The roller coaster life of Fábio Paim, the star many believed could’ve been as good as Cristiano Ronaldo

The roller coaster life of Fábio Paim, the star many believed could’ve been as good as Cristiano Ronaldo

If you’re Portuguese and you’re reading this, you don’t need to be addicted to football to know the name Fábio Paim. In fact, it should be the Portuguese dictionary definition for “high expectations that turned into disappointment and failure”. But if you’re not Portuguese and I’ve still got your attention, there are some chances that you may have crossed Paim’s path.

If you’re a long-time Football Manager player, you have dozens of reasons to remember perhaps the two greatest editions of the game. First of all, these were the successors of the still-loved Championship Manager 01/02, a game that had the world going after Tó Madeira and Maxim Tsigalko. Just as mafia movie fans will always remember Godfather II, football management simulators fans are still waiting for a game good enough to replace CM 01/02 in their broken hearts.

Fast-forward to CM 4 and CM 03/04, and if you’ve played either one of these editions of the most iconic football game of all-time, you’re probably one of those managers who is often looking to sign the next big thing. I am then 100 percent sure that you signed Fábio Paim – and perhaps his teammate, José Mário, who also failed to reach the level predicted by Sports Interactive.

Focusing on real-life for a moment, many non-CM fans will remember Paim for his loan move to Chelsea in 2008. Paim landed in London in August, for his fourth loan in two years, to play for Chelsea, with whom he trained with the first team but only played for the reserves. It was a strange move: after 24 matches over two clubs in the Portuguese second tier, and only seven matches in the top-flight, a transfer to a team that was winning titles on a yearly basis in the game’s most competitive league didn’t seem a logical step. And time proved it wasn’t with a return to Lisbon after just six months. It was the first of 10 foreign adventures for Paim and, just like the other nine, it represented a let-down in the career of this once-talented prospect.

Paim is now 29-years-old and, since his time at Chelsea, has played in seven different countries – Angola, Qatar, China, Malta, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Brazil. Paim is probably not missed nor remembered in the countries where he has been; at least for reasons related to performances on the pitch.

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At this point, whether you know Paim or not, his story is worth exploring. He was born in Estoril, a beautiful seaside city 30km from Lisbon, coming from a working-class family – like so many others – that struggled to make ends meet. Aged six, Sporting signed him after some impressive performances in youth tournaments. When Paim was just 11, rumours suggested that some fans started to organise trips from Lisbon to watch him play. He was a unique talent who was able, in 2000, without the social media platforms that introduced us to Neymar, Martin Ødegaard and Hachim Mastour, to generate talk across an entire nation.

During that phase of Paim’s development, his roller coaster was rising every year, with the winger securing accolades and trophies as a youth player and collecting money – lots of money. At 14, Paim was on the shopping list for clubs like Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid, who frequently sent scouts to assess his skills. Apparently, the French Football Federation even offered a sum of money to Paim’s parents to move to France with a view to the youngster representing Les Bleus in the future. At 14, however, Paim just wanted to play football.

At the time, Sporting were adopting a model that’s now famous in European football, selling youth prospects for large sums of money. Two good examples of this new approach in the transfer market were Ricardo Quaresma, who signed for Barcelona after two seasons in Sporting’s first-team squad, and Cristiano Ronaldo, who signed for Manchester United after one season and one friendly match against the Red Devils that had Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops scrambling for his signature.

To lose Paim for free was Sporting’s worst nightmare at the time. So, to prevent him from listening to the offers arriving from England, Spain and Italy, Los Leões offered their 16-year-old €20,000 a month – only a small part of his income at the time. In a later interview, he admitted that the wage was only his “official” salary and that Sporting paid him more than €170,000.

As a result of the exorbitant wage paid to a youth player, Paim spent the following years playing football and buying supercars – ten to be precise – from brands like Mercedes, Maserati, Ferrari and Porsche, many purchased before he even had a driver’s licence. Coming from very little and being given so much before he had even made his first-team bow saw Paim’s roller coaster begin to tumble.

