One of the world’s top defenders in the late ’90s, Carlos Gamarra witnessed Ronaldinho’s rise to fame in Brazil but was never actually what you may call a close friend. Yet, when he heard that the former Barcelona player had been thrown behind bars in Asuncion, the Paraguayan legend felt compelled to pay him a visit out of respect.
Gamarra spent a whole morning with Ronaldinho inside the country’s maximum-security Agrupacion Especializada jail. That day, a particular image stuck with him.
“Honestly, I was impressed by the number of children surrounding him, asking for pictures, autographs. We all know he’s a global star, but that really surprised me,” he says.
Ronaldinho and his older brother and manager, Roberto de Assis, were incarcerated on March 6, on suspicion of using fake passports to enter the country. Every day, groups of kids would gather in front of the complex hoping to be allowed in and get a selfie with the Brazilian, even though most of them would be too young to remember the famous No. 10’s World Cup win in 2002 or his Ballon d’Or triumph in 2005.
During Ronaldinho’s first week or so in prison, prison warden Blas Veras even organised what was jokingly referred to as “Ronaldinho’s mini-tour,” so the young fans could meet him for a brief moment at the outside patio of prison.
“With the coronavirus crisis, I couldn’t do that anymore. It was a shame. Ronaldinho enjoyed having them around,” he explains.
The man who ruled football with a wide, buck-toothed grin before the emergence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo remains a popular figure, despite having officially retired in 2018.
However, when he turned 40 in March, the celebrations consisted of just him, his brother and a cake brought by one of his lawyers into his small Paraguayan cell.
It’s fair to assume that this was not what the renowned party-goer Ronaldinho would have had in mind for such an occasion.
At that point, the Brazil wizard was supposed to be receiving tributes from the football world.
Instead, in his own homeland, the biggest TV network, Globo, was holding discussions on whether to cancel a three-episode special of his career that had cost them months of production time. Eventually, they decided to go ahead with it.
Meanwhile, Ronaldinho tried to maintain a routine in prison.
Inmates at Agrupacion Especializada jail have to deal with mosquitos from a nearby river and the risk of getting dengue fever, while one of the three prison blocks houses dangerous criminals.
However, Ronaldinho spent most of his time in another area with 25 inmates and, among other privileges, had a TV in his cell. According to Globosport, he watched Atletico Madrid’s 3-2 win over Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League from his cell.
In total, Ronaldinho was in prison for 32 days.
Last week, following his lawyers’ fourth request, a Paraguayan judge finally decided to release him from jail into house arrest after he and his brother paid $1.6 million in bail and agreed not to leave the country.
The judge relayed his ruling to them in a WhatsApp video call. At the end of it, wearing his traditional black beret, Ronaldinho just gave him the “hang loose” sign and smiled.
Since then, he has been staying at the Palmaroga hotel, which has an average rate of about $64 per night, in central Asuncion, just three kilometres away from the penitentiary where he was imprisoned for over a month. Guards have been controlling the perimeter of the building.
How did one of the greatest players of all time end up like this?