Those fans who were lucky enough to see him play on a futsal court in the slums of Brazil won't ever forget the boy who routinely asked the ball to defy the laws of physics and danced around defenders with a smile wide as the Maracana pitch and eyes as big as saucers.
His talent was remarkable and could only be outdone by the joy and playfulness he brought to the game. It was, after all, a game, and it was fun to play it if your name was Robson de Souza.
It wasn’t long before the club of the King of Futbol came calling for the kid with legs like toothpicks who could break a thousand ankles.
If you weren't there to see him rise like a god in the great Vila Belmiro stadium, you can see this ascension in a catalog of grainy YouTube videos.
It's all there. The breakneck speed. The unequaled ability to escape. The flawless technique. The shots from distance. And a deluge of stepovers so plentiful they once earned him a card for disrespecting his opponents. His enthusiasm for the game knew no bounds, and his skill could not be contained.
After returning legendary Santos to glory with Championship wins in 2002 and 2004, Robinho quickly became a legend at the Santos Futbol Club. Rarely has soccer seen such a love affair between player, club and community. Santos had become home and Robinho had clearly become the favorite son. The feeling was indeed mutual.
Even with his deep love of Santos, it was inevitable that Europe would come calling.
And soon after his move overseas, critics began using words like "disappointment," "waste" and "underachiever" to describe Robinho's career.
While those monikers follow him to this day, they are inaccurate and misguided. And this sentiment is due predominantly to unrealistic expectations that Pele created by tabbing Robinho to be his heir apparent.
Evaluated in any other light, Robinho's career has been anything but a failure.
To be sure, there have been periods of inconsistency on the pitch, and Robinho has squandered more than a chance or two inside the box—as we were reminded last week when he launched a ball over the crossbar against Catania. But his overall body of work illustrates great success in both Brazil and abroad.
Critics fail to recognize that Robinho has won nine Championship trophies for three of the world's most historic clubs—Real Madrid, AC Milan and Santos. Or that he finished fourth in goals in his first season at Manchester City, becoming the only Brazilian (to date) to crack the Top Five in the Barclays Premier League.
Or that he placed in the Top 10 in both goals and assists, respectively, in his first two seasons in Serie A. Or that he has been even better in International competition, with a Confederations Cup, Copa America, two Golden Balls and a Golden Boot to his credit, alongside 26 goals for the Selecao.
These are, without question, the achievements of a great footballer, and they fly in the face of the critics.
But no professional footballer of the past decade can evoke such strong feelings as Robinho. No player sets Twitter ablaze during the course of a single match the way Robinho does. Every touch is analyzed and comes with a strong opinion.
Genius. Bum. Hero. Waste. Magician. Failure. Talent.
These words are all there, launched into cyberspace with the passion only football fans can summon.
Inventive and flamboyant, Robinho is indeed that "insolent rascal" the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano might have had in mind when he wrote the book Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
And he can infuriate coaches and fans alike with an extra dribble, errant shot or unnecessary stepover.
At the same time he can make the hearts of grown men skip a beat. When he is on the ball, defenders brace themselves for a 5 foot 7 inch tornado.
He wreaks havoc by playing a style that thrives on the unpredictable.
You watch Robinho with the understanding that this is the work of a gifted artist. He might make you want to cut off your ear at times, but he is equally capable of sending you into ecstasy at any moment.
However, the world of European football isn't always welcoming to players who dribble incessantly or infuse great, stodgy stadiums with the unbridled freedom you might find in the streets of Brazil. The game is steeped in tactics and formations. It's a chess match, with battle plans and contingencies.
Only Robinho plays without them.
Instead, Robinho wields a paintbrush. A colorful, maddening, unsteady paintbrush.
Decisions are made unconventionally, and sometimes he throws the whole can of paint at the canvas. This doesn't always yield favorable results. But for those who watch football with the belief that the impossible is always within reach, Robinho's quest for the spectacular provides hope. It may be derived from his fearless, and sometimes ill-advised, invention. But his style of play reinforces the idea of the sport’s unlimited possibilities.
Still, at just 28, Robinho has quite a few years ahead to add to his list of accomplishments. A return to the Selecao and a chance to play for the 2014 World Cup in his native Brazil would be an incredible way for Robinho to conclude his International career. And it would be tremendously exciting for fans to see Robinho line up alongside the likes of Neymar, Kaka, and Thiago Silva in a quest for Brazil's sixth World Cup.
However, if he doesn't get that opportunity, he has already given the game so much. And we should enjoy watching the diminutive Brazilian play for as long as he roams the pitch--driving defenders to the brink, fueled by a 1,000-watt smile, the guile of a magician, incredible skill, and above all else...joy.
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