With Paraguay's capital in lockdown, former Brazil football star Ronaldinho is spending his second week under house arrest in an exclusive hotel in Asunción, where a ballroom has been set up to allow him to keep us his soccer skills, as he awaits trial for entering the country under a false passport.
The 40-year-old World Cup winner and his business-manager brother Roberto are occupying two US$350-a-night suites at the otherwise deserted Colonial-style Palmaroga hotel, just a couple of blocks from the government headquarters.
"Yesterday they brought him a regulation football. We set up a room – about 30 metres by 15 – for him to be able to practice his juggling skills," hotel manager Emilio Yegros told AFP.
"He seems like a good sort. He always has a smile, like his brother," said Yegros.
"His face has changed from his first day here. When he arrived he was tense and visibly stressed," the hotel manager pointed.
The former Barcelona star spends his days working out in the hotel gym, practicing his legendary juggling skills with the ball, and wandering the echoing halls of the 6,000 square-metre (64,000 square-foot) building, refurbished in 2019.
Lunch with 'Ronhi'
Ronaldinho and his brother are among 16 suspects in an extensive anti-corruption investigation. Arrested on March 6 for using falsified Paraguayan passports to enter the country from neighbouring Brazil, they face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Being held in a police cell for the first 30 days of their detention gave Ronaldinho – his beard grown fuller in that time – and his brother a taste of Paraguayan prison conditions, before a court ordered them released into house arrest at the Palmaroga early this month.
Bail was set at US$1.6 million.
The fact that the hotel is owned by the Spain-based Barcelona Group, which has construction projects in Paraguay, is "pure coincidence" and has nothing to do with the star's former club, said Yegros.
The former player is prevented from receiving visitors in the hotel under Paraguay's protocols against the coronavirus, which officially has 161 infections to date, with eight deaths.
'Abusive and illegal'
Ronaldinho's Brazilian lawyer Sergio Queiroz says there are no legal grounds for his detention. "It's illegal, abusive," he said. "They did not know that the documents they had were illegal."
"Leave Ronaldinho alone," said former Argentine World Cup winner Jorge Valdano, now a coach in Spain.
"The only place Ronaldinho behaved like a troublemaker was on the pitch," he told a Madrid newspaper. "One thing is being stupid, as his lawyer called him, and another thing is being a criminal."
But public prosecutor Alicia Sapriza is sure. "They knew," she told AFP.
What investigators are trying to determine is if the former star was being used as cover in the plot or whether he willingly lent himself to an alleged money-laundering and contraband operation to dispel possible suspicion.
"From the contents of his phone calls that have been examined there was a certain conversation with the brother Roberto in which the documents were discussed," before they arrived in Paraguay, Saprizia said.
Although prosecutors believe his brother Roberto bears more responsibility in the case, Sapriza says: "Ronaldinho could not be unaware. He cannot claim to have been acting in good faith."
Ronaldinho and his brother left for Asunción on March 4 with their own Brazilian passports but showed the Paraguayan passports on arrival.
Mobbed on arrival by 2,000 kids wearing T-shirts bearing his photo, he had travelled to Paraguay to open a casino owned by a Brazilian businessman and his agenda included attending an event organised by a children's charity.
Prosecutors are expected to limit the charges to using documents with "false content" and the pair will likely be released on bail when court activity resumes following the lockdown, judicial sources told AFP.
A key part of Brazil's 2002 World Cup winning side, Ronaldinho made club 529 appearances over his 17-year playing career, turning out for top European clubs, including Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain.
by Hugo Olazar, Agence France-Presse