Elasticos, rabonas, no-look passes and that trademark toothy grin. At his peak, Ronaldinho was irresistible.
Throughout the 2000s, the Brazilian conquered the football world with the kind of play YouTube was made for. And over the past decade he has won – and lost – more than most players manage in their entire career.
After a premature 2011 exit from AC Milan aged 30, he eclipsed Neymar in the younger man’s own backyard, won a historic Copa Libertadores and appeared in Arab reality shows and Russian supermarket adverts. There was even a Hollywood film with Jean-Claude van Damme.
This year, he lost his freedom, spending his 40th birthday locked in a Paraguayan prison.
Back in January 2011, when Ronaldinho rotated his red-and-black stripes 90 degrees by switching Milan for Flamengo, his Italian club’s coach Massimiliano Allegri called the decision “a life choice”.
In other words: ‘non-footballing reasons’. As was the case during two years at Paris St-Germain, his partying had forced a parting of ways. Performances were lacking and patience ran out.
The decision to return home so early in his career surprised Brazil team-mate Rivaldo, who won the World Cup alongside him in 2002.
“He could have continued a little longer in Europe, but it was a personal decision,” Rivaldo tells BBC Sport. “He felt he’d already written his story there, so wanted to come back and finish in style, close to family and friends.”
In life, as in football, Ronaldinho has never strayed too far from the spotlight. But the situation he faces now is far more serious than anything that came before.
Born Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, Ronaldinho grew up in Vila Nova, a ramshackle neighbourhood in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. His mother Miguelina sold cosmetics door-to-door, while father Joao worked nights in the car park of local side Gremio. When older brother Roberto Assis signed professional terms with them aged 17, the club provided a luxurious villa. Football, and specifically Gremio, lifted the family out of poverty.
Ronaldinho, asked in 2015 who he idolised when growing up, told FourFourTwo: “My brother Assis, Rivelino, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Diego Maradona.”
That same villa was the setting for a tragedy that would shape his life and bring the brothers even closer together.
When Ronaldinho was eight, his dad suffered heart complications in the swimming pool. He died two days later. Assis broke the news to his brother and assumed a father-figure role.
Assis would show pride – and glimpses of his future role as Ronaldinho’s agent – by responding to personal praise with: “My brother’s even better.” The hype grew when, aged 13, the scrawny kid who practised dribbling against his dogs Bala and Bombom, scored 23 goals in a school match.
Within four years Ronaldinho had helped Brazil win the Under-17 World Cup, and by 19 produced one of the finest performances of his fledgling career to help Gremio beat rivals Internacional in the State Championship final. “I like Gremio so much… I’d play for free,” he said after the match. “What matters is the love of the shirt.”
Before his 21st birthday, he finished behind only Romario as top scorer in the country’s top division and attracted a £40m bid from Leeds United. His club responded by erecting a banner outside Estadio Olimpico: “We don’t sell our best players. Don’t you dare insist.”
Yet with his contract running down and Gremio unable to reach an agreement, a sale was not required. In February 2001, with Assis acting as intermediary, he signed a pre-contract with Paris St-Germain, incensing Gremio supporters.
The man known as O Bruxo (The Wizard) began to bewitch spectators across the globe. In 2002 he helped Brazil win the World Cup. A year later he swapped Paris for Barcelona, from where he would illuminate the European game. He won the Champions League and two league titles during five years with the Spanish club, while acting as mentor to Lionel Messi.
By the time Ronaldinho returned to Brazil in 2011, via two and a half seasons at Milan, Gremio’s board had forgiven him – even if the fans had not. Despite everything that came before, he was back to make amends. Or at least, that’s how it looked.
He had often spoken of returning to his boyhood club, so president Paulo Odone struck a deal with his brother Assis. Gremio organised an unveiling at the stadium, complete with military police and a helicopter, yet Ronaldinho never showed.
When Odone discovered the player was instead joining Flamengo, he blamed Assis for reneging on his word. “There were seven versions of the contract requested by Assis,” he said, crying. “I don’t know how to negotiate like that. We were very patient, but there’s a limit.”
