The new Mean Machine: How Ronaldinho became the football king of a Paraguayan prison
In the 2001 sports comedy Mean Machine, Vinnie Jones played disgraced ex-footballer turned convict Danny Meehan, who was coerced by the corrupt warden to captain a team of jailbirds against the well-drilled, sadistic guards. In typical Hollywood fashion, Meehan and his side of lovable lads overcome their oppressors and embarrass the warden, who is left fuming as the redeemed former pro struts triumphantly back to his cell.
Such a story might seem too far-fetched to occur in real life, but in Paraguay it appears life can imitate art. The nation's Agrupacion Especializada prison is playing host to Brazil legend Ronaldinho, who is wiling away his time inside on the football pitch while lawyers and prosecutors try to get to the bottom of a case that borders on the inexplicable.
Ronaldinho was apprehended in an Asuncion hotel along with brother Roberto at the start of March on charges of entering the nation with a fake Paraguayan passport. Since then he has been held in custody, with the Appeals Court ruling he was ineligible for bail due to the risk of him leaving the country.
Predictably, the Brazilian enjoys celebrity status in the prison, signing autographs and posing for photos alongside his fellow inmates, including drug traffickers linked to the deadly PCC gang – which led a breakout in December 2018 that freed two members – corrupt businessmen and politicians and other prisoners deemed high risk by Paraguayan authorities.
One of Ronaldinho's new colleagues is ex-Sportivo Luqueno president Fernando Gonzalez Karjallo, as well as his father, ex-Paraguay FA vice Ramon Gonzalez Daher, both held on money laundering charges; congressman Miguel Cuevas, accused of illicit enrichment, influence trafficking and other corruption charges, also shares the Brazilian's wing.
The ex-Barcelona and Milan idol is nevertheless in high spirits. Ex-Paraguay international Nelson 'Pipino' Cuevas visited his friend, affirming that he wanted to “give all my strength to this genius who made history in world football and say there are Paraguayans who are completely behind him!”
Footvolley ace Fernando Lugo also paid a visit and heard from the star that he was being treated well and was keeping calm, but did not understand why he was in jail in the first place. “God knows what he is doing,” was the message Lugo relayed to Globo – but in the meantime, he has been lighting up the football pitch even behind bars.
Fridays in the Agrupacion Especializada are given over to the beautiful game, as prisoners organise themselves into teams in order to compete in a futsal tournament. Logically, all of the competitors wanted the talents of Ronaldinho on their side to heighten their chances of bagging the prize: a suckling pig for the barbecue afterwards, weighing, as noted with peculiar emphasis by almost every report, a hefty 16 kilograms.
As befits his past status as a wheeler-dealer in the football world, Gonzalez Karjallo headed negotiations to secure the Brazilian's participation. With the help of an obliging guard who lent him a pair of boots, Ronaldinho took the pitch.
He did not take part in the tournament itself, but showed off his outrageous skills in an exhibition match, scoring five and assisting a further six as his team won 11-2. The hapless fallen politician Cuevas was tasked with marking the World Cup, Champions League and Copa Libertadores winner; without much luck, the score would suggest. “He's looking good, he talks to the other prisoners, he goes out to the yard,” Sergeant Blas Vera told ABC of his celebrity inmate, who posed smiling alongside the winners of the tournament and their trophy – the prize pig and future dinner conspicuous by its absence for the photo.
While Ronaldinho enjoys himself in his forced new surroundings, outside his prospects look bleak. The star had already found himself in severe financial and legal difficulty in his home nation and in 2019 had his Brazilian and Spanish passports seized, as well as 57 properties, for ignoring a series of fines linked to building code violations in his native Porto Alegre.
Upon his arrest the 39-year-old claimed the false passports were a gift for him and his brother and that their use was an innocent mistake. The same line of argument was repeated by his incredibly candid attorney, who told reporters that his client “did not know it was a crime... he is an idiot.”
Prosecutors, however, point the finger at Ronaldinho's associate Dalia Lopez, the businesswoman behind his arrival in Paraguay and, it is alleged, provider of the suspect documents. Lopez is now a fugitive after ignoring summons to answer police questions; in yet another bizarre twist, a raid on one of her properties discovered an estimated 6,000 footballs printed with the image of Ronaldinho's face – the very same photo that dons the passport.
The motives behind the Brazilian's visit (ostensibly on the invitation of the charitable foundation headed by Lopez) and the phoney papers remains a mystery. In the meantime he remains in the Agrupacion Especializada, playing out what seems to be his own personal prison film that requires no little suspense of disbelief to follow its incredible plot. The quick-footed phenomenon who was once at the pinnacle of world football now finds himself swapping passes with murderers, money launderers and conmen – and, perhaps most amazingly, continues to wear that famous smile on his face throughout.