The Incredible Story of the Greatest Footballer to Never Play Football
For 20 years, Carlos "Kaiser" Henrique was signed to some of the best football teams in the world without ever actually playing for any of them.
All photos: Carlos Kaiser
The idea of "living a lie" is always presented as quite a dark and negative course of action; something people do in films before they throw themselves off buildings or make sad speeches or lose the ones they love; lose everything, in fact, as the lie eventually crashes down around them, forcing them aboard the late train to whichever unknowable abyss of a new life awaits.
But what if living a lie could actually be really fun? Not good, or especially noble, but something that nonetheless brings joy and light to your life and the lives of others, as well as excitement and noise, humidity, hysteria, lust, fame, friendship and stories with the vivid narrative mettle to outlast the lie, to outlast – possibly – a lifetime?
This is a meagre approximation of the lying life enjoyed by Carlos "Kaiser" Henrique, "the best footballer never to play football", as he is known – a man born in the abject poverty of Rio's favelas, who scammed and charmed his way to two decades of ludicrous glitterati bullshit.
Armed with little more than a mullet, some Speedos and a prodigious gift of the gab, Kaiser – as he insisted on being known, possibly in homage to Franz "Kaiser" Beckenbauer, but more likely in reference to a beer popular in Brazil during his 80s and 90s pomp – was contracted to and affiliated with Rio's four biggest sides: Botafogo, Fluminense, Flamengo and Vasco da Gama, as well as myriad clubs abroad he may or may not have ever played for.
"I wanted to be among the players," Kaiser says in a new documentary, Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football, which takes the time to carefully run its fingers over his myth. The film is hilarious, unbelievable, fascinating and heartbreaking in various measures. "I just didn't want to play," Kaiser adds. "It's everybody else's problem if they wanted me to be a footballer."
Rather than being despised as a leech, Kaiser was warmly regarded by the vast majority of his peers – a guy who, once he'd conned a contract out of a club, would do absolutely everything he could to stay there, as long as it didn't involve playing football. There is very little bitterness for a man who took it upon himself to operate wherever he went as a kind of perma-crocked, orgy-making, mafia-seducing Fun Coordinator, a Brazilian Butlins rep with an endless supply of chutzpah.
I spoke to Louis Myles, the director of the film, and writer Rob Smyth, who wrote a book in parallel, to try to figure out how one man could pull off a ridiculous rolling scam at the top level of Brazilian sport for over 20 years, as well as to find out what happened when the lie did, eventually, come crashing down.
VICE: It's hard to know where to start with Kaiser's story. What makes it so special?
Louis Myles: In Kaiser's case, the length [of his career] is what's really extraordinary. You have a guy who becomes friends with some very influential and famous footballers – Bebeto, Carlos Alberto, Renato Gaúcho. Suddenly, you have a contact base of the best of the best. From there, it's a question of what you do with it. Most people would go, 'Cool, I’m friends with Zico,' and be content to go to lots of good parties and possibly set up a business off the back of it. But Kaiser created a barter system, whereby he'd sort everyone out with whatever they needed – and that could be absolutely anything – and, in return, he'd ask for a trial at a professional club, or for them to vouch that he was a pro-footballer. And these players, the best in Brazil, they bought into it.
He was funny, charming and super quick; he had that classic conman's ability to think on his feet and rack any situation immediately in his favour. Even when you're in danger, that ability to get people onside is the art. He got in with the mafia, took the blame for punch-ups, organised orgies, endlessly faked injury, persuaded journalists to write about him, paid the fans to sing his name at matches. The only thing he daren't do was actually play, because then his con would be exposed.
How did you first become aware of Kaiser's story?
Louis Myles: I was making the documentary celebrating 20 years of the Football Manager gaming series. Someone from the team there took me to the pub and told me about this incredible story someone had posted on reddit, poorly translated from a news article written in Portuguese. After a few pints it went from "someone should make a film about this" to "we should make a film about this". Later, I told Tim Vickery, the BBC's Brazil-based football journalist, and his eyes just lit up. He said, in 21 years of living in Rio, it wasn't just the best football story he'd heard, it was the best story he'd heard, period. That gave me the confidence to run with it. The next three years were, quite frankly, the most bonkers of my life.