While Odone wept, Ronaldinho told 20,000 raucous fans outside Flamengo’s HQ he was not seeking a last dance but was in Rio to win. “Many come back to Brazil only to close out their careers. I want to take the name of Flamengo as high as possible, winning as many titles as possible, and repaying these fans’ love,” he said.
Gremio fans were incandescent. When Flamengo visited 10 months later, a shower of coins and knives welcomed him. Hand-painted tombstones branding him ‘Judas’ and ‘Mercenario’ filled the stands, while spectators waved fake money carrying his face and the words ‘Without morals, you’re worthless’.
Despite losing 4-2, Ronaldinho was in no mood for pacification. Asked about the menacing atmosphere, the man who once said “if there’s one club I don’t want to fight with, it’s Gremio” shot back: “For those used to a Flamengo crowd, this isn’t much noise.”
The defeat was no anomaly. Ronaldinho made more headlines off the field than on it at Flamengo, apart from an unforgettable 2011 match at Neymar’s Santos when, with his side trailing 3-0, he scored a hat-trick and claimed two assists in a 5-4 win. When images of Ronaldinho surrounded by wine glasses and women proliferated, a hotline was created so fans could alert the club if their captain was spotted on a night out.
Jose Carlos Peruano, an advisor to Flamengo, created ‘Dial Buckteeth’ and says the phone never stopped ringing, although he admits the majority of calls were pranks.
“Ronaldinho had the face of Flamengo, but he wasn’t committed – too much nightlife and alcohol,” Peruano says. “He was more of a party animal than a footballer.”
When Flamengo’s administrative problems led to salary delays, Assis terminated his brother’s contract and sued the club for £14m. The four-year deal had lasted 16 months. Four days later, as fans burned his effigy, a media helicopter spotted a familiar figure training with Atletico Mineiro.
In a sign that things were about to change, Ronaldinho took a pay cut and swapped his number 10 shirt for 49 – the year his mother was born. He requested there be no grand unveiling. “This is a new chapter,” he told reporters in June 2012. “When we get a lot of criticism, we end up wanting to turn things around. I come here with that desire.”
This time, he would let his football do the talking.
Atletico coach Cuca was trying to sign former Lyon midfielder Juninho Pernambucano when he heard Ronaldinho was a free agent. Confident he could get the best out of the 32-year-old, he deployed him in a central role. The added responsibility produced results.
The club had finished four points off relegation in 2011, but Ronaldinho immediately led his new team to a second-place finish, helping them qualify for the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 13 years. He won the Bola de Ouro as best player in the league.
Sports writer Victor Martins covered Ronaldinho’s time in Belo Horizonte for O Tempo. He says weekends still involved late-night gatherings for BBQ, music, beer, and tequila, but the player’s mentality was different.
“There are two key reasons he found form at Atletico,” says Martins. “First, he left Flamengo hurting and wanting to prove the problem was them, not him. Secondly, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, fans made special banners for her and it touched him so much he cried.
“That support was fundamental and gave him the fire in his belly to succeed. He said he’d only leave once they were champions.”
Playing alongside current Everton winger Bernard and former Manchester City striker Jo, Ronaldinho scored four and assisted seven as Atletico reached the Libertadores final for the first time in the club’s history.
“It’s like playing chess with someone who can put you in checkmate in three moves,” Jo told Brazilian TV in 2016. “In fact, he told me if he couldn’t put me through on goal three times per game, he’d buy me a crate of beer.”
Jo finished top scorer during the Libertadores campaign, but Atletico went into the second leg of the final trailing 2-0 to Paraguay’s Olimpia. They equalised with three minutes left and forced penalties. Ronaldinho, scheduled to take his side’s last spot-kick, was spared the task as his side triumphed 4-3 and secured Atletico a first major title since 1971.
“I’m glad he didn’t need to hit one because he told me afterwards he was going to do a Panenka,” said Cuca in the commemorative documentary Against The Wind. “I would’ve had a heart attack.”
The victory put Ronaldinho in a class by himself: the only footballer in history to win the World Cup, Champions League, World Player of the Year, Ballon d’Or and Copa Libertadores.
