The tale of how World Cup icon Ronaldinho ended up in jail
Ronaldinho’s trademark grin had vanished. His long, curly hair tucked up under a black hat, a baggy white T-shirt covered the Brazilian’s slumped shoulders, as a police officer led him through the mass of flashing bulbs. A pink jumper wound around his wrists was all there was to hide the handcuffs.
One of the greatest footballers in history, a World Cup winner in 2002, Ballon d’Or winner in 2005, two-time FIFA footballer of the year in 2004 and 2005, who sits alongside Pele and Ronaldo in the pantheon of Brazil heroes is no longer a free man.
Ronaldinho spent 32 days, including his 40th birthday, inside a Paraguayan prison with his brother and agent Assis after the two were accused of entering the country with fake passports. If found guilty, they could face up to five years in jail.
‘It is one of the most unbelievable things we have ever seen,’ Alex Sabino, reporter at Folha de Sao Paulo told The Mail on Sunday. ‘Ronaldinho, one of the greatest players in the history of Brazilian football, spent a month jailed in Paraguay!’
Yet Brazilians do not even need a passport to cross the border.
Ronaldinho and his brother are now under house arrest after paying £1.3million bail. It’s far from over though. Prosecutors are still investigating whether Ronaldinho and his brother are part of a wider, deeper criminal network of crooked businessmen and public figures, forgery and money laundering or whether they are just unwitting pawns in a much different game to the one Ronaldinho is used to playing.
‘The arrest was illegal and will soon be proved,’ Ronaldinho’s lawyer Sergio Queiroz told The Mail on Sunday.
It is yet another remarkable story in the remarkable life of Ronaldinho: of football and fame, of partying and women, and of money and crime. And one that, whatever his lawyer says, raises more questions than answers.
Ronaldinho is now staying in the £280-a-night presidential suite at the Palmaroga hotel in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital. He and his brother have the place to themselves, too, thanks to lockdown. Ronaldinho is making the most of outdoor grounds, a swimming pool, a whirlpool bath and a king-sized bed. The hotel has converted a ballroom into somewhere to allow him to practise football.
‘He seems like a nice guy,’ hotel manager Emilio Yegros told Agence France-Press. ‘He always has a smile, like his brother. His face has changed from his first day here. When he arrived he was tense and visibly stressed.’
But even when he was pictured in his jail cell, the smile was back. Maybe because Ronaldinho’s prison stay was not exactly gritty. He stayed in a police barracks-turned-prison where the most high-profile inmates are kept, sharing his keyless cell block with his brother, politicians prosecuted for corruption and drug traffickers.
He received clothes, fresh bedding, ice cream and a TV. On March 11, he watched Atletico Madrid knock Liverpool out of the Champions League.
He was not confined to just watching football either. Ronaldinho competed in a futsal tournament, after a prison officer noticed him watching and encouraged the Champions League winner from 2006 to get involved.
Ronaldinho scored five goals and set up six more in an 11-2 win for his team. The prize? A 16kg pig.
Ronaldinho made friends there. Inmates cried when they found out he was to be released to house arrest and made him a farewell barbecue to say their goodbyes.
But how did Ronaldinho go from being one of Barcelona’s finest No10s to spending his 40th birthday as inmate No194?
On March 4, Ronaldinho and his brother landed at Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in Paraguay.
They immediately went to a VIP room where they are alleged to have been met by businessman Wilmondes Sousa Lira and businesswoman Dalia Lopez. It is there that the brothers were handed their documents and proceeded to pass through security.
It was Lopez’s childrens’ charity Fraternidade Angelical Foundation that Ronaldinho had come to support, as well as to promote his book Genius of Life.
They had been invited by Lopez’s friend, casino owner Nelson Belotti, whose Il Palazzo casino is inside the Yacht y Golf Club Paraguayo resort — in whose presidential suite the brothers were staying when they were raided by police.
The two passports had been issued two months earlier under the names of two Paraguayan women. They now had the brothers’ names and faces on. At first, everyone thought Ronaldinho and Assis would face a fine and nothing more but, two days later, a judge ordered them to remain detained. Ronaldinho’s lawyer believes this to be unlawful, although other lawyers close to the case believe Ronaldinho had planned to leave Paraguay and posed a flight risk.
Ronaldinho claims that he and his brother had no idea they were fake and had been told they were a honorary gift. What it does not explain is why the pair used them to pass through security when they were only required to show their Brazilian ID cards.
‘That is the question no one can answer or one that no one is willing to answer,’ said one source. ‘There is no rational explanation,’ added the lawyer close to the case.
