THE RECENT NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN Flamengo, Real Madrid, 16-year-old whizzkid Vinícius Júnior and his agency Traffic were lengthy, eventually concluded by a €45 million sale that will see the Brazil under-17 star officially join the La Liga champions in 2018 and relocate to Madrid with his family the year after.
The deal, however, could only be brought about by the involvement of a particular intermediary – a skilled hand in such deals that see prodigious Brazilian talent finally decide on one of the numerous European superpowers scrapping amongst themselves to capture their signature. It has emerged that it was indeed this rogue figure who suggested Bernabéu officials track the youngster’s progress in the first place and who put Traffic in contact with them.
Brought out of the shadows by the transfer was the self-proclaimed “most hated businessman in Brazil”. There are a litany of such people in an endemically corrupt society, currently in the throes of its worst-ever corruption and graft scandal of which politicians in cahoots with tycoons of leading national enterprises form the main villains. Nothing less expected of him, Wagner Ribeiro wasted no time in grabbing his share of the headlines and coming forward to take the credit for his supposed discovery and pivotal role in the deal.
“He’s a phenomenon. A player on the same level as Neymar. He’s lacking a little maturity, of course, but at this age, 16, Neymar had the same level.” And if anyone should know, it’s Ribeiro. In fact, it comes as a surprise that Real Madrid still have anything to do with him.
After all, it was Ribeiro who initially presented Neymar, then having barely entered adolescence, to Real officials only for the winger to be snatched away at the last minute by bitter rivals Barcelona. This was a key motivation in the quest to land Vinícius Júnior and in the resulting willingness to lay out such a significant sum for an unfulfilled prospect. The difference was that when he finally left, Neymar was already a Copa do Brasil and Libertadores champion as well as a full international.
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Surely after such duplicity, Florentino Pérez would refuse to do any future business with Ribeiro. On the contrary. Ever since the 2005 sale of another of his former clients, Robinho – roughly around the time that fellow Santos academy product Neymar was first courted by potential suitors and talked up as the next big thing – the two have remained great friends. Catalan newspaper Sport seethed that losing out on Vinícius Júnior was just one more “betrayal” from Ribeiro at the expense of Barça following two previous failed attempts to take Neymar to Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain over the last two European transfer windows.
In the days following confirmation of the purchase, it emerged that Barça had actually offered Vinícius Júnior far more money than Madrid, the latter presenting to the striker and his team a more impressive proposal in terms of career trajectory, ambition and philosophy. Not much longer after that, Ribeiro would have for once been reluctant to have the spotlight thrust upon him when being handed a five-year prison sentence for tax evasion.
But this is Brazil, where money talks, and those who have enough of it, walk. For declaring earnings of over £100,000 between 2002 and 2005 when in actuality he had pocketed at least 10 times that amount – and who knows what else, considering he is reported to have advised Neymar and his father to stash their own filthy lucre in offshore accounts – Ribeiro will serve his time in a cushty semi-open halfway house he must return to at night that is both fenceless and guardless.
This is a cruelly unequal society where a single mother of three lingers behind bars with her infant child in an overcrowded female prison for stealing Easter eggs and a kilo of chicken breast, whilst having more hard time thrown at her than many of those involved in the Lava Jato corruption scandal.
Shed a tear, though, for Ribeiro, who had his passport confiscated as part of his rough punishment. Miraculously, he somehow still made his way to Paris at the beginning of August. Speaking to AS in mid-July, he played up to the Madrid-based daily telling them of how he had tried to push Neymar towards the Merengues and not Barcelona, as well as how he now no longer maintains contact with the family.
So when Ribeiro posted photos on social media of him heading to the French capital, many thought it the work of a desperate hanger-on begging to stay relevant. With each passing moment that the world-record sale of Neymar to PSG became more of a reality, however – and was then confirmed – the doubt melted away. Pini Zahavi generally took credit for overseeing the change of allegiances, but photographic evidence of Ribeiro there with club owner Nasser Al-Khelaïfi, Neymar’s sister Rafaella and then the player himself in the Parcs des Princes emerged.
