LONDON — Before Manchester United’s friendly against Barcelona last Sunday chief executive Peter Kenyon was asked who would be the first player from the Premiership champion to kick Ronaldinho.

Christopher Davies

“There’s a sweep going on,” joked Kenyon.

In fact no one kicked Ronaldinho and the only way United hurt the Brazilian was to dent his pride as Sir Alex Ferguson’s team made it four wins out of four in the United States with a 3-1 victory over Barcelona.

Without David Beckham and Ronaldinho — and with Juan Veron making his final appearance — United showed no signs of serious weaknesses as it continued its build-up for Sunday’s meeting with Arsenal in the Community Shield — the traditional curtain raiser to the English season.

Ferguson saw the Brazilian as the forward to give United a player who can run at defenders with power and purpose, a quality the Scot, who did not hide his disappointment at losing Ronaldinho to Barcelona, feels his team is missing.

Speed was an aspect absent from Ronaldinho’s transfer from Paris St. Germain.

After almost three months of negotiations and headlines that the player was “set” to join United/Barcelona/Real Madrid/AC Milan/stay with PSG, the Brazilian finally signed with Barcelona to put everyone out of their misery.

It is one of football’s puzzles why transfers and contract agreements can take so long to finalize.

The reason is money. Or rather, as much of it as the player and his agent (or various agents) can make and how much the selling club can hike up the price.

Ronaldinho said earlier this week that he joined Barcelona because of its tradition of signing Brazilian players (Romario, Rivaldo, Ronaldo for example) and that the Catalan capital was closer in culture to Brazil than Manchester.

Was Ronaldinho not aware of all this last May?

Did it take him three months of research to find out that Rivaldo used to play for Barcelona where the language and climate are more Rio than Rochdale?

The figures under discussion most of the summer were not the temperature on the Costa Brava but Ronaldinho’s salary, bonuses, transfer fee and, no doubt, the agent’s percentage.

Ferguson is not a man known for his patience, so it says much about how much he wanted Ronaldinho that he was prepared to put up with the player and his brother/agent promising this and promising that — and eventually joining Barcelona.

The Catalan club could not offer Champions League football to Ronaldinho as United can, but it could offer him and PSG a better deal so Barcelona eventually — belatedly — secured the deal.

Ferguson hinted that the failure to sign Ronaldinho could even be the difference between success and failure in Europe for United.

“We want to win the Champions League again and that’s where Ronaldinho came into the equation,” said Ferguson after the deal was completed.

“I felt if we had signed him we would have had a big chance in Europe. Without him we can’t really offer anything different to be honest. I think he’ll be a great player.”

So where did it all go wrong for United — apart from the financing of the deal?

On reflection Ferguson realizes he should have put more pressure on Ronaldinho, rather than leave the door open until the player finally shut it in United’s face.

“We stretched it too far,” said Ferguson. “We waited too long. The problem was the boy was in Brazil, then there was the Confederations Cup, then he went back to Brazil — it went on and on and we never really had a chance to sit down properly with him.

“We never established whether he wanted to come or not. The frustration we had was with his brother [Roberto Assis, Ronaldinho’s agent]. When I did meet the player, briefly, he was fine but he doesn’t speak English and most of the time his brother was the interpreter.”

Ferguson probably wondered whether Ronaldinho’s words were his own or his brother’s.

In the end United belatedly gave PSG a deadline which passed so United withdrew. Barcelona, which had been on the verge of pulling out of negotiations, signed the superstar new president Joan Laporta had promised, even if it wasn’t David Beckham.

The other “will he or won’t he” summer saga was Patrick Vieira signing — or to be precise, not signing — the new contract on offer by Arsenal. The Frenchman has been “poised” to put pen to paper since the end of last season. It is not just a game that can go into extra time.

Vieira, who has a year remaining on his current contract — after which he would be a free agent — has inevitably been linked with just about every top club, including United (Ferguson would love to sign the midfielder but it would be over Arsenal’s dead body).

The odds are that Vieira will soon sign a new contract and people will assume it can only be money that is the main sticking point for the delay.

Perhaps Vieira has also been seeking some assurances about the club signing new players or moving to a new stadium, but if the terms were right the new contract would sure have been signed quickly.

Arsenal is offering Vieira around £90,000 a week and a three-year agreement which would run to 2006.

By then Vieira would have completed 10 years at Arsenal and be eligible for a tax-free testimonial — a game where fans who have helped make a player a millionaire willingly fork out again to help make him a multimillionaire.

Vieira missed the climax to last season because of a knee injury, but is fit again and is set to lead Arsenal against United when the Gunners’ recent signing from Borussia Dortmund, goalkeeper Jens Lehman, will make his debut.

The German is a colorful character who has been sent off five times during his career.

When this was pointed out to Wenger recently, he smiled and said. “We’re used to that.”

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