It all began with a hug.
But this wasn’t just any hug. This hug was on the Sun Life Stadium field, in front of 70,000 fans, and involved arguably the most famous soccer player in the world — Cristiano Ronaldo. The college student who hugged him wound up in jail for a day and goes to trial Monday facing charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct. Among those trying to get the kid out of trouble is Ronaldo himself.
The Portuguese superstar, who plays for Real Madrid, wrote a letter to the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office on behalf of 19-year-old Ronald Gjoka, an Albanian native and Canadian citizen who attends Palm Beach State Community College.
“My name is Cristiano Ronaldo, and I play football (soccer) for Real Madrid,” begins the letter, obtained by the Miami Herald. “I was playing at Sun Life Stadium last month when a fan entered the field. His name is Ronald Gjoka, a young college student. We hugged, and we spoke for a while, until security arrived to escort him off the field. He was not aggressive or violent in ANY way. In addition, he did not resist security or police in any possible way
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“I am concerned because I understand he may face potential problems with Immigration and with his college if the criminal charges against him are not dismissed I understand your position and the importance of enforcing rules and laws. However, I respectfully request that you and your office reconsider this decision and dismiss the two criminal charges this young man faces.”
It is signed, “Sincerely, Cristiano Ronaldo.”
The letter arrived electronically, and via express mail from Ronaldo’s attorneys in Portugal. Gjoka’s attorney, Richard Hujber of Boynton Beach, had reached out to the Portuguese firm of Morais Leitao, Galvao Telex, Soares da Silva a few weeks after the incident, and got a response from one of their lawyers, Paulo Rendeiro, who contacted Ronaldo and put the letter in motion. The firm also sent a letter on its letterhead verifying that they do, in fact, represent the soccer icon and that the letter was authentic.
Gjoka, who is 5-7 and 145 lbs., lives in Lake Worth with his mother and is in the United States on a student visa. He was sitting in the first few rows at Sun Life Stadium on Aug. 7 for the International Champions Cup final between Real Madrid and Chelsea. He is a diehard Ronaldo fan and was wearing a replica No. 7 Ronaldo jersey when he decided to jump onto the field during the match. He ran up to Ronaldo and the two shared an embrace, during which Gjoka said he told Ronaldo how much he admired him, and asked him not to let police arrest him.
The crowd cheered during the hug, which lasted between 30 seconds and a minute.
Gjoka was arrested and spent a day and a half at Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Doral, where, according to Hujber, fellow inmates stopped hazing Gjoka after seeing him on TV sports highlights. Hujber said Gjoka realizes he made a mistake, and understands the stadium must uphold its rules for security reasons. But Hujber believes Gjoka already paid a penalty by spending a night in jail, and hopes the letter from Ronaldo will help persuade stadium officials to show mercy on the overzealous fan.
“I’m hoping the stadium officials will decide to dismiss these charges because the kid has no prior record, was not drunk or high, was not violent in any way,” Hujber said. “It was stupid what he did, but he’s a really bright kid, and I would hate for these low-level misdemeanors to affect his academic future or perhaps his immigration status. Ever since [the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks], student visa holders are scrutinized much more closely, and in this case, he is just a huge soccer fan who made a mistake.”
Ed Griffith, spokesman for the state attorney’s office, said that although the Ronaldo letter is “very, very nice,” it probably has no bearing on the case because Ronaldo is not the victim pressing charges, it is Sun Life Stadium prosecuting the case.
Said Sun Life Stadium spokesman Jason Jenkins: “Generally speaking, these laws are in place to protect the safety of the participants, coaches and sideline personnel by discouraging fans from running onto the field during the course of games.”
No matter the outcome, Ronaldo’s letter has already made Gjoka a bigger fan, Hujber said. Gjoka would love to hug his hero a second time for his efforts, but he’ll probably just send a letter.