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He must have somehow wangled a judge’s pardon to both leave Brazil and repossess his travel documents. Few would have been waiting at the airport to welcome him back, though, Ribeiro having once admitted to ESPN that even his own offspring no longer speak to him. And as far as being known as the “most hated businessman in Brazil”? Ribeiro laid it on thick in the same correspondence, fishing for sympathy by explaining that ‘empresários’ receive just a five or 10 percent cut for their services.
That’s without factoring in how much of the pie a fixer like Ribeiro can wedge his grubby mitts into for his finder’s fee in a footballing industry notorious for its third-party ownership. Despite the practice being outlawed in recent times, it often sees agents own more of a player’s rights than the club that plucked them from obscurity, reared them from pubescence and then saw them propped up on foreign shores for a pittance.
Before Robinho and Neymar made Ribeiro a world-renowned scoundrel, Kaká was his most famous client, but is looked upon as his worst by the agent himself considering the paltry €8.5 million paid for his capture by AC Milan from São Paulo. Confident of his standing in the modern game, Ribeiro insists that he has never chased after a player. Instead, as with Kaká and his father, it’s young promises that specifically seek out his representation.
Ribeiro had more than 70 players – many stereotypically raised in Brazil´s poorest favela communities, without a male role model and therefore considering Riberio their pai – on his books at the height of his powers. Starting out in finance as a loan officer, he fell into football by chance after being invited to make up a group of 23 investors injecting money into XV de Jaú, a humble lower-league outfit, in the mid-1990s.
Before that, though, brief dalliances with the sport in the 1980s had come through involvement with agricultural magnate Ricardo Fransceshi, who recalled how Ribeiro “always liked to take chances”.
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“I told Wagner to join the group that was trying to get XV de Jaú back to the Paulista Championship A-1 Series and he liked the idea. Until then, he had no connection to football,” continued Fransceshi, who lost contact with Ribeiro after the end of the investor group’s partnership with the team in the late 1990s.
The nickname “procurador problema” (problem scout) had its first airing during the brokering of a deal that took Jaú’s star striker França, the rights to whom Ribeiro and his fellow investors owned fully, to São Paulo. While this saga deserves its own separate piece, a quick taste of the kind of complexities and fall-outs it garnered comes through learning that the case is still in the courts.
In short, Ribeiro ripped off his cronies to the tune of £600,000 from the total £1.2 million the consortium should have received from the Brazilian giants without even considering additional sums that may have arisen from the 2002 purchase of the player by Bayer Leverkusen.
By now, Ribeiro was firmly established in the murky world of Brazilian football, having sold World Cup winner Kaká to AC Milan with the aforementioned Robinho following suit to Real Madrid in 2005. In the Spanish capital, he caused an embarrassing spat by blabbing to the press that Los Blancos’ dressing room had become a haven for conflict and contempt through the divisive behaviour of Spanish legends such as Raúl, Guti and Iván Helguera, who between them did not get on with the club’s Brazilian contingent, which included Roberto Carlos and Júlio Baptista among others.
While Mino Raiola and Zahavi have now surpassed Ribeiro at the top of the cut-throat world of football representation and the shady deals that bring its questionable practices to the forefront, Ribeiro was one of the originals. He was an opportunist who picked his moment, and has been responsible for hoisting some of his homeland’s finest talent to the pinnacle of European club football whilst being fully aware of how to manipulate clubs and the media in a bid to maximise his full earning potential.
For now he remains an enigma, his legal woes leaving many unaware as to whether he is still involved in the game or not. Rest assured, though, the next time the “new Neymar” pops up from the comunidades of one of Brazil’s bustling metropolises or dusty towns, Riberio’s name will never be too far from the conversation, whether his involvement has been a constant from the start, or his specialist services are called upon to give a money-spinning deal the push it needs to get over the line.