Sousa Lira has already been arrested on suspicion of supplying the fake passports to Ronaldinho and his brother. He says that Lopez is responsible.
A warrant is out for her arrest but she is currently on the run.
The investigation is for something much bigger, as one source says, than ‘just some counterfeit documents’. These are just one way that the criminal gang can launder money, and it is a network that is alleged to involve corrupt politicians, policemen, businessmen and civil servants.
Lopez is alleged to have links to them all while 16 people have already been arrested.
What Ronaldinho’s role in all this? Osmar Legal, the lead prosecutor in the case, told Reuters: ‘She [Lopez] could be involved in a money laundering scheme and that means we have to investigate all the other people that were related to that kind of crime, including Ronaldinho. That is why we strictly maintain that he be kept in jail.’ One of the reasons they are believed to have been allowed into house arrest, having had their request denied three times, is because when the brothers’ phones were checked, there was no suspicious communication with Lopez. But is he the kind of person to unwittingly stumble into such a web?
‘To understand Ronaldinho, you have to understand that he and his brother act like one,’ says a source in Brazil. ‘Ronaldinho plays football, his brother, who was a very good footballer himself, does everything else. Ronaldinho is 100 per cent this kind of person. But his brother should not be this person. The brain should be Assis.’
Assis has been the patriarch ever since the traumatic death of their father, who drowned in the family swimming pool when Ronaldinho was eight. He controls the money the business ventures, the rest.
Paolo Odone, former president of Gremio, Ronaldinho’s first club, has previously claimed that Assis’s role in Ronaldinho’s life was ‘abusive’. Assis himself was found guilty of money laundering in 2012.For Ronaldinho there is still this picture of a child who refuses to grow up. His antics are legendary. A former team-mate at Queretaro, Patricio Rubio, told Mexican TV channel Azteca that Ronaldinho would fly on his private plane to Cancun after matches on a Friday night and not return until Tuesday.
In 2012, he hosted a five-day party in a motel to celebrate his 32nd birthday. In Brazil, motels exist to provide a private place to have sex.
‘His life was a bit off the rails when he was playing,’ says one source. ‘But he was playing brilliantly and no one noticed.’
Former Barcelona team-mate Alexander Hleb has said that Ronaldinho was eventually sold by the Catalan giants in 2008 because he and Deco used to come to training drunk. ‘They were afraid he would bring down Lionel Messi,’ Hleb told Voka TV.
There is a picture of Ronaldinho from 2014, during his time at Atletico Mineiro. He is stood in a swimming pool, arms outstretched. Five women in bikinis are knelt in front of him, their bottoms in the air. ‘This has been the image of Ronaldinho for quite some time,’ the source continues.
Ronaldinho even had to deny reports two years ago that he was set to marry both his girlfriends Priscilla Coelho and Beatriz Souza, each of whom had their own bedroom in his Brazilian mansion.
He threw a huge birthday party for them both and is said to have given them cosmetic surgery as a present. Priscilla has since accused the Brazilain of ‘aggression’
It’s not just women trouble that Ronaldinho has found himself in.
He and his brother were fined £2m for building a 155-yard fishing platform and deck on protected land at their home in Porto Alegre, which stretched 77 yards into Lake Guiaba.
They refused to pay the fine or remove it and eventually had their passports seized along with 57 properties as well as cars, paintings and a snooker table from Ronaldinho’s home. Two BMWs, a Mercedes Benz and a painting by artist Andre Berardo worth £16,000 were also confiscated.
But for now, the brothers remain under house arrest. Prosecutors have until September 6 to investigate and could even ask for another six-month extension.
If enough evidence is found, they could go to trial. And for what they are accused of, the maximum sentence is five years.
For a man who spent so long on top of the world, it is no wonder that his smile, if only for a moment, began to fade away.
Peter Swan Sheffield Wednesday defender was heading for a place in England’s 1966 World Cup squad until fingered for his part in a football betting scandal and was jailed for four months.
Peter Storey Former Arsenal and England defender who ran a brothel, imported dodgy pornographic videos and conspired to counterfeit money, earned two stints inside.
George Best In 1984 Best was convicted of drink driving, assaulting a police officer, and failing to answer bail. Sentenced to three months, he spent Christmas at Ford Open Prison.
Duncan Ferguson The giant Scot earned a three-month jail term after being convicted of assault for an on-field headbutt on Raith defender John McStay in 1994 while playing for Rangers.
Rene Higuita The Colombian keeper known as El Loco (The Madman) was raging in 1993 when he spent seven months inside for his part in a kidnap plot.Daily Mail