On August 13, 2003, Mario Jardel did the unthinkable: he signed for Bolton.
At 29, Jardel was supposed to be at the peak of his powers, having scored an astonishing 266 goals in 274 games across spells with Porto, Galatasaray and Sporting Lisbon. But something had changed.
Jardel arrived at Bolton having departed Sporting on bad terms. The striker essentially went on strike, Pierre Van Hooijdonk-style, amid accusations the club had blocked a dream move to Barcelona.
His tantrum torpedoed any lingering hopes of a Nou Camp move and left Jardel seeking redemption under Sam Allardyce at the Reebok – a damning indictment of how far his star had fallen, not that manager Allardyce was complaining.
“His goals per game ratio is second to none anywhere in the world,” he said. “We have found a striker who is going to score goals for us on a regular basis.”
But Big Sam’s convictions appeared seriously misplaced once Jardel set foot on a pitch several stone heavier than advertised – a development that saw him christened “Lardel” by supporters.
It was a sorry state of affairs and one that made little sense to anyone who had seen highlights of Jardel in his pomp back in Portugal or Turkey. A two-time European Golden Boot winner, the Brazilian’s fall from grace is a story of broken promises, missed opportunities and goals. Lots of goals.
The Copa Libertadores has proven the breeding ground for many a Brazilian star, and it was no different with Jardel. A member of the Gremio side that lifted the trophy in 1995, Jardel finished as the tournament’s top scorer that season and was destinated for a move to Europe.
Glasgow Rangers were initially in pole position to land the striker, with Jardel going as far as posing for pictures in a Rangers shirt at Ibrox. But when the UK’s strict rules on the signing of non-EU players scuppered the deal, Porto stole a march on rivals Benfica to sign the Brazilian.
Jardel was a classic No.9 with an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. He was also a brilliant header of the ball. Given the right kind of service and he could score for fun, and that’s exactly what he did at Porto.
A dazzling combination of Zlatko Zahovic, Sergio Conceicao and Ljubinko Drulovic helped to fire Jardel to an impressive 37 goals in 46 games during a debut campaign that ended in title success.
It wasn’t all headers and tap-ins though; Jardel was capable of the spectacular, as he showed when facing off against Benfica in the first Classico of the season at Estadio da Luz.
Controlling a powerful cross on his chest, he unleashed a brilliant volley with the outside of his right foot that gave Michel Preud’homme no chance and set Porto on their way to a crucial win. Super Mario had arrived.
When Mario Jardel scored 7 goals in 45 minutes for Porto, 1997. pic.twitter.com/HQu1FOAmi9
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) December 29, 2020
Silencing the doubters
Two more titles, a Taca de Portugal crown, 77 goals and the 1998-99 European Golden Shoe all followed over the next two campaigns, but doubts remained among Europe’s elite over whether Jardel could rack up those kinds of numbers against the continent’s big guns.
Jardel silenced the doubters in sensational style over the course of a 1999-2000 campaign that saw Porto reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League – a feat all the more impressive in an era when the tournament featured two group stages.
Any notion that Jardel was a flat-track bully was dispelled by his haul of 10 goals in the competition, including a match-winning brace against Real Madrid as well as goals against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
His goals home and away against Bayern even saw Porto come within seconds of taking the Bavarians into extra time in the quarters, only for a stoppage-time Paulo Sergio winner to end those hopes.
It didn’t matter. Jardel finished the season as the Champions League’s top scorer, having helped to restore pride at Porto three years on from the 4-0 hammering they suffered at the hands of Manchester United at the same stage of the competition.
Jardel’s tally of 54 goals in 49 games saw him finish the highest scorer in Europe for the second year running. However, the UEFA coefficients system saw him miss out on the European Golden Boot to Sunderland’s Kevin Philips. It was a reminder to Jardel: he needed to move on.
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Inter the darkness
Having seen Conceicao and Zahovic move on to bigger things with Lazio and Valencia respectively, Jardel began to pine for a big move of his own.
“The real test is in the top leagues of Europe, such as England, Italy or Spain,” he told reporters. “Who wouldn’t like to play in England, Italy or Spain? They have attractive levels of football. The English game is fast and exciting and its attacking style suits strikers.”
Jardel set his sights pretty high too. “I wouldn’t want to join just any club. Manchester United are a winning club and I’d prefer to go there than a less successful team.”
Unfortunately, the forward’s hopes of a Premier League move were hindered by the same UK employment laws that had prevented his Rangers switch.
If he wanted to move to England he needed to be playing for Brazil. That was easier said than done, given that he was vying with the likes of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Marcio Amoruso, Giovane Elber and, of course, Ronaldo.
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In an ironic twist, the fact he was playing for Porto while his rivals turned out in Spain, France, Italy and Germany also limited his opportunities.
But there was hope. Reports began to suggest Inter Milan were eyeing up a move. With Ronaldo sidelined with a long-term injury, Jardel represented a comparatively low-cost marquee signing to help turn their fortunes around.
The move must have appealed to his ego, offering a chance to not only ply his trade in Italy but go one better than Ronaldo, the player he found himself permanently cast in the shadow of.
But the deal never materialised. Instead, Inter plumped for Hakan Sukur, who had just fired Galatasaray to a first UEFA Cup. Eager to move but with limited options, Jardel found a unique way to prove himself Sukur’s superior – he replaced him at Galatasaray.
Signed for a hefty £15million, Jardel made quite the entrance at Gala, arriving at the Istanbul club’s training facilities in a white limousine.
It might not have been Serie A or La Liga, but the wages offered and, crucially, the lack of EU restrictions helped to convince Jardel the move would pave the way for more Brazil caps under newly-appointed manager Phil Scolari.
