Ronaldinho: Brazilian star’s decline from Barcelona greatness to Paraguay prison
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.
Short presentational grey line
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.
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.