MADRID: Four months ago a cash-strapped footballing summer was set ablaze by the arrival in Spain of David Beckham and Ronaldinho.
The iconic England captain, of course, joined Real Madrid from Manchester United for a fee of 35 million euros plus ten million to be paid according to results; then FC Barcelona signed Ronaldinho from Paris Saint-Germain for a similar sum.
At the time, eyebrows were raised across Spain at the money spent on these two, during an economic recession and with television revenue for football clubs in free-fall.
A third of a year later, however, it is clear that Beckham and Ronaldinho have already started to pay off their transfer fees - both on and off the field.
Beckham, 28, is the fourth mega-signing of Real president Florentino Perez, after Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo. What has surprised madridista fans is not that the blonde midfielder has helped the club in terms of merchandising and shirt sales that process started during the steamy summer tour of East Asia but that he has been so useful on the pitch.
New coach Carlos Quieroz, partly brought in because of his work with Beckham in Manchester, has been able to use the England captain in various positions: out on the right, behind the two strikers and, finally, just in front of defence.
David is a manager's dream, purred Quieroz on Thursday morning, after Beckham had opened the scoring in Wednesday's win in Marseille with one of his inch-perfect free-kicks.
I can field him in several positions, and he never complains at all ... he just rolls up his sleeves and gets on with the job.
Beckham's attitude, work-rate and versatility have also impressed his new team-mates. David showed last night just how important he has become to us, said captain Raul on Thursday.
He still has to learn proper Spanish, joked Raul. But he's more than made up for his language problems with his goals and his all- round effort.
Raul and company are pleased that Beckham has reduced his publicity work, in order, as he made clear last month, to concentrate completely on my football.
His only television advert so far has been a funny sketch in which he exchanges pictures of sunny Madrid through his mobile phone with the Neville brothers, his old friends stuck in rainy Manchester.
Some 50 British media people have set up shop in the Spanish capital with the intention of making a living exclusively from Beckham stories though their attempts to hint at matrimonial problems with former pop star Victoria Adams have been angrily denied by Beckham himself.
But if Beckham's impact in Madrid has been successful, in all senses, then what superlatives can be used to describe the impact of Ronaldinho in Barcelona?
The cheerful, ever-smiling Brazilian, still only 23, has injected optimism into a club caught up in a negative cycle of frustration and negativity.
Ronaldinho has quickly become the fulcrum of a team that previously lacked a leader thanks to his goals, his passes and his infectious enthusiasm.
According to Santi Nolla, of Catalan sports daily Mundo Deportivo, Ronaldinho was exactly what this club needed after years of failure ... and exactly what the team needed after years of mediocrity.
Nolla estimates that the presence of Ronaldinho has added at least 10,000 to the attendance figures at Barca home matches, and has almost doubled shirt sales.
Were it not for the charismatic Brazilian, this colourless side would not be challenging for a Champions League place. Indeed, without Ronaldinho last Saturday, uninspired Barca crashed to a 2-1 defeat in Villarreal.
This is why everyone in Catalonia is desperate for him to recover from his pulled calf muscle in time for the Dec 7 clash with Real Madrid.
Coach Frank Rijkaard tried to claim on Wednesday that there is much more to my team than just Ronaldinho, but was then forced to concede that we are obviously keen to have him back in action quickly ... since he has already become so important for us. dpa