Whether true or not, what are your favourite stories of Kaiser's?
Louis Myles: There were so many. That's why we spoke to Rob about doing a book: there was just too much to fit in the film. We did seven trips and, each time, you'd fly over not knowing what you'd get.
Rob Smyth: My favourite's probably the story from his time at the Rio club Bangu, when he deliberately got himself sent off before being forced to go on, by fighting with the opposition fans while warming up as a sub. We were sceptical about that, but there are people who swear they were there. It's a funny story, but also quite serious too; he may've paid with his kneecaps had he actually taken to the field. The unofficial boss of Bangu at the time was Castor de Andrade, Rio's most dangerous gangster – he loved Kaiser, but had fallen for his story about being injured. If he found out Kaiser was a total chancer who'd been lying to him, he would've been in a fair bit of trouble.
There are a lot of stories in the film about Kaiser hanging out with gangsters and other nefarious people. Why do you think he was able to befriend criminals so easily?
Rob Smyth: At that time, basically all the big clubs in Rio were run by bicheiros, mafia figures who operate this illegal lottery that's huge in Brazil. The clubs needed their money and power. Having grown up in a dangerous environment, stuff that might look terrifying or risky to us didn't really register with Kaiser. I think he was so used to living on the edge and pushing his luck that he had an instinctive understanding of what he could get away with. I find it fascinating, how he remembered all the lies and juggled so many different stories. He would organise orgies for the whole team and Pinheiro, a 75-year-old bicheiro with a prosthetic penis, would go along too. Kaiser just kind of knew what people wanted – when he was at Fluminense, a teammate knocked someone out in a nightclub, and Kaiser took the rap for it. He just did whatever he needed to ingratiate himself to people.
Louis Myles: We spoke with Dr Kevin Dutton from Oxford University, who's done loads of TV stuff looking into conmen and is very pally with Frank Abagnale Jr, whose story formed the basis of Catch Me If You Can. Dr Dutton said he'd never seen a conman who was able to generate as much empathy towards themselves as Kaiser. He had legally binding contracts with some of the biggest football clubs in South America.
What was it about Rio at that time that allowed Kaiser to live that kind of life?
Rob Smyth: That's one of the most interesting things about the film, I think. It feels like it couldn't have happened in any other part of Brazil, let alone the world. The Rio culture was so informal and oral, which enabled him to approach people without jumping through all the usual bureaucratic hoops. Things were done verbally, on trust, and people didn’t ask too many questions. It shows you the importance of being streetwise. He was and is immensely intelligent, but mainly he's just a guy who lived on his wits and saw where it took him.
Louis Myles: Also, Brazilians are used to having a scammer-type figure in their culture; they're referred to as malandros, or 171s, which is the national crime code for fraud. They exist by necessity, really; currently, you have 65 percent of children in extreme poverty, and even if you have got cash, the bureaucracy of the place is bananas. They have this thing called jeitinho brasileiro, or the Brazilian Way, which is the philosophy of getting as much for yourself as you can in any given situation. Kaiser is the archetypal malandro, times 1,000. Brazilians appreciate that there'll be people, especially in Rio, with the ability to tell a good story, bring fun and manipulate certain situations.
During the film, it says Kaiser played 30 games during his "very long career". Did you ever see any footage of any of those appearances?
No. I mean, that's what the record says, but personally I don't believe he ever did play.
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What about the woman in the film who says she still has a video Kaiser gave her in the 80s or 90s of TV highlights of him playing? I think for the Argentinian side Independiente.
Louis Myles: Turns out there was a player called Carlos Henrique playing there at the time, and "Carlos Henrique" is Kaiser's real birth name. This guy has the same name as Kaiser, has the same mullet haircut as Kaiser… you see what he's done there, right? The woman still believed it was Kaiser she'd seen banging in goals on the tape, though.
Rob Smyth: I think many players were aware that Kaiser wasn't really a footballer. But he was very clever about befriending powerful people – Bebeto, for example, the World Cup winner he was with at Vasco da Gama a couple of times. At the same time, I'm pretty sure an awful lot of people had no idea what was going on with him, or perhaps they did but there was an unspoken blackmail type thing afoot because he must have so much dirt on so many people… there are a few things we couldn't put in the book or film for legal reasons. Everyone talks with such affection about him, and I think most of it's genuine, but you do always wonder, now that these men are old and married and congressmen or whatever, how much they worry about what damage he could do.