“It’s not something we ever discussed,” says Rivaldo, who won four of the five titles during his 24-year career. “He was so fortunate to be a Libertadores champion and although I didn’t win that one, I’m happy he did because it was something very important for his career.”
One year later, in July 2014, immediately after winning South America’s equivalent of the Super Cup, Ronaldinho asked Atletico to let him leave. His cycle was over. A new adventure awaited, in Mexico.
But the wind-down predicted the day he left Milan was truly about to begin.
“Every Friday he would finish a game, take a private plane and go to Cancun or Playa del Carmen,” Patricio Rubio, who played alongside Ronaldinho at Liga MX side Queretaro, told Chilean TV. “He’d only return on the Tuesday, never training on Mondays. He was a star.”
Ronaldinho’s Mexican experiment lasted only nine months and, for the first time in his career, ended without a trophy.
A similarly fruitless spell back in Brazil at Fluminense followed and, bothered by boos, he voluntarily terminated his contract in September 2015, two months into an 18-month deal. “There was no shortage of offers, but he decided he doesn’t want to play any more,” Assis later said.
Ronaldinho only officially retired three years later, aged 37 in January 2018. Yet still those offers appear to keep coming.
In June he was linked to Gimnasia, the Argentinian club where Maradona is manager. And this despite being aged 40 and under house arrest in Paraguay. The Argentine legend previously said his friend’s “only error is being an idol”, adding: “I’ll support him until death.”
For those who followed his playing career, Ronaldinho’s gradual descent from pedestal to prison has been difficult to watch. He always exuded joy on the field, so to view this latest regrettable episode is saddening. Yet it is not surprising – the clues were there this could happen. His decision-making with a pen was never as astute as with a ball.
In 2011, his deal with Coca-Cola was cancelled after they watched him drinking Pepsi during a news conference. A few years later, he was referring to neither when he recorded songs such as ‘Vamos Beber’ (Let’s Drink) and ‘Saideira’ (One For The Road). He abandoned India’s Premier Futsal League only two matches in after being named ambassador for the 2016 Paralympic Games.
In recent years, those flippant decisions have taken a more ominous turn. In 2018, he and Assis received a £2m fine for building a 70-metre pier in an environmental protection area without permission. They refused to pay, so authorities seized 57 properties and the brothers’ passports, returning the documents only after reaching a financial agreement. The following year, an ex-fiancee filed a lawsuit for a share of his fortune.
A month before his arrest in March, he was named in a £50m civil lawsuit regarding 18k Ronaldinho, a financial pyramid scheme involving cryptocurrencies. The former player’s lawyers deny he is involved.
Unperturbed, he soon after tweeted support for LBLV, an investment firm that had its operating licence suspended the previous year.
And then came news from Paraguay of his arrest alongside Assis for possession of false passports. Detained for 32 days at a high-security prison on the periphery of the capital Asuncion, the pair paid $1.6m bail and were transferred to the luxurious Palmaroga Hotel. They remain there while investigations continue into a possible money laundering network.
“We were totally surprised to find out the documents were not legal,” Ronaldinho told Paraguayan newspaper ABC. “All my life I have tried to be as professional as possible and bring joy to people with my football. We hope we can get out of this situation as soon as possible.”
Ronaldinho’s life in prison involved sharing a wing with a corrupt former Paraguayan FA president, taking selfies with security guards and making video calls alongside a former policeman jailed for protecting drug traffickers. Local press also excitedly reported a prison-yard match ended 11-2, with the Brazilian scoring five goals, providing six assists and winning a 16kg suckling pig.
Since switching his sparse jail cell for a presidential suite with jacuzzi and wi-fi, life has been more isolated.
The brothers are the sole guests, because of the pandemic, and Ronaldinho’s only request was a football with space to play. “We set up a room, about 30 metres by 15, for him to practise his juggling skills,” hotel manager Emilio Yegros told Agence France-Press. “He always has a smile, like his brother.”
Yet while the toothy grin may still be there, this is no laughing matter. Ronaldinho spent a career picking holes in defences, now he needs a watertight one to ensure he avoids up to five years behind bars.
Prosecutors have until 6 September to conclude their investigations.
— BBC news