Every one of the game’s devout followers have dreamed of being more than just a fan. Some fill this void by spending their days playing with fellow amateurs; some look to further their involvement within the sport through coaching or officiating; while others make their dreams a reality in the comfort of their own homes, happily allowing their eyes to become permanently squared by the flickering illuminations of their computer monitor, all for a shot at simulated glory. ‘Just one more game and I’ll turn it off’.
For Brazilian Carlos Henrique Raposo, though, no alternative came close to subduing his desire to become a professional footballer and, as it happened, Carlos was never one to let a little thing like a lack of ability stand in his way of achieving that.
Carlos Henrique wasn’t entirely without footballing promise. In his early teens, Henrique found himself in the Botafogo youth academy, which he briefly represented before switching to the academy of fellow Brazilian club Flamengo. Aged 16, scouts from then-first division Mexican club Puebla believed they had spotted a certain something in the youngster and flew him home with them in order to begin his professional career on Mexican soil. But his intercontinental adventure was cut short following his release from Puebla with a grand total of zero appearances for the club.
Away from his native Brazil, Henrique’s career, though still in its infancy, was stuttering, so back to Rio de Janeiro he flew, though not before completing a comically brief stint in the United States, at El Paso Patriots, where he managed another appearance-free sojourn.
Though it was becoming clear he lacked the skills needed on the field, like every successful con man, Henrique was gifted with the charm and wit needed to manipulate those around them. Through his excessive flirtation with the type of nightlife afforded to a 1980s footballer, Henrique, by his own admission, managed to forge friendships with many of the national team’s star players. Having become pals with the likes of Romário, Bebeto, Ricardo Rocha, and Renato Gaúcho, Henrique was able to continue his club-hopping by piggy-backing on the deals of his rather more adroit friends.
The tactic was simple. Whenever a club inquired about the possibility of a transfer involving one of his new friends, Henrique would encourage his buddies to insist upon signing him also, shoehorning himself into any potential deals, most commonly under the suggestion of a three-month contract.
This was seen by Henrique as the perfect contract length as it was short enough to allow the club to perceive the deal as risk free, as they could let him go after just 90 days should they deem him surplus to requirements, and it also allowed Henrique ample time to soak up the atmosphere of his new club, its surroundings and nightclubs, as well as, more importantly, long enough for him to take home a wage, but wasn’t so long that he’d be made to actually, you know, play football.
Once at a club Henrique would tell the management that he didn’t feel completely match-fit and would require a few weeks focusing purely on physical training to be ready for his debut. This would eat up a fair portion of the three-month contract and would allow for Henrique, who, for all his failings, was naturally athletic, to happily perpetuate the ruse while excelling at something he knew he was comfortable doing.
The next phase of Henrique’s long con was perhaps the most shameless and would involve sporadic mystery injuries. By taking advantage of the relative lack of medical technology available to clubs in the 1980s, Henrique would drop to the floor, writhing in agony, claiming he had torn a hamstring the instant he was required to kick a ball, affording him another month or two of football-free bliss in the treatment room. For the most part, this worked surprisingly well.
Around 1989 Henrique returned to his country’s capital having been picked up by Bangu, who, like the clubs that preceded them, believed they were signing a promising young Brazilian striker.
Though his spell at Bangu was every bit as deplorable as his spells abroad, it was to be the setting for one of his most outrageous stunts. Despite his attempts to deceive the staff at Bangu, club president Castor de Angrade’s insistence upon having his club’s “star striker” strut his stuff for them meant that Henrique could cry wolf no longer. In the final few minutes of a league match against Coritiba, with Bangu trailing, the team’s manager saw Henrique as their only hope of evading an increasingly inevitable defeat. Sparing no sympathy for his cries of persistence, the coach sent Henrique to warm up on the sidelines.
Knowing he was in desperate need of an almighty bluff to avoid being exposed as a cheat, Henrique improvised. Having noticed a section of Bangu fans behind the dugout, shouting obscenities at their own players, he climbed onto the fence and directed a tirade of insults back at them. The referee was quickly alerted to the raucous and wasted no time in brandishing a red card to the player for his outrageous behaviour.