If anyone spends the peak years of their life pretending to be someone or something they’re not, you’d imagine it would eventually come back to bite them. At what point during filming did you realise Kaiser was no different, and that this story would end up showing the sharp relief between who he was then, who he is now and the pain of living in that gap?
Rob Smyth: I think there was a kind of slow reveal. I think it was the fourth trip when his stories started to break down a bit and he was pushed on certain things, which changed the tone of the film a lot, added some nuance and stopped it being just a lad fantasy, although that's still a huge element of it, because that's the life he lived. At one point they spoke to an Israeli guy who ran a seafood restaurant, and he suggested they talk to a man named Fabinho, who played for AC Ajaccio in France. Once they'd spoken to him, I think Kaiser realised he wasn't going to be able to dictate everything in the film, that it wouldn't just be The World According to Kaiser. I think then the film started to explore territory that he wasn't entirely comfortable with. He's had a lot of bereavements as well, and I think he didn't particularly want to talk about those necessarily.
I found that extraordinary, that two wives and a son all died…
Yeah, again, everyone will tell you different things about what happened. I absolutely believe that his first wife, Marcela Mendes, died; everyone verifies that. The others… it's hard to know for sure. There were fewer pictures, he was hazy on the details. I wonder if sometimes he used the term to mean that they were dead to him, whether he ostracised them, or, more likely, they ostracised him. I don't know. But Marcela definitely died. And that’s probably the saddest part of it because it sounds like they were together for a long time, that he genuinely changed and became a different person – but when she died, he had nowhere to go, so he went back to being Kaiser, the problem being he was no longer 25, good looking and surrounded by footballer friends.
How was it shooting those scenes, Louis?
Louis Myles: Shit, man, that was the most difficult day's filming of my life. The whole interview is three-and-a-half hours long, set in his flat in Flamengo. We didn't know we were going to get this change of pace. Everyone’s laughing, but then in the blink of an eye everything gets pulled away. It all happened over the course of two days – we sort of knew something was up on the third trip, but we knew that to get where we wanted, we had to find Fabinho. As soon as that interview had happened, Kaiser went bananas; he’d somehow found out about it. We went to his flat – we’d never been inside in the whole year’s filming. When we arrived he was in a sorry state. It was the end of this big game of cat and mouse between us and Kaiser. But even then, it was difficult. It was a man bearing his soul – but then halfway through shooting, you're like, 'Well, how much of this is true?'
How much of what he says during the film is true, do you think?
Ultimately, as quite a few people say, the truth doesn't really matter – what does is the story of this guy who created a real fairy tale within football, or at least a narrative for himself. These stories are now folklore. We got called up by a guy from the National Football Museum in Brazil who said they want to do a whole section on him. He's literally going down in football history. The guy says, "What shall we call him?" I said, 'I don't know, my opinion of him changes every time I watch the film.' Is he football’s greatest conman? Its greatest liar? Its greatest myth or storyteller? Is he football’s greatest fixer?
He could just have been a pimp – and that's something we definitely believed for a while. But then there was a guy we spoke to at Vasco da Gama who said no, we brought him in to look after a Brazilian national team player who was an alcoholic and really struggling, and he did that job absolutely brilliantly. He's not just any one of those things – he's like the Wolf of Wall Street mixed with Walter Mitty mixed with Forrest Gump… you could knit together so many characters and you still wouldn't get close to Kaiser, because he's so unique. As someone says in the film: tell a lie four times and it becomes the truth.
What did Kaiser think of the film?
He hasn’t seen all of it, partly because of problems with his vision and partly because we haven’t been back since filming finished. We’re waiting for what’s happening politically to settle down. Kaiser's seen the majority of it, though, and I've told him how it goes. So he knows. I don’t judge him; I speak to him most days and he’s been great, actually, very professional. I think whoever watches the film will take away their own version of the story. That was really important to us. We've done so many Q&A screenings now, and the reaction’s always different; you get entire 300-seater theatres where everyone fucking hates him. You do another a few days later and it's the total opposite. He is, ultimately, whatever you believe him to be.