By Brian Homewood
MARRAKECH, Morocco, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Ronaldinho's hopes that a good performance at the Club World Cup might earn a Brazil recall have been dashed by Atletico Mineiro's shock elimination at the hands of Raja Casablanca.
The ever-grinning former World Player of the Year gave two tantalising glimpses of his unique talent before drowning in a sea of mediocrity in Wednesday's match.
He scored Atletico's only goal in the 3-1 defeat with an exquisite free kick and, buoyed by that, cheekily flicked the ball over an opponent to send the Brazilian fans into raptures.
For most of the game, however, Ronaldinho, 33, looked off the pace and ponderous as the ageing South American champions were upstaged by a team of run-of-the-mill Moroccan league players. The low point was when he tried to pass a defender with a cheeky dribble on the byline and was easily dispossessed.
Ronaldinho won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, was part of the team which went out in the quarter-finals amid high expectations in 2006 and was omitted altogether by coach Dunga in 2010 in South Africa.
His performance on Wednesday was painfully similar to his ineffectual display for Brazil in a 2-1 friendly defeat to England last February in Luiz Felipe Scolari's first game in charge of the five-times world champions.
On that occasion, Ronaldinho was substituted at halftime after missing a penalty and performing sluggishly.
Scolari gave him a couple more run-outs in low-key friendlies but was clearly unimpressed and left him out of the Confederations Cup squad in June.
With the 2014 World Cup on the horizon, Ronaldinho had been hoping to earn another chance by leading Atletico to the title in Saturday's final against Bayern Munich.
"I'm just thinking about Atletico. I want to make the fans happy, represent my country and my club," he said on Monday. "But if we all play well here, then the whole world will see it."
"Everyone knows what I've achieved but I want to prove that I'm in good form and to reach the highest point which there is in Brazilian football, which is the national team."
Ronaldinho's performance was especially dispiriting as he had spared no effort to be ready in time for the Club World Cup after suffering a thigh injury in September.
It was initially feared he would be out for the rest of the year but, amid almost daily coverage of his race to be fit in time, he recovered quicker than expected and scored two goals for Atletico as he returned on the final day of the season.
The former AC Milan and Barcelona's career has been in a long, slow decline since he was chosen as FIFA's World Player of the Year award for a second time in 2005, blamed mainly on his partying lifestyle.
However, he enjoyed resurgence after his move to Atletico last year, raising hopes that he could get another chance for Brazil, but all that went down the drain in the frenzied atmosphere of the Stade de Marrakech.
"Of course I'm dejected," he told the Sportv network. "The expectations were huge, it's been a marvellous year and we have gone down in the club's history.
"This is tough, we'll have to see what's left for us."
As he trooped dejectedly off the pitch, Ronaldinho was surrounded by admiring Raja Casablanca players, a sign of the adulation he still enjoys in many parts of the world but is more a sign of his past than his present.
(Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Justin Palmer)