Kaiser, the ‘fake footballer’ who made us question everything we know

In Depth

Football is, and always has been, a game of perceptions.

It took many people multiple angles to upgrade Harry Kane’s World Cup miss against Croatia to a Danijel Subašić save, and Sam Allardyce could probably be forgiven a wry smile at the praise England and Gareth Southgate received during a campaign built on strong set-pieces.

And some of the game’s greatest players are those with the ability to manipulate others’ perception. This manipulation can come in the form of simulation on the field of play, or through clever control of the media to overstate one’s importance to their team just as the transfer window opens.

Such moves, though, are positively pedestrian compared to the achievements of Brazilian footballer Carlos Henrique Raposo.

Raposo, known during his playing career by the mononym ‘Kaiser’, is the subject of a documentary bearing that same name.

There, he is described by former Brazil international Gilberto Alves as someone who “played football without putting on a pair of boots,” though Kaiser’s own preference is slightly different.

“This is the story of an anti-footballer,” he says, asking the filmmakers to use that specific terminology.

Regardless of whether the phrasing is the best, there’s no better example of his insistence on controlling the narrative around the film, in much the same way as he controlled his perception as a footballer during his playing days.

Those already familiar with Kaiser’s story will probably have the following nuts and bolts. For those of you unaware of his legend, this is also a good place to start.

Kaiser played for several of Brazil’s top clubs, including Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco Da Gama. He also played abroad, including a stint in the French league with Gazélec Ajaccio and some time in Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Except he didn’t actually step on the pitch for most – if not all – of those clubs. Although even this reality is up for debate, depending on who you talk to.

How he managed it

It’s a story which couldn’t exist now, given how easy it is for clubs to verify players’ identities and past stints, but things were different in the 80s to the point where his explanation carries a greater air of plausibility.

He would befriend established players, use these players to get recommended to clubs, demonstrate his fitness enough to earn short-term contracts, and leave without playing a game.

In a way, Kaiser’s career was a personal prototype of José Mourinho’s chicken approach. For Mourinho, letting the other team dominate possession would increase the chances of them gifting you a chance via a mistake; in Kaiser’s mind, the less he saw of the ball, the less likely he was to be found out.

To call him a fraud would be to only tell half of the story: a fraud would act in this way to step out onto the game’s most decorated pitches, but Kaiser’s plan relied on him never even entering the field of play.

Kaiser! The Greatest Footballer Never To Play Football is equal parts The Imposter and The Disaster Artist, and Kaiser himself – with his long hair and dark glasses – has an air of Tommy Wiseau about his appearance.

This isn’t where that particular comparison ends, either – plenty of connections to big names and clubs are proffered, yet the related origin stories are low on detail to say the least.

The presence of recognisable Brazilian legends as talking heads, Bebeto, Carlos Alberto and Renato Gaucho to name but three, present the tale as a straight documentary, but Kaiser’s own past raises questions: when the story you choose to tell is one of pride in deception, is it even possible to be seen as a reliable narrator?

As the stories get more and more elaborate, there’s a sense that the major players are engaged in a game of chicken in terms of what they’ll admit to having been in on then and being in on now.

Consider the shame or fury a footballer can feel at having been shown up on the pitch, be it via a nutmeg, a rainbow flick or something similar. And that’s just a fleeting moment, often forgotten a week later.

Kaiser’s trickery went on for longer and, on the surface, could bring more shame upon his victims – why wouldn’t you retroactively claim to have been at the very least au fait with the scam?

Mistaken perceptions don’t just exist in the present tense, of course, and Kaiser recognises this. There’s a moment in the film where footage of another player is passed off as Kaiser himself, and while we’re certain it’s not him, the unreliable narrator gives us pause.

False memories are hardly uncommon when it comes to football, often taking the form of attaching the wrong player to a goal we recall vividly in every other aspect, and if we can’t trust our own memories then why should we put any less trust in someone else with a history of trickery?

Fact or fiction?

When such a complex web of lies has been constructed, it should be easy to bring the house of cards toppling down, but what happens when the foundations of truth – presented in contrast to the falsified mythology – are themselves dismantled?

The film, in this way, acts as a great example of how difficult it can be to pass off something as false when you can’t confidently identify that which it is in opposition to: it’s like trying to identify a runner-up in a one-horse race.

Kaiser is presented as a documentary, yet it reaches a point where the events depicted are more fiction than fact: is the acknowledgement of the lies enough to sustain the documentary premise, or is there a tipping point at which the participants – many of them real people whose stories we’re familiar with – become characters?

We might claim to watch football for the action and excitement, but what keeps us interested in the long-term goes far beyond what happens on the pitch; part of the appeal of Kaiser’s story comes by virtue of its originality, even if elements might not stand up to scrutiny.

“His stories got players dreaming, I think that’s why people liked him so much,” Kaiser’s one-time ‘team-mate’ Alexandre Torres suggests.

This is the crux of it all: Kaiser is a film about storytelling as much as it is one about football, and when that’s the case does it matter how much the truth has been stretched?

By Tom Victor


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