For Ronaldinho, what was supposed to be a quick jaunt to Paraguay for a charity event has turned into an extended stay at a maximum-security prison.
The Brazilian legend and his brother, Roberto Assis (who is also his business manager), entered the country on March 4 with falsified passports, even though residents of Brazil do not need passports to enter their landlocked neighbour. Although not initially arrested, they were told to remain in their hotel suite in Asuncion while authorities investigated the matter. Two days later they were in jail, with a judge denying them bail and refusing to release them into house arrest, saying the brothers posed a flight risk.
Ronaldinho's presence in prison, with wild reports of playing soccer tournaments for the prize of a suckling pig, has made for one of the sport's more curious stories in 2020.
The 39-year-old, who played for Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and AC Milan in Europe, is not your average prisoner. Winner of two league titles for Barcelona and a UEFA Champions League, in addition to the 1999 Copa America and 2002 World Cup with Brazil, Ronaldinho is regarded as one of the all-time great players, something confirmed by his 2005 Ballon d'Or trophy.
Sources have told ESPN that he's "loved" by his fellow inmates. Though he spends most of his time in a cell at the penitentiary centre, his daily activities are divided between playing football with the inmates and the employees, as well as attending a carpentry course. Sources added that Ronaldinho, who will turn 40 on Saturday, is "relaxed" in prison, although he's missing one of the main pillars of his life: music. A lot of his time in retirement has been spent playing the bongo drums.
"He can't play any instruments inside but I am sure that in his head he will keep on coming up with melodies for compositions when he's out," a source close to the player told ESPN. "He plays football every day and teaches the guys he plays with a few tricks. From the very first moment he wanted to make sure he integrated with the other inmates and he quickly managed to do that. He's an idol for many of them and they have asked for him to sign hats, shirts and trainers."
Photographs and videos have been shared on social media of the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, dressed in shorts and a white muscle shirt, playing football inside the prison. He even took part in a futsal game last week, making a contribution for every goal as his side won 11-2.
A few days ago, the prison's director, Blas Vera, revealed that Ronaldinho and his brother "have certain privileges." They share a bathroom with some of the other prisoners but each has his own cell with a television and air conditioning. (It's unclear how many individual cells have these amenities, but all other inmates share cells with other inmates.) In addition, Ronaldinho has been able to dine on barbecue food and is even able to speak with his friends via WhatsApp. However, he reserves most of his phone time for family.
"He speaks with his mother every day in the evening," another source told ESPN. "She's one of Ronaldinho's big concerns."
People in Ronaldinho's inner circle want to believe he's close to ending the saga and that it's all a "political issue." A lawyer for Ronaldinho and his brother, Sergio Queiroz, has said their detention is "arbitrary, abusive and illegal."
The investigation into the falsified passports has now uncovered an alleged wider money laundering scheme. According to the prosecution, at the centre of the operation is Dalia Lopez, the businesswoman who arranged their visit and who met them on arrival at the airport in Asuncion before they were detained. Paraguayan authorities have yet to locate her, however. A source familiar with the case told Reuters on Monday that the "hypothesis is that the false documents used by the brothers were eventually going to be used for some commercial means or investments that were not legal."
Since the Paraguayan police began to investigate how Ronaldinho and his brother came to be in the country with fake identities, they have made 14 arrests, according to news agency EFE. Among those arrested are a number of officials from the country's migration department who helped facilitate the falsified documents. Those figures also include two men who spent $18,000 to obtain the false passports and turned themselves in to police last week. Wilmondes Sousa Lira, the Brazilian who delivered the passports to the brothers, is also in custody.
Investigators say they are now reviewing files and messages on the phones of Ronaldinho, his brother, and the other people caught up in the case.
Ronaldinho had planned to return to Barcelona in the coming days, in order to finish up interviews he began in February for a documentary about his career in football.
While in Catalonia last month, he was able to meet up with ex-Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard and two of the club's former presidents, Joan Laporta and Sandro Rosell. He did not meet Lionel Messi, whom he played alongside at Barca and has also agreed to be interviewed for the documentary. The Barca captain, at the time, had become embroiled in a war of words with sporting director Eric Abidal over the reasons for former manager Ernesto Valverde's dismissal.
Ronaldinho has been spending a lot of time looking up flights between Asuncion and Rio de Janeiro. Sources say he now knows them by memory. If he receives permission to leave prison, he will head straight to the airport. However, new hearings have been delayed, his lawyer Queiroz explained this week, because of the COVID-19 outbreak.