He is the greatest player to ever hail from Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.
He is arguably the most talented dribbler to emerge from the land where so many seem to be born with a ball at their feet.
But for Ronaldinho Gaúcho – Champions League winner, World Cup winner, two-time FIFA World Player of the Year – an attempt to evade Paraguayan justice appears to have proven extremely costly.
The former Barcelona and Brazil idol was arrested on Friday 6th March, for entering the South American nation on a doctored Paraguayan passport, alongside his brother and agent Roberto de Assis.
The numbers used on the passports by both men were found to belong to two elderly Paraguayan citizens. The siblings subsequently presented themselves at a police station to give formal statements on the morning of March 5th leading to the surreal situation of Ronaldinho happily posing with police staff just a few hours prior to his arrest.
Now he could be set to face far more grave charges, including money laundering, while his commercial relationship with millionaire Dalia Lopez is fully investigated by Paraguay’s Organised Crime and Money Laundering Unit. Since the player’s arrest, Lopez has proved impossible to track down.
On the 10th of March, the Asis brothers saw their request to be placed under house arrest for the duration of the investigation denied. There is a fear from the prosecutor’s office that the two men will use the opportunity to flee back to their homeland, thereby allowing them to escape any potential punishment.
Brazil has a policy of not extraditing any of its citizens under any circumstances. The two therefore remain in a maximum security prison in the in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion while the remainder of the investigation is carried out, on the charge of using doctored documentation to enter the country.
Ronaldinho’s defence team has called the measure excessive and plans to file an appeal against the court’s decision. Arrested with the pair was Brazilian businessman Wilmondes Souza Lira, an alleged close friend of Roberto. He is suspected of supplying the two with the false passports and traveled with them to Paraguay.
This episode is the latest in an increasingly long list of misdemeanours involving the former Barcelona and Brazil number 10, in a behavioural pattern which threatens to erode the memory of his playing achievements.
The last time we saw anything resembling Ronaldinho the footballer came back in July 2013, when he added the Copa Libertadores crown to his already heaving trophy cabinet.
In 2014, when he was on the look-out for a new club, a photo leaked of him at a private party. Standing in a swimming pool, arms spread wide and that famous smile stretching from cheek to cheek, five thong-clad women lay at his feet.
2015 saw him make a return to Brazil following a spell in Mexico, singing a short-term contract with Rio de Janeiro club Fluminese. Yet he lasted less then two months and just nine appearances before tearing up his contract and walking away from professional football for good.
More recently, the former player is also being investigated for fraud by Brazilian Federal Prosecutors for his suspected part in a Ponzi scheme. The founder of 18K Ronaldinho, Marcelo Lara, is also currently under investigation, with the player claiming Lara used his images without permission to promote his business interests. Prosecutors are in the process of examining consumer complaints against 18K Ronaldinho. The player, through his legal team, has made threats to sue the company if his images are not removed from their website. However a quick site visit shows that photos of the player still adorn the pages of Lara’s trading company.
Additionally, this is not the first time that a Brazilian athlete has been caught travelling on a false passport. A report from February 2001 in Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo – the country’s most reputable newspaper – explained that four European countries: France, Spain, Italy and England, had opened investigations into falsely documented athletes.
The most renowned case involving former Uruguayan attacker Alvaro Recoba. The player was caught with false documents and was forced to return to Uruguay and request a work visa at the Italian embassy in Montevideo to save his job with Inter Milan.
A more serious incident involved Brazilian players Warley and Alberto, both of Undinese at the time. The pair were arrested for travelling on false passports during a trip to Poland for a UEFA Cup tie with their club but just like Recoba, did not end up serving any jail time for their mishaps.
Both Warley and Alberto had Uruguayan Juan Figer as their agent, who also represented Brazilian midfielder Edu. The player’s transfer from Corinthians to Arsenal fell through in 2000 when it was revealed the Portuguese passport he carried had not been signed by an official.
And it is the passport angle which is one of the initially odder aspects of this whole tale involving Ronaldinho. As a Brazilian citizen, the 40-year-old did not even need a passport for his trip. He travelled from São Paulo to Asuncion, and would only have needed to present his RG, his Brazilian ID card, upon arrival in the Paraguayan capital.
So far, neither Ronaldinho nor his brother has been able to offer a suitable explanation as to why they were travelling on Paraguayan documentation in the first place. They are however said to have been provided by Dalia Lopez, responsible for organising the trip to Paraguay so that the former athlete could take part in four charity events for her “Angelic Fraternity” foundation, as well as visit the Il Palazzo casino, of which he is an ambassador. Lawyers representing Ms Lopez, as well as her foundation, have denied any wrongdoing, while all events were cancelled in light of the star attraction’s arrest.
Ronaldinho’s Brazilian passport issues began when his travel documentation was officially confiscated in early 2019 when he failed to pay a fine of $2.75 million US dollars for environmental damages caused in his home state of Rio Grande do Sul. The former footballer had erected a pier on Lake Guíaba in 2015, an area classed as in “permanent preservation”.
Ronaldinho’s failure to pay the fine resulted in the confiscation of his passport, an ironic punishment for a man made an ambassador for tourism by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro in September 2019. On the 7th of March, Embratur, Brazil’s national tourism body, declared that they intended to retain Ronaldinho as an ambassador despite the latest developments.
For the player and his continued adoring public, there appear to still be more questions than answers. Like any excellent mystery, this developing story has contained twists, a cast of unsavoury characters and a tale that has grabbed attention around the world.
Most recently it was revealed the former Ballon d’Or winner had scored five goals in his first game in a prison tournament. Completing his journey from the Champions League, to a competition in which the winners – reportedly- will win a 35 lb cooked pig.
It was once thought that the buck-toothed, fleet footed player, renowned for artistry and winning smile, would always be remembered fondly for what he contributed to the game in the early years of this century. But in the years since his retirement, winding down since that final Libertadores triumph almost seven years ago, the player looks to be in very real danger of destroying his glorious legacy.