Prisoners were said to be moved to tears as they threw the World Cup winner a huge barbecue to celebrate his 40th birthday on March 21, a fortnight into his month-long incarceration at a maximum-security jail in the country’s capital of Agrupacion.
Now under house arrest in the presidential suite of the Palmaroga Hotel on a release bond of around $800,000, the ex-striker has spoken of his sympathy for his temporary co-habitants, who were filmed playing football with him at the facility following his arrest on suspicion of using a doctored passport on March 6.
“All the people I had the opportunity to share with treated me with kindness,” Ronaldinho told ABC Color, reflecting on an enforced stay at the complex when he was also in demand for volleyball sessions.
“All my life I’ve tried to reach my highest level professionally and bring happiness to people with my football.
“Playing football, signing autographs and having photos taken is part of my life. I’d have no reason to stop doing it, especially with people who were experiencing a difficult moment at the same time as me.
“I have felt the warmth, affection and respect of all Paraguayans from the first day I arrived in this country. I am very grateful.”
Around 200 prisoners are thought to be held at the jail for crimes including drug trafficking. Their ranks include politicians and police officers accused of corruption, although Ronaldinho lived on a different wing to the more dangerous individuals.
One of his visitors was Carlos Gamarra, the former Paraguay captain who spent part of his career in Brazil.
“We already had a friendship and had played against each other in Brazil,” explained Ronaldinho, calling Gamarra “a great person”. “It was very nice to see him. It gave me a lot of encouragement and strength.”
Having scored his last goal for Brazil in 2011, Ronaldinho is remembered in Paraguay for a more recent achievement against Asuncion side Olimpia, against whom he took part in an epic two-legged final of the most prestigious club competition in South American football while playing for Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro at the tail end of his career.
Mineiro lost 2-0 in Asuncion but reversed the scoreline in Brazil before winning on penalties to lift the Copa Libertadores.
“Since I arrived in Paraguay, I have found that everyone remembers that game very well. It was a very nice moment against a Paraguayan team. It is another great memory.”
The adulation he has experienced has helped Ronaldinho as he awaits the outcome of a criminal investigation that could leave him under house arrest for months. He hopes he will be allowed to return to Brazil sooner.
“The first thing I will do is give my mother a big kiss. She has lived through these difficult days since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in her home.
“I never imagined that I would go through such a situation. [Prison] was a hard blow. I always pray for things to go well and hopefully this will be over soon.”
Ronaldinho’s lawyer was unimpressed at the scandal caused by a passport that the former Ballon d’Or winner claimed had been given to him as a gift before his unintended mix-up, continuing to protest his shock at the charges and innocence.
“We were totally surprised to learn that the documents were not legal,” he said, recalling the moment when he was stopped while trying to enter the country at the invite of a casino.
“Since then, our intention has been to collaborate with the justice system to clarify the facts. We have explained and facilitated everything that has been requested of us.”