Despite his salary and appearances in Sporting’s pre-season squads, as well as Portugal’s youth teams, his competitive debut didn’t arrive. This was at a time when it was common to give youngsters a chance at the club, as Sporting had done for João Moutinho, Rui Patrício, Miguel Veloso and Nani, to name just a few.

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There must have been a valid reason for a player seen as the next big thing to spend more time in the reserves than the first team. It was around this time that Paim started to hog the spotlight not only for his football but often for night outs and some hasty moves for a player who had Jorge Mendes as his agent. The Chelsea deal is a prime example of that, as it was clearly too soon and largely for the wrong reasons, as Paim later explained in an interview: “Jorge put me on Chelsea. He had a player there, I was very well paid.”

Much like when he was younger and clubs offered him large contracts, he just wanted to play football. Perhaps that’s the only reason he went from playing at Chelsea alongside with Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry to Real Massamá, a small club from a quiet town near to Lisbon that was playing in the Portuguese second tier.

While Paim asked Sporting for a loan move that would enable him to play in an attacking unit that was prepared to utilise his pace and trickery on the wing, the club instead sent him to a tiny outfit in a dogfight to avoid relegation to the third tier. It was at this time that football lost Paim. Disappointed with the lack of opportunities at his parent club, with successive loans far away from the level that his talent warranted, his motivation to become the best he could slowly waned.

At the end of the 2009/10 season, the wonderkid who once had people coming 60km to watch him as a child, who was considered by many to be more talented than Cristiano Ronaldo, was plummeting down his roller coaster, as quickly as he had gone from Angola to Qatar in the same season. TV Shows were broadcast, interviews held, purported news about his comebacks were abound, and, of course, urban myths took centre stage. Aurélio Pereira, the Sporting scout who discovered Quaresma, Ronaldo and Moutinho, once said of Paim: “Do you think Cristiano is good? Wait to see Fábio Paim.”

By 2011, you would’ve been more like to find Paim on the dancefloor of a Portuguese nightclub than on a football pitch. In fact, it was on the dancefloor of a nightclub, in the summer of 2013, that my friend and I talked with the man himself. Waiting for the bartender to serve us another drink, we realised that right next to us was Paim.

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We, as Porto fans, never felt sad that Paim, a youth prospect from one of our arch-rivals, had not fulfilled his potential. But we felt sad for his wasted talent as football fans, and empathy as humans, and we spoke with him. I said: “You have massive talent, you should be playing top-level football.” Humbly and respectfully, Paim thanked us and said: “I am sure that you have a dream, so if, one day, you have the chance to fulfil it, please don’t think it is already done. Fight hard and work a lot.” In that moment, on a hot summer night, Paim summed up his sporting career in one sentence, giving us all a valuable life lesson.

Over the last few years, Paim has lived through the bitter world of football, with unpaid wages, flights to Portugal paid at his own expense, and participation in reality TV shows because the money is easy to earn and, according to himself, he “doesn’t know how to rob”. With his opportunities in football dwindling, questions now turn to what legacy he has left behind.

In the opinion of many, Paim will leave the game without making a mark, but I belong to the group that believes Paim did leave something. Perhaps not the mark that everybody expected when he was a teenager, but still an important one – a lesson about life.

Amongst the many interviews he’s given in recent years, you can see that he’s learnt his lesson, never hides behind injuries, coaching decisions or bad luck, and appreciates that he had too much, too soon. It’s sad that his talent is spoken of in past tense, but also reassuring that as he looks ahead to the next chapter in his life, there’s still hope.

It’s for this reason that Paim is actually a role model, especially for the vast majority of footballers who fail to make it as big as Ronaldo. It seems also that football clubs, at least in Portugal, have learned from Paim’s career, now offering their youngsters financial advice in order to invest parts of their wages, guaranteeing a future from the very beginning, instead of buying multiple supercars in a short period.

The forward’s story is a footnote for everyone: talent is never enough and the gate to hell is right next to heaven’s door. Fábio Paim could have been the player of his generation but his career became a life lesson for us all, on and off the pitch. And that in itself is his greatest achievement.

By António Fernandim

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