There is a lot of mystery around mainstream products and the marketing campaigns around it, and there are enough examples in the football ecosystem who have taken a similar, dodgy path to making it to the highest level.
Before I start the story, there should be a rhetorical question asked. How many times have you pictured yourself in the place of the athletes you watch?
Like the listeners of Homeros’ epics, we look to transpose ourselves into what we are watching. Seeing Casemiro and Roma nullifying Lionel Messi, or Claudio Gentile fading Diego Maradona, equals to a hedonistic aesthete’s love towards Alfred Hitchcock’s ability to hijack and orchestrate viewer’s eyes. Every scene a weapon, no dialogue needed. We would stick those scenes into our veins if we could.
Throughout the history of football, some of us, however, believed that it wasn’t enough. That reality should mimic our dreams. To realize their solipsistic dreams, they opted to con their way to football stardom. They being Martin Saarikangas, Alessandro Zarrelli, Carlos Kaiser, Masal Bugduv and Alieu Darbo. More of them later.
At first glance, the aforementioned men might seem like a bunch of fraudsters. A group of pathetic careerists concealed behind a curtain of smooth talk.
However, be true to yourself. How many times have you pictured Mohamed Salah pointing at you in recognition, strutting in front of the screaming Kop with noise levels rising above the bedlam? As an 11-year-old, you must’ve experienced reveries of representing the colours of your club. Becoming the next George Best or Cristiano Ronaldo. Kids scampering through the streets of Comuna 13 and Sevran with your name on the back, tabloids writing articles about what car you drive.
But how on earth would one execute such an absurd feat?
A Polish fairy tale named The Glass Mountain (1800s) obeys an all too familiar template. An enchanted princess resides in a golden castle and, much to your surprise, a bunch of patriarchal knights try to rescue her. As a result these men’s bodies lie on the premises of that very same mountain, disfigured by the hooks of a rabid eagle.
Then, a shrewd schoolboy arrives on the scene. Indifferent to the cadavers, the boy utilizes lynx’s claws and manages to ascend the mid part of the mountain. The rest of the journey he covers by hitching a ride to the castle in the back of that aforementioned bird. In this manner, he succeeds in marrying the girl and defeating his seemingly more competent (and athletic) competitors.
In short, the schoolboy discovers a shortcut through which he is able to implement the cadenza of so many. By ignoring his corporal restrictions, he paves the way for the men of future to find their own shortcut. To find their own way of turning footballing dreams into reality.
Later on, one of these shortcuts turned out to be money.
Three cubic acres
Prosperity possesses the ability to fulfill the kookiest of vagaries. People, who claim that they have more money than they can spend in a lifetime, lack imagination. Twenty-four years ago, a certain Finnish man named Martin Saarikangas decided to realize his obscure dreams via the power of three cubic acres.
A founding member and chief of a shipbuilding company Masa-Yards, Saarikangas was the main sponsor of nationally prestigious Turun Palloseura. “TPS won the Finnish Cup in 1991, 1994 and 2010 and played in the Finnish Cup final in 1996, 1997 and 2005,” according to our Little Helper, Wikipedia. In August 1994, at the mouth of the Aura River, TPS decided to pay homage to their sugar daddy by naming him on their starting lineup for a match against Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi. It was hardly surprising when the ill-fated cameo turned out to be as fertile as Scrooge McDuck’s expedition to find the Philosopher’s Stone, written by Carl Barks in October 1954.
On the pitch, Saarikangas seemed like a sloth, trapped in the middle of macaques. His ham-fisted touches left the spectators wondering what they had spent their paychecks for.
After a backlash of vast proportions, Saarikangas (naturally) regretted the incident behind crocodile tears. In an interview with Urheiluruutu, he bona fide avoided responsibility and put the blame on the club, accusing them of miscalculation. The manager of TPS (Tapio Harittu), however, divulged that the idea of Saarikangas’ debut derived simultaneously from both parties. But I’ll guess we’ll never know how the events really unfolded.
Regardless of the circumstances, the then-57-year-old tycoon had his name immortalized for the future generations. By becoming the oldest player to make an appearance in Veikkausliiga, his act still breathes through the pages of academic history books. “His work [keeps] on living, like the watches on the wrists of dead soldiers”, Jean Cocteau would say.
“Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.”
– Benjamin Franklin
And so, it seems that cheat codes don’t exist exclusively in the realm of video games.
But like the lynx’s claws in that Polish mythus, money only gets you halfway. In order to reach the summit, one must be in the saddle of an eagle. One must convince the opposition to be on his side.
