Remember Ali Dia, the Senegalese semi-pro footballer handed a Premier League game by Southampton in the 1990s largely on the strength of a bogus reference from someone posing as then-World Player of the Year George Weah?
Well Brazil has its own tale of an impostor conning his way into the ranks of the professionals – only the scale, audacity and mind-boggling success of the wheeze makes him, in blagging terms, the Pele to Ali Dias, well, Ali Dia.
For Carlos Henrique Raposo – or Carlos Kaiser, as he was known – hustling his way onto the books of one of Brazils top teams was just the start.
What set him apart were the myriad ingenious and shameless ways he sustained his sham career at club after storied club through the 80s and 90s, the fame and influence that he attained in Rio de Janeiro, and the extraordinary lengths he went to in order to avoid the thing that threatened to unmask him as a fraud: actually having to kick a ball.
Kaisers highlights include: persuading club chiefs at Bangu that he was a fan-favourite by bribing ball-boys to chant his name during matches; scaling a fence to start a fight with supporters so that he wouldnt have to be brought on as a substitute; justifying that fight to his furious paymasters by claiming that he had been defending the club presidents name, a move that earned him not just a pardon but also a new contract; paying youth-team players at Palmeiras to injure him in training so that he wouldnt be able to play; and posing as Brazilian football poster-boy Renato Gaucho to get into exclusive nightspots and pick up women.
Staying off the pitch while still ingratiating himself with a teams powerbrokers was a high-wire act and showcased Kaisers cunning.
At Fluminense he won over team-mates by taking the blame for a nightclub fight involving another player.
At Botafogo, he kept the club president on side by providing him with a string of women and made himself indispensable to team-mates by acting as a de facto pimp for the rest of the dressing room.
“I found out what people needed and I would exploit that need,” he says in a new film about his extraordinary life, Kaiser! The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football.
Kaiser (right) pretended to be Renato Gauch (left) but the pair became friends (Source: Kaiser! The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football)
Kaiser survived on his own myth-making, spinning yarns to journalists in the pre-Wikipedia era to construct a legendary reputation while only making an estimated 30 playing appearances across two decades, scoring no goals.
He also lived off good will. When Renato Gaucho learned that Kaiser was posing as him, he found it funny. The pair remain friends and it is Renato who coins the affectionate epithet that forms the biopics subtitle.
Former Brazil striker Bebeto, meanwhile, explains that players liked Kaiser enough to indulge his elaborate pretence. “He was so engrossed in his own stories, youd feel bad calling him out,” Bebeto says.
Not everyone appreciated him though. Brazil great Zico calls Kaiser “an affront to the profession of football”.
The genesis of the film and its accompanying book is also a colourful story but has its roots almost 6,000 miles away from the Copacabana in the City of London.
In 2013 Rob Fullam, an oil trader at Tradition by day, stumbled upon an outline of Kaisers tale on a Reddit forum and was moved to share it with friends.
They included Tom Markham, a former forex trader in the Square Mile who moved into the sports industry and is now head of business development at the makers of the Football Manager games.
“It was three paragraphs translated from Portuguese and it looked ridiculous,” Markham tells City A.M. “It looked embellished, like it just couldnt be real.”
The germ of the idea sprouted while Markham was at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and heard first-hand from football insiders the mythical status that Kaisers story had attained.
“The story is relatively well known in Rio. They have this type of character. The Portuguese word is malandro: a lovable rogue who is effectively a conman,” he says. “But they almost have more respect for someone who makes it that way. Thats what allowed Kaiser to push the boundaries.”
Back in England, Markham, Fullam and mutual friend Stefan Choynowski marvelled that the tale remained largely untold beyond Kaisers old haunts.
“It started out, after a couple of pints, as someone should make a movie about this,” he says. “After a few more, it was we should make a movie about this.” Markham became producer, with Fullam and Choynowski as executive producers.
Little more than a year later, with director Louis Myles now on board and a film crew in tow, Markham headed back to Brazil to track down Kaiser himself – as well as a host of his friends, including 1970 World Cup winner Carlos Alberto.
“It was either going to be the most expensive holiday wed ever had or we were going to find him,” he says. “We knew we could get to him, but we didnt know whether he had sold his story before.”
Kaiser, 55, now lives and works in Rio as a personal trainer (Source: Kaiser! The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football)
Kaiser sold them the rights and the result – a hugely enjoyable romp through his laddish escapades that takes a sharp turn and ends up packing a surprising emotional punch – premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York earlier this year. It is out in UK cinemas from Thursday, while the book – penned by sports writer Rob Smyth – is also published this week.
Markham expects the project to make money, in part thanks to the growing demand for high-end content from the likes of Netflix, which snapped up the eventual Oscar-winning doping expose Icarus. “When we started making this a really good documentary sold for $1m. Now its $5m,” he says.
Its all quite the legacy for a man with no discernible playing ability like Kaiser. “The funny thing about it is that he wasnt into football,” says Markham, who is already putting the finishing touches to his next sport documentary. “The only reason he did it is because he wanted women.”
For footballs greatest hoaxer – now 55, living modestly in Rio and working as a personal trainer who only takes on female clients – the success of his escapades was a kind of karma for a poverty-riven childhood. “You either become a scammer or a sucker,” he says. “I didnt take anything from anybody. I rode my luck. Thats all I took. I took my luck.”
Kaiser! The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football is out in cinemas from Thursday 26 July. See www.kaiserthefilm.co.uk for availability and tickets. The book is published this week by Penguin Random House.