“Scolari would probably create a strategy around me and I would score many goals,” the increasingly egotistical striker said, apparently discounting the return of Ronaldo.
Not that he didn’t have reason to be blowing his own trumpet. With players like Gheorge Hagi and Emre Belozoglu providing the bullets, Jardel was firing on all cylinders with Galatasaray.
He scored five on his home league debut as well as a match-winning brace in a 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the European Super Cup. That signalled the start of another impressive year in the Champions League with Jardel scoring six times to help Galatasaray reach the quarter-finals.
Highlights included goals home and away goals against AC Milan and the winner in a thrilling 3-2 first leg triumph over Real Madrid. But after slipping to a 3-0 loss in the return fixture, Jardel began to lose interest with the spotlight of European football no longer upon him.
Though a string of injuries played their part, he was also increasingly at odds with the club hierarchy amid claims of unpaid wages. The numbers say it all: Jardel scored 18 league goals before Christmas but just four after it.
After seeing Galatasaray surrender the title to Fenerbahce, he sought an escape route and found it with Sporting Lisbon.
Signing for the Lisbon club, Jardel had another reason to be cheerful – he had just been called up to Scolari’s squad for the 2001 Copa America. Somehow everything was coming up Jardel – or so he thought.
Death threats and Denilson
On the face of it, Jardel’s inclusion in Scolari’s experimental squad offered up a great opportunity to stake his claim for a place in the team ahead of the 2002 World Cup.
But the 2001 Copa America in Colombia was no ordinary tournament. Beset by security concerns and reports of players receiving death threats, Argentina opted to pull out entirely.
Fellow fringe Selecao star Giovane Elber also turned down a call-up amid similar concerns, despite knowing it would likely end his hopes of making the World Cup.
Against an uneasy backdrop, Brazil and Jardel floundered, with the likes of Denilson struggling to give Super Mario the kind of service he had enjoyed in Portugal and Turkey.
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Jardel appeared only twice, first coming on as a substitute against Mexico in a tepid 1-0 opening round defeat and then again, late on during Brazil’s shock quarter-final defeat to Honduras – a loss O Globo dubbed a “historic shame”.
The striker was one of several scapegoats to emerge from the tournament. In the wake of such a limp showing, Jardel needed to rebuild his reputation domestically. He ended up doing exactly that, but it still wasn’t enough.
A sporting chance
The 2001-02 season saw Jardel not only match his Porto best but arguably exceed it. Porto were already a well-oiled title-winning machine by the time he arrived. Sporting, by comparison, were a work in progress who had finished well off the top two.
Not that you would have known with Jardel in the ranks. In arguably the best campaign of his professional career, Jardel scored an astonishing 55 goals in 42 appearances for the club, including 42 goals in 30 league games, transforming the club’s fortunes and guiding Sporting to a league and cup double, netting the winner in the final of the latter.
A second European Golden Boot followed as well as rumours of interest from Barcelona. With Ronaldo’s involvement in that summer’s World Cup still in doubt, Jardel appeared confident he had done enough to merit inclusion in Scolari’s squad.
“If I don’t go to the World Cup,” he said, “I’ll be traumatised.”
Big Phil had his doubts though and, with memories of the Copa America still fresh in his mind, opted to pick the home-based pairing of Edilson and Luizao as back up to Ronaldo.
Scolari dismissed Jardel’s talents, telling reporters: “Jardel’s game won’t work if there is nobody to get crosses in. You can’t build our style of play around one player. He must adapt to the system. Jardel’s game is based on being in the area for crosses.”
Jardel may have been a penalty box predator but those words were an injustice to the variety of goals he scored. There were close-range finishes, of course, but there were also spectacular strikes.
In truth, he wasn’t the only one to suffer under Big Phil’s watch, with Marcio Amoruso also among those overlooked despite his impressive form for Borussia Dortmund. Amoroso accused Scolari of snobbery in only picking players plying their trade in Italy and Spain.
Jardel was to watch on as Ronaldo – who had struggled for form and fitness during a season in which Jardel was scoring for fun – netted the winner in a World Cup final, earned the Golden Boot as top scorer and lifted the famous trophy.
Despite his terrible fitness issues and lack of goals, Ronaldo earned a move to Real Madrid. He was living the dream, Jardel was stuck in his nightmare.
The beginning of the end
Jardel returned to Sporting the following season and continued to find the net, but something had been lost. While Jardel was going through a messy divorce at the time, the simple truth was he had lost focus, descending into a world of women, food and drugs.
By September 2002, he had returned to Brazil, vowing: “I never want to play for Sporting or in Portugal again.”
Citing his fragile mental state and lack of a move to a bigger club, he downed tools seemingly disillusioned with the game he loved. Though Sporting initially showed concern for their title winner’s welfare, allowing him to stay in South America and recuperate, they eventually threatened to stop paying his wages unless he returned.
But any hope of reconciliation was shattered when an unfit, depressed and badly injured Jardel returned facing a length spell out after injuring himself jumping into a swimming pool. Years later, he confessed to developing a cocaine habit during these troubled times.
His eventual move to Bolton might not have worked out, but it did offer a reprieve from some of the demons haunting him back in Lisbon.
In what is an often-overlooked epilogue to the ‘Lardel’ story, Jardel actually did manage to get himself fit again at Bolton and his contribution, while minor, did play a role in their season.
Three goals in the League Cup – two to beat Walsall and, crucially, another to beat Liverpool at Anfield – saw Bolton reach the final.
Looking back now, his goal against the Reds, scored in front of the Kop, had all the hallmarks of a Jardel classic; a brilliant diving header hinting at the Super Mario of old. A prolific goalscorer, Portuguese football legend and a Brazilian goal machine born in the wrong era.
By Jack Beresford