The Story of Voss Premium Mineral Water
In his article Voss Water Is Bullshit, Sam Briggs of Vice argues that “[the Voss overlords] have successfully managed, it seems, to repackage a basic human right as a status symbol.” Over the course of our sport’s history, a number of footballing bluffers have radically exploited this ‘Voss tactic’. A transcendental manifestation of them waxed, yet decayed hardwood floors is 33-year-old Italian midfielder Alessandro Zarrelli.
“I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.”
– Tom Ripley
Zarrelli. A man from the land of Don Matteo rose to prominence in the year of Italy’s fourth World Cup title. Not by hoisting those golden miniatures but by conning his way to Bangor City and Connah Quay Nomads.
During the 2004–05 season, the boyish amateur footballer approached Welsh and Northern Irish clubs in hopes of bagging a professional contract. Nothing wrong there. But unfortunately, Zarrelli was not a man born in the bright side, resorting to the power of deceiving instead. According to his notorious letters and faxes, he was cream of Italy’s youth on a cultural exchange programme by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), having previously donned the colours of Sheffield Wednesday and Rangers. The messages were signed by non-existent executive named Matteo Colobase. Frank Abagnale, the father of all modern impostors, would have been proud of this young Italian.
In January 2005, Zarrelli managed to lure IFA Premiership side Lisburn Distillery into signing him on a short-term deal. A friendly against Finn Harps, however, revealed that the depth of Northern Irish waters was too much for him. Distillery released him immediately. The change of circumstances didn’t disconcert the Rivoli-born defensive midfielder.
Seven months later, Zarrelli relocated to Bangor City. The then-two-time Welsh Premier League champions had been eliminated from the UEFA Intertoto Cup just a month earlier. After ten days with the club, manager Peter Davenport ran a background check on Zarrelli, finding out that their reinforcement had fabricated his entire story like Jay Gatsby. “He arrived here with a broken nose, so he never actually played for Bangor. He just took part in one warm-up session. He wasn’t anything special”, admitted Davenport year later.
Bangor City’s suspicion grew to alarming levels, after their au pair requested a wage of £200 a week. Initially, he had promised that his wages would be guaranteed by the FIGC.
After a short-lived stint with Connah Quay Nomads, Zarrelli’s career as a pretender took a turn into the home stretch. His downfall culminated in 2006, as Sky TV documentary Super Fakes exposed his true colours for all the world to see. Since then he has become a manifestation of a footballing nomad, representing seven different clubs during the 2016–17 season alone. Despite initial promises, the metempsychosis of Gennaro Gattuso proved out to be just another dreamer.
“Fugazi, Fugazzi. It’s a wazzy, it’s a woozy. It’s [whistles] fairy dust. It doesn’t exist. It’s Neverlanded. It is no matter. It’s not on the elemental chart. It’s not fucking real.”
– Mark Hanna in the film version of The Wolf of Wall Street
Twenty-five years prior to Zarrelli’s adventures, a man named Carlos Raposo, known to historians as Kaiser, kicked off his fantastical career as an impostor. On the surface, Kaiser appeared to be a Brazilian football caricature – slick, talkative and overly positive.
In his decade-long career as a “farce footballer”, Kaiser had his services obtained by every member of the Rio’s big four: Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminese and Vasco da Gama. Representing all of the aforementioned sides without playing a single game, is akin to earning a spot amongst the ranks of The New Yorker without writing a single word.
A man who could have shamelessly shamed Walter Mitty took the concept of football’s dark arts to a whole ‘nother level. During his unveiling at Ligue 2 side Gazélec Ajaccio, Kaiser booted the balls to the stands, as souvenirs for the Ajaccio faithful, in order to avoid the impending disaster of Paulinho-esque keepy-uppies. Oblivious to the fact that their newest show pony was a Joe Schmo, the stans of L’ours came close to throwing roses at Kaiser’s uncreative feet.
Essentially, Kaiser was a smooth and sweet-talking fella, causing pandemonium among women and driving men to seek his friendship. Addicted to sex, all he aspired to have was the lifestyle of a footballer.
And that’s exactly what Kaiser received. By hanging onto three-month contracts, he was able to live the life of a seemingly distinguished professional – without the dangers of getting caught.
“My whole life has revolved around sex. There are no other hobbies. If I went to a nightclub I’d spend 10 minutes chatting up a girl and then leave. You just take her into the first bathroom and the first available cubicle, give her one, and then leave”, Kaiser later confessed. Former Brazilian international Gonçalves confirmed Kaiser’s story, suggesting that farce footballer’s nights resembled the central panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
From faking hamstring injuries to rejecting fictive transfer offers via toy mobile phones, Kaiser’s social adroitness saved his life. At the center of his unscrupulous hoax, was his personality that just seemed to leak warmth to everyone around him. Due to his charm, he was able to convince journalists into writing aggrandized fake news about his heroics. Even players, and some coaches as well, were willing to befriend him, were willing to hide his secrets. After all, it takes a special kind of person to earn a contract extension and pay rise, after fighting against the fans of your own club. Romário, Carlos Alberto Torres, Renato Gaúcho and Bebeto were all part of Kaiser’s posse.
