Ronnie Brunswijk has been a lot of things over his 60 years. Born to subsistence farmers in one of the most poorer regions of the Western Hemisphere. A military dictator’s bodyguard. Robin Hood-like character, convicted for bank robbery. He was revered for giving aid to the poor. Two European drug dealers were convicted. Father to at least 50 children, according to the New York Times. As of the end of 2013, he is vice-president of Suriname.
He also is the owner of a soccer team called Inter Moengotapoe, which competes in the top division of Suriname’s professional ranks. Brunswijk was also the world’s oldest soccer professional player on Tuesday, during an international match.
Brunswijk inserted himself into Inter Moengotapoe’s starting lineup for Tuesday night’s match against Olimpia of Honduras in the Concacaf League, the second-tier competition for clubs from North and Central America, plus the Caribbean (though located in South America, Surinamese teams do not compete in that continent’s international tournaments). The No. 61, a tribute to his 1961 birth year, he played 54 minutes as a forward alongside his son, Damian, before subbing himself out.
Let’s just say Brunswijk struck a peculiarly imposing presence on the pitch.
After being singled out to attend boarding school at the age of 10, Brunswijk became a paratrooper for the Surinamese army and eventually became the personal bodyguard to military dictator Desire Bouterse, who assumed control of the tiny South American country in 1980 after a coup. Brunswijk and Bouterse eventually fell out, with Brunswijk claiming that Bouterse had been violently treating political opponents. Brunswijk was a descendant of slaves called Maroons.
Eventually, Brunswijk earned a reputation as a Robin Hood of sorts, stealing funds from the government and giving the money to the poor (in a New York Times article from last year, Brunswijk says criminal charges against him were invented by the Bouterse regime and that he made his money from a gold mine). He eventually led a 1,200-strong rebel army in Suriname’s devastating six-year civil war, from which the country still is recovering three decades later.
Brunswijk also has been accused of using drug trafficking to fund his cause, and in 1999 a Dutch court convicted him in absentia of operating a cocaine-smuggling ring and handed down a six-year prison sentence. A French court issued the same conviction one year later. Brunswijk denied any involvement in drug trafficking in last year’s Times story, saying his wealth comes from timber and gold mining established after the civil war ended in 1992.
Chandrikapersad Santokhi, a former police officer who was tasked with tracking down Brunswijk in the 1980s, became Suriname’s president last year. Brunswijk, who was a prominent political figure in the country and had briefly been the chairman of its National Assembly, was elected vice-president after the formation of a coalition government together with Santokhi. He became the first Maroon to be elected to the position.
“Mr. Brunswijk’s history is there. “We could see his past and consider that a problem,” Santokhi said to the Times. “We’re looking forward to a better future, because we are two leaders who have been entrusted to lead this nation together.”
Brunswijk has continued to spread around his wealth to the impoverished Maroon community while also at one point reportedly buying cars for his entire soccer team. After Tuesday’s match, a shirtless Brunswijk even was seen on video handing out cash to the players on the opposing Olimpia team in their locker room, a questionable bit of generosity that has piqued the interest of Concacaf itself.
“We are extremely concerned at the content of a video circulating on social media which raises potential integrity issues surrounding the Concacaf League match between Inter Moengotapoe and CD Olimpia,” Concacaf said in a statement Wednesday. “The matter is being referred to the Concacaf Disciplinary Committee who will commence a formal investigation and a further update will be provided when that process has concluded.”
While some observers criticized Brunswijk’s actions Tuesday, the Olimpia players didn’t seem to care.
“It was their choice and did they did what they thought was best for their team. We don’t get involved in that,” defender Johnny Leveron said, per ESPN.
Brunswijk’s presence on the pitch did not give his team any sort of boost: Inter Moengotapoe lost, 6-0. According to the Honduran newspaper Diez, Brunswijk’s international legal situation will prevent him from traveling to Honduras for the return match against Olimpia on Monday.