“Pinocchio had nothing on him,” says 1994 World Cup winner Ricardo Rocha. “Worse than a fibber, that guy was the biggest 171 in Brazilian football.” 171 is slang in Brazil; a reference to article No.171 of the country's penal code, the law on fraud. And the “guy” he talks about? That would be Carlos Henrique Kaiser, the most successful conman in the history of football.
“Over 26 years,” Kaiser told that same Globo reporter, “I was at Ajaccio [in Corsica], Independiente in Argentina, Puebla in Mexico, El Paso in the United States, spells at Vasco da Gama, Fluminense, Bangu.” The con? He almost never played a game. “If I played 20 full games in my career, it’s a lot.”
Kaiser, according to those who saw him up close, could barely kick a ball. “He’s our mate,” Rocha continued, “but he couldn't even play cards. His problem was the ball. He tells stories, but on a Sunday afternoon at 4:00 in the Maracanã, he never played. I'm sure of that.”
That lack of ability is a claim Kaiser has disputed. In his version of events, he was unwilling rather than unable to play.
In an interview with Sapo.pt, he remembered that he “started at Botafogo aged 10”, before moving around the academies of a series of Rio clubs at the behest of an agent who had taken control of his career.
“If I couldn't play at all why would an agent have signed me up?” Kaiser asked Fox Sports interviewer Benjamin Back earlier this year.
Whatever the case may be, he managed to draw a wage as a professional player whilst avoiding pulling on a pair of boots for almost three decades. A record of just 20 appearances over 26 years boggles the mind. So how did he maintain the con for so long? How did he keep getting signed?
The answer lies in his ability to form relationships with some of the biggest names in Brazilian football. Kaiser got close to Romário, Carlos Alberto, Bebeto and Edmundo and even pretended to be Renato Gaúcho, one of the most famous players in Brazil in the 1980s.
One night, he assumed Renato's identity to gain entry to an exclusive nightclub, but a few hours later the man himself turned up. “Renato went to the bouncer and said ‘I’m Renato, I’m on the list,’” Kaiser recalled to Back. “The bouncer said: ‘Renato’s already inside.’ So, Renato asked to have a look at this ‘Renato’, and he saw me.”
Yet instead of being drawn into a dispute, Kaiser managed to talk his way into becoming the Flamengo and Seleção forward’s close friend.
From then on, whenever one of Kaiser's famous amigos signed a new contract at a club, they would recommend a ‘great’ player they knew - Kaiser - who would present a professional footballer’s ID card and photos of himself in an Ajaccio kit that were taken during a period he spent warming the bench for the team from Corsica.
“I would sign short-term contracts,” he told Globo, “usually three months. I'd get the signing-on fee and stay there for that spell.”
“I know he was an enemy of the ball,” Renato Gaúcho has said of his doppelganger, “but he was a physical specimen.”
Kaiser would do the warm-up and would look good. But when the time came to have a kick-around, Renato explained: “He would agree with a teammate: ‘On the first ball, come and hit me hard, because I need to go to the treatment room.’” And there he would stay, for as long as he could.
As well as the injury trick, Kaiser would cook up ways of giving his supposed professionalism a veneer of reality. He’d put his mobile phone to his ear, pretending to be speaking to his agent and loudly refusing offers from other clubs.
But, Kaiser chuckled to Brazilian TV in 2011: “One day [club-mate] Ronaldo Torres went to look at my phone and found out it was just a toy. Then the game was up.”
Torres confirmed the story. “He pretended to speak English, getting it all wrong. One day I went up close behind him and could hear that he wasn’t talking to anyone. He wasn’t a 171, he was a 342,” Torres smiled, doubling the number to emphasise the magnitude of Kaiser’s deception.
Kaiser would make himself useful in other ways, too, running errands for the genuine footballers and arranging for prostitutes to visit team hotels on away trips.
The conman even claims to have discovered that one club director was a closet homosexual, so he kept him on side by finding young men for his boss to sleep with whilst staying tight-lipped about his secret. “Of course he wanted to keep me around,” Kaiser laughed to Fox.
The only side he stayed with for a significant period was Bangu, where he befriended the club president Castor de Andrade. Andrade was a ruthless gangster who had made his fortune in illegal gambling before sinking it into football and elaborate carnival parades.
Yet, as the film ‘Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football’ revealed in 2018, Andrade’s patience with Kaiser eventually wore thin. In a Brazilian championship match that Bangu were losing 2-0, the betting baron demanded that his injury-prone forward be brought on.
Kaiser, terrified of being uncovered, got creative. He leapt over the fence that separated the away fans from the pitch and started a brawl, getting sent off before he could be subbed on.
An irate and armed Andrade went to the dressing room, demanding answers. Again though, Kaiser was silver tongued, telling the mafia boss that the fans had been calling him names, and because Kaiser saw him as a father figure, he had jumped in to defend Andrade’s honour. Instead of a bullet, he was handed a new contract.
More recently, Kaiser has told the sad story that perhaps explains his desire to deceive so many for so long.
In early 2019, he said on live TV that he had been brought up by a woman other than his biological mother, a woman who had stolen him as a tiny baby. “I was taken from my real mother. My adoptive mother worked for a famous politician. One time they travelled to Porto Alegre and my real mother asked my adoptive mother if she could look after me for a day or two. Then my adoptive mother told my mother that I had died whilst she was watching me. My mother believed her.
“What I really wanted was to study,” he told Sapo.pt, explaining his aversion to actually playing, “But my [adoptive] mother wanted me to play football, because at 10 I already earned money that helped sustain our family. She hit me, they obliged me to play.”
Knowing what is true and what is not with a man who made a long career out of lies and deceit is difficult. But, he told Red Bull Brasil: “I don't regret any of it. The clubs have already deceived so many players, someone had to take revenge on them.”