[Don't worry, the presence of Leo isn't because he's leaving, it's because I wanted to pay tribute to the friendship between him and the three who are leaving, particularly his 'older brothers' Ronnie and Deco.]
First up, my personal favourite photo of each:
Ronaldinho at the Bernabeu, on the night that they got up and applauded him off the pitch. What a game that was, and what a moment for him. The week after this photo was taken, he won the Ballon d'or.
Just. Yes. ♥
Celebrating the league title win. He looks so young and unburdened here, it always strikes me.
Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto'o were vital to Barca' success these past five seasons, so let's remember the trophies they helped the club win.
04-05, league title. Remember that? The team were down to about 12 players at one point due to massive injuries, but they still pulled through and won the thing with fantastic performances. Many of the people in this photo have left the club already, sadly.
05-06, league title. This was a bit of a stroll compared to the year before, thanks to a record-breaking win streak from October to February. Samuel Eto'o won the top scorer award this year.
And of course, Paris and the second CL title. What a night that was.
Individual glory. Ronaldinho and Eto'o came in first and third place respectively for the World Player of the Year (and Messi won the U21 Golden Ball).
They all had nuanced relationships with Frank Rijkaard, our beloved former coach, but in the end each of them maintained that they trusted him to be the best man for the job, and he always looked after them.
Having one of his patented heart-to-hearts.
06-07, against Zaragoza. This was such a fantastic freekick, and the celebration was just amazing - Ronnie went straight for the bench, and then everybody else piled on too.
Eto'o and Rijkaard have had their well-documented issues, but more than once he ran to celebrate goals with Rijkaard when the coach was under pressure from the press, in order to indicate his support.
When Eto'o was recovering from injury.
Deco had a more distant relationship with Frank, but they still understood each other quite well. This was taken straight after the defeat against Manchester United this season.
R-E-M is the nickname the fans gave the devastating strike force of Ronaldinho-Eto'o-Messi. They started 35 games together, losing only twice, and scoring 53 goals between them in those games. At their best, they were magic. It's a tragedy that we'll never see this combination up front again.
One of their best moments, that game I mentioned above in the Bernabeu. More on this later.
Against Chelsea at the Bridge, another brilliant night for all three players.
REM: Eto'o and Ronnie
They were the odd couple, in a way: Ronnie joyful, seeing football as play, and performing to the fans, while Sammy was more often than not serious and efficient. They had their conflicts, and there is speculation that the eventual rift between them caused many problems in the dressing room, but their on-field partnership was magical all the way to the end.
Look at the joy. Oh, Sammy.
These last four are some of my favourite images of the Rijkaard era:
Against Real Madrid. I love this image to pieces.
The last two have special significance. Samuel Eto'o has often been the victim of ignorant racist chanting at various Spanish stadiums, unfortunately. He has dealt with the situation with in usual straight-forward manner, which I think is so admirable.
After scoring at the Bernabeu, silencing the horrible monkey chants. This is the prelude to the image above of all three strikers. I don't think too many people realized what Sammy was going for here, which is a pity, because it's brilliant irony.
Forgive the size. This is from that infamous game against Zaragoza, which you can read Sid Lowe's great account of. A great moment.
REM: Eto'o and Leo
Along with the other senior players, Eto'o has always seen Leo as a protege to be looked after, and took it upon himself to help him get better. Even as Messi became more of a star, eventually becoming an equal of the other two forwards, Samuel kept showering him with praise. They had a near-telepathic on-pitch partnership.
A visit by Eto'o to training while he was out injured.
Beginning of 06-07, Leo thanking Samuel for the assist.
What we saw too little of this season, mostly because of injuries: Eto'o scoring off a Messi pass.
Against Valencia, after Eto'o scored one of his brilliant goals.
REM: Ronnie and Leo
Leo and Ronnie's close relationship has been well-documented. When Messi came into the first team, it was Ronaldinho who took him under his wing and gave him a helping hand, and they've been very close ever since. All through these two years of constant controversy, Leo has defended his 'older brother' to the press every time. If Leo and Samuel are nearly telepathic, then Leo and Ronnie seem to actually be able to read each other's minds. [This is by far the largest section of this post, because they spend a lot of time hugging each other.]
Interesting compare and contrast exercise:
This is from Leo's first full season in the first team.
From this season just gone. Leo has grown and matured a lot as a player and as a person in that time, and Ronaldinho can take at least some credit for that.
A couple from training:
Roughly in chronological order:
Leo's first official goal for Barca, more than 3 years ago. Off a Ronaldinho assist, of course.
05-06, Leo scores off a rebound shot by Ronnie.
This season, against Atletico. Leo scores after a mind-bendingly quick one-two with Ronnie.
Leo and Deco
Much of what I wrote about Ronnie and Leo above applies to Deco and Leo as well. Leo admires Deco both as a person and as a footballer, and Deco is the biggest Messi fanboy on the team, bar none. Their on-field partnership is almost as telepathic as Leo and Ronnie.
For Deco's birthday, three seasons ago.
In training. Hee.
05-06. Look at that grin.
Also that season: this is the infamous Copa game in which Ronaldinho got sent off, and Leo spent the rest of the game trying to run the game and rally the team.
This season, against Sevilla. Aww, the glee. This was the first time Ronaldinho had his mystery injury and Messi had to take over play-making duties upfront.
In that brilliant first game against Zaragoza. This is my cellphone wallpaper.
With Titi, against Levante. Comrades! I love this picture.
05-06, against Bremen. Leo's first CL game. He earns a penalty, converted by Ronnie.
That same game. I loved that eye-blinding kit.
A couple of Ronnie and Deco, being pals:
04-05. I can tell just because of Deco's dyed, puffy hair. [Alright, and the kit, because I'm a freak that way, but still.]
05-06. [The shorts were red that season, a subject of some controversy amongst fans. Yes, really.]
In the Club World Cup, also known as the beginning of the end. That was a brilliant game against Club America, though. Great football.
Deco and Eto'o had an interesting relationship: they were both very influential in the dressing room, but didn't always see eye to eye. They're both quite driven, though, so it worked out well for the team.
Awww. Against AC Milan, in 04-05.
Against Benfica, in 05-06.
Opening game of the season against Celta, in 06-07. That bit of hair you see there is Leo. A fantastic picture - look at Deco's face!
Leo, Ronnie and Deco back in 05-06...
...and this season just gone. [I love Deco's laugh-wrinkles there.]
I hope you enjoyed that trip down memory lane. If you want to take any of the pictures, snatch away. Most of them were taken from various websites, and some from this very community, I believe.