Problem solved, right? Henrique couldn’t be shown up on the field if he had already been sent from it. But then came the small issue of the backlash from his club. Having spectacularly self-destructed just moments before his debut, it would be fair to predict that day as Henrique’s last in the colours of Bangu. And it may well have been, had Henrique not pulled another trick from out of his sleeve.
Upon being confronted by an enraged Castor de Angrade, demanding answers from his player, Henrique looked his club president in the eyes and told him earnestly: “Before you say anything, listen. God gave me a father, who passed away. But he gave me another” – implying the club’s president was like a father to him – “and I’ll never allow anyone to say my father is a thief. But the fans were saying exactly that. That’s why I intervened.”
The impromptu monologue worked wonders, pulling unashamedly at the president’s heartstrings, and as opposed to having his contract torn up by the club it was extended by a further six months for his loyalty to the man who had signed him. And with that the great charade continued.
Since the dawn of humankind greed has plotted the downfall of many a great man, and the same could almost be said of Carlos Henrique, if it wasn’t for his ludicrous ingenuity and absurd knack for spontaneous problem solving; skills that were once again put to the test following a move to sunny Southern Europe.
Not content with deceiving his way through a professional career in Brazil, Henrique looked to move abroad again and jumped at the chance to join France’s Gazélec Ajaccio. Upon arriving at the Corsican club, Henrique was mortified to have been greeted by a stadium packed with elated supporters, every one of them eagerly anticipating a peek at the samba skills they had been promised their slick new signing from South America could deliver.
Knowing that he had stretched his fake-injury routine a little thin over the years, and with no fractious fans to bail him out again, Henrique leafed through the pages of the Deception For Dummies he kept in the recesses of his mind, in search of inspiration. Then it hit him: the crowd could only discover his true footballing aptitude if there were footballs for him to play with. And so our have-a-go-Houdini set about leathering every ball in sight into the crowd, as souvenirs for the grateful Ajaccio faithful, all the while making sure to be seen kissing the badge of his newly-beloved Ajaccio at every possible opportunity.
Left without any footballs to conduct their practice match with, he and his new team-mates could do little more than a spot of light fitness training and there was one player in particular who was more than happy to oblige with the sudden schedule reshuffle.
Remarkably Henrique is said to have remained at Ajaccio until he decided to call it a day aged 39; in the process of making his boots the first to have been hung up before ever being laced up. Still, the pseudo-striker was said to have featured sporadically for the team from Corsica, in 20-minute bursts on occasion, which, if true, would have seen him leave a far greater legacy in France than he did in the United States or Mexico.
Through the many stories collated in the years since his ‘career’ drew to a close, it is clear that Henrique’s behaviour was that of a man so desperate to emulate the Brazilian World Cup winners he grew up watching as a child he would do anything to make it, even if it meant slaloming in and out of increasingly farcical situations on a regular basis. Accounts of Henrique openly rejecting deals to bigger clubs on a mobile phone, while speaking English, intentionally within range of his Botafogo team-mates, evidences yet another example of this, and paints the picture of a young man desperate for approval amongst his peers.
In reality, one of the Botafogo fitness coaches was a fluent English speaker who knew Henrique was speaking gibberish the entire time, and the mobile phone he had been using was in fact a plastic toy. What this says of Henrique and the believability of his many other stunts really needs no further explanation.
With the majority of Carlos Henrique’s stories having been brought to light by the man himself, or by the very friends that enabled so many of his antics, it is nigh on impossible to extract the fact from the fiction. The mere fact that Henrique claimed, in the early days, to have been attributed the nickname ‘Kaiser’ on account of the similarities he shared with the legendary German defender Franz Beckenbauer calls into question every word uttered by the Brazilian.
But whether embellished, exaggerated, or entirely fabricated, the tale of Carlos Henrique Raposo, much like a misheard Chinese whisper, is simply too grand not to pass on, and for that reason alone will surely live on, long beyond the man himself, as the story of football’s most audacious conman.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp