southern California area. His brother is said to visit the facilities sometime soon.

So why does Ronaldinho continue playing when it’s so obvious he can’t or won’t perform at a level that dignifies his former greatness? From the same article, his brother has some insight:

Ronaldinho’s journey with Fluminense lasted 80 days, but could have been even shorter. He would have left the club earlier, but his brother and agent, Roberto Assis, convinced him to stay. Assis, incidentally, has a concern: what would he be as a retired player? Without the profile to be an entrepreneur, commentator or to occupy any position in a club, the agent, a kind of father to the forward, can make him come back to play for a while.

As spectators miss out on whatever greatness a different, more committed Ronaldinho could perhaps be wringing out of his 35-year-old body, the worst part of this late-career death march is that this man knows no other way to live. Even while probably spending more effort partying the nights before matches than during them, trudging around only half-interested in doing something memorable in front of a few thousand people on weekend afternoons, unable to bring anyone that old joy that was part and parcel to his game, Ronaldinho still can see himself as nothing other than a soccer player. At least blowing off practice means he had somewhere he should’ve been. Disappointing thousands of spectators at least means people are still watching.

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It’s a shame that the once seemingly inexhaustible font of happiness Ronaldinho could return to over and over, filling himself and millions of others with so much delight, is now completely tapped; what’s worse is how he can’t help but keep returning to the well long after it has run dry in a macabre ritual that succeeds only in producing sadness.

Sooner or later, he’ll have to come to grips with the fact that he can’t be Ronaldinho: Soccer Star forever. Hopefully the man who once stood atop the game’s very peak decides to step away before we lose him to its depths.

Photos via Getty

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