The charlatan well and truly lived the life of a footballing star. In the late ‘90s, Kaiser hung up his boots straight from the shoebox. Houdini.
“He was the single-most hopeful person I’ve ever met.”
– Nick Carraway on Jay Gatsby
In 2009, The Times compiled a list of “Football’s top 50 rising stars”. During the writing process, however, the daily newspaper began to (seemingly) run out of steam as well as names. Apparently, there was only a limited amount of “next Beckhams” at their disposal. So, at no. 30 their naive journalist creatively typed out: “Masal Bugduv (Olimpia Balti): Moldova’s finest, the 16-year-old attacker has been strongly linked with a move to Arsenal, work permit permitting. And he’s been linked with plenty of other top clubs as well.” At first glance, the particular entry seemed like a harmless bunch of platitudes. The only problem was that Bugduv didn’t exist.
Bugduv was a phantom, a result of other journalist’s imagination. Through the power of Wikipedia and his technical expertise, this Irish journalist named Declan Varley succeeded in highlighting the issues of modern-day football journalism. His foundation was laid on quicksand; on non-existent, vulgar newspapers and non-reliable message boards with fabricated AP reports.
Bugduv was “strong, so he could fit into a team straightaway” but not a superhero, according to Varley himself. At his fictional club Bugduv performed in a supporting role, aiding his teammates inside the final third. No wonder the pseudo-16-year-old seemed like a realistic virtuoso from continent’s backwaters. Just the type of guy whose talent would be ranked above Mesut Özil and Robert Lewandowski.
“M’asal beag dubh” – Irish for “My Little Black Donkey”. A short story by early 20th-century writer Pádraic Ó Conaire about a man who attempts to sell a lazy donkey for an inflated price.
Darbo, on the other hand, is made of flesh and bones. Whereas the myth of Bugduv originated in Moldova, Darbo’s roots grew on the other end of the continent – Sweden. His tale is labyrinthine, and simply too long to be told here. But if I wanted to oversimplify things, I’d blatantly declare that he’s the modern-day evocation of Kaiser, without the latter’s wittiness of course.
In all fairness, Darbo’s level of play isn’t that much different to Sunday League player’s one. But somehow, by producing false email accounts and posting YouTube videos of other players as his own, he’s managed to maintain his professional status. In 2012, at the age of 19, he hustled his way to the matchday squad for Gambia’s FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier against Morocco.
One year later, Darbo was handed a two-year extension by his first senior club Dinamo Zagreb, after staying with the Croatian side for just one month. Modri also named him for their 23-man squad for the UEFA Europa League. In December, however, he was released.
Because of your skills in inductive reasoning, you probably realise how Darbo’s four-month-long stint at Dinamo went. Yes, his vacation at the southern slopes of the Medvednica mountain was appearance-free.
Since then, Darbo’s changed clubs like Leonardo DiCaprio changes girlfriends. On few occasions, he’s actually played a game or two. If someone contradicts him on social media nowadays, name-drops Ali Dia for example, he simply deletes the comment and blocks the user who dared to do so. Facade must be preserved, right?
Both Darbo and Bugduv are fascinating examples of the amateurship that still flourishes in the hands of professionals. Think about it for a moment. There are still a plethora of professionals who actually pay money and try to put a value on pigs in pokes.
Now you must be wondering could you do it yourself. Could you con your way to the European Cup. Without a shadow of a doubt in my mind, I’d say yes. First, you should acquire riches of Rockerduckish proportions. Or you’d have to come from a country of quite generous sponsors (e.g. Qatar). After finding yourself a nice, possibly corrupted club, you’d be faced with the conundrum of convincing the doctors to hand you a season-long sick leave. Easier said than one.
“Everything has its price”
While recovering from your apocryphal injury, you could be posting persuasive clips of your Ronaldo chips and salacious FK’s. After all, we all know how misleading one felicitously cut highlight reel can be. During the second season, you’d find it hard to break into the starting lineup after the travesty of an injury. The campaign would be filled with a litany of Ceballos-esque substitutions and slight discomforts.
After this disappointing spell at your club, you’d find yourself on the lookout for a new employer, and the rumour amongst scouts would have it. “A rough diamond. Stuck on the bench at a respectable club.” On July 2020, the catharsis of your hoax would be take place as you’d find yourself a legitimate employer from Thai League 1.
And at the end of this enduring process, you’d hear the sound of Kaiser reverberating inside of your brain in fragnol: “Muy bien, mon ami.”