Ronaldinho’s travelling circus came to rest in Miami, and the swish hotel dominating the skyline in the shape of a gigantic guitar buzzed with South American legends evoking an era when football moved to a different rhythm.
There was Rivaldo, mingling in his pink vest and distressed denim shorts. There were Ivan Zamorano and Rene Higuita reporting for duty.
And Carlos Valderrama, unmistakable at 60 beneath a mass of curls and wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with the image of his friend and fellow Colombian international Higuita.
Former Barcelona and Brazilian star Ronaldinho’s travelling circus came to rest in Miami
Ronaldinho prefers a lower profile, these days, but his brother and advisor Roberto Assis and his manager Rodrigo Alvim, a former left-back and teammate when the Brazil icon was in the twilight of his playing career, at Flamengo, were out in the lobby drumming up business.
Various schemes are already in full swing. These include the popular exhibition matches in partnership with Roberto Carlos, branded ‘The Beautiful Game’, the first of which took place in South Florida on Saturday.
And other charity games to promote, such as the third game for peace, scheduled for Rome’s Olympic Stadium in October.
Last month, Ronaldinho joined Dani Alves and Maxi Rodriguez in a visit to Pope Francis, who blessed the ball and an olive branch.
Ronaldinho has been rebuilding his life and reputation in the two years since his arrest
There is also an official range of NFTs dubbed Dinhos to sell, and Team Ronnie is exploring more opportunities to invest in and around football and sporting apparel.
This is how Ronaldinho has been rebuilding his life and reputation in the two years since his arrest and detention after entering Paraguay on a fake passport while under an investigation into unpaid taxes.
He resides for much of the time in Dubai, where the tax rules are more to his liking, but he is often in Rio de Janeiro. Or he is simply out on the road, being Ronaldinho.
It is 20 years since his swerving free-kick made its indelible mark on England, embarrassing veteran ‘keeper David Seaman and settling the World Cup quarter-final in Shizuoka, Japan.
It is 20 years since his swerving free-kick made its indelible mark on England at the World Cup
Ronaldinho claims he knew David Seaman was off his line as he scored from 45 yards out
‘An important goal for me,’ shrugged 42-year-old Ronaldinho, last week, when reminded of the impending anniversary.
‘People ask about it all the time, but it was special because it was in the World Cup and it was the last time Brazil won the World Cup so it’s special. One of the most special moments in my life.’
It is his most famous act in Brazil colours and Ronaldinho has never flinched from the narrative that he knew Seaman was off his line and went for goal, deliberately finding the top corner from 45 yards and out on the right.
Others on the scene that day think differently. England boss Sven Goran Eriksson, writing in his autobiography Sven: My Story, published in 2013, said: ‘Did Ronaldinho mean to aim for goal or was it just a lucky shot?
It is his most famous act in Brazil colours to settle the World Cup 2002 quarter-final tie
‘I asked him that in Portuguese several years later. He laughed: “But Sven you know it was a shot”. “You’re lying,” I told him. I was 100 per cent sure that he did not mean to shoot.’
Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari remains equally sceptical. ‘In my opinion, he tried to cross,’ Scolari told Sportsmail in an interview in February.
‘Every time we get together, we joke about it. I tell him: “I don’t believe that you tried to put that ball in. You couldn’t have seen David Seaman out of the goal.”
‘He answers: “No, coach, I had studied him, I knew he did that.” And we burst into laughter. I still believe in my idea and he believes in his. The important thing is we were able to score the goal.’
Brazil protected their lead and won 2-1, despite playing for more than half an hour with 10 men, after Ronaldinho had been sent off for a foul on Danny Mills, soon after his goal.
‘Never a red card,’ confessed Mills, on radio, many years later. ‘It was a late challenge, he caught me and I went down and was about to get up when Paul Scholes came over and said, “stay down, the ref’s got a card out”.’
Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari remains sceptical that Ronaldinho meant to shoot the ball
Nothing was quite as it should have been, it seemed. Apart from that Brazil were definitely the best team in the tournament. They beat Germany in the final, two goals by Ronaldo helping to soothe his scars from France 98.
World Cup success catapulted Ronaldinho to the top. Within a year, he joined Barcelona, who beat Manchester United to sign him from Paris Saint-Germain for €30million.
It was a major coup for Joan Laporta, the new president at the Nou Camp, and proved a catalyst for the glittering period of success that followed.
Ronaldinho won the Ballon d’Or twice in two years and, in 2006, Barca won the Champions League for the first time 14 years.
Ronaldinho won the Ballon d’Or twice in two years and in 2006 won the Champions League
He left for AC Milan as Lionel Messi emerged and Pep Guardiola’s industrious tiki-taka team took shape, setting out a new tactical blueprint with rapidly diminishing scope for luxury playmakers with a fondness for a late-night party. Perhaps he will go down as the last of them.
After two-and-a-half seasons in Milan, Ronaldinho returned to Brazil, and briefly played in Mexico and played futsal in India before confirming his retirement in January 2018.
Two years and two months later, he was besieged by tax problems and in jail, with reports of properties being seized.
His 40th birthday was spent behind bars when he and Roberto used false documents to enter Paraguay, where they were to launch an online casino and a book. Their Brazilian and Spanish passports had been suspended by Brazil’s tax authorities.
The brothers spent a month in prison, from which time stories emerged of Ronaldinho playing futsal with inmates, before they received fines and served four months under house arrest at the four-star Palmaroga Hotel in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. They were released in August 2020.
None of this has tarnished his image in Brazil. Perhaps it even embellished it in a way because he carried on smiling and being likeable, being Ronaldinho.
‘There have always been stories about him outside football,’ explains Brazilian football journalist Josue Seixas.
‘He dribbles, he laughs. He is the happy player who wants the ball and people call him bruxo, or wizard, because of what he can do with the ball at his feet.
‘He sings and appears on pagodes or sambas, even playing futsal with inmates and winning trophies in prison, things you can only put Ronaldinho’s name on. We call it a rolê aleatório, like a random role. That’s a rolê aleatório only Ronaldinho could do.
‘He is more revered for his accomplishments. People love him and he is part of Brazilian football culture, probably in the top 10 if our greatest players are to be ranked.
Ronaldinho scored the opener in a 12-10 feast of goals at an exhibition match in Miami
‘Of course, there is a feeling he could’ve done more with his talent. There was a lot of expectation on him at the 2006 World Cup and it didn’t happen, and his career went down but there were good times in Brazil with Flamengo, Atlético Mineiro and Fluminense.
‘People were happy to see him back here, because he was probably the best player in the league and still showing some of his magic.’
The old magic still works when he turns it on. So does the infectious smile. It’s just that neither are rolled out quite so readily.
In Florida, on Saturday, Ronaldinho scored the opener in a 12-10 feast of goals played at a gentle pedestrian pace.
He barely moved but basked in the acclaim as he performed his tricks for a crowd as big as any Inter Miami would attract for their games in the MLS.
Ronaldinho scored the opener in a 12-10 feast of goals played at a gentle pedestrian pace
And it isn’t only the fans and the veterans he can attract. Football’s modern stars were there in force.
His opening goal came courtesy of a pass from Paulo Dybala, taking a break from talks as he moved from Juventus to Inter Milan.
Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior featured and so did Paul Pogba, for the first time since injury forced him off during Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat at Liverpool in April.
There’s just something about Ronaldinho, isn’t there? Star appeal, maybe. Or the x-factor. There always was.