Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Southampton, AFC Wimbledon and many more clubs feature in our list of football clubs that have had the wool pulled of their eyes by players, prospective buyers and members of the press.
Football has long been accused of indulging in players’ fakery, rolling around on the ground clutching their knees when they’ve been caught somewhere else with a challenge. However, footballing fakes can be much better than that, as the recent story of Bobby Shillinde showed.
The Guardian reignited everyone’s love of a football con (and no, we don’t mean managers accepting brown envelopes from agents) by telling us about Shillinde’s claims of being a player for AFC Wimbledon. If you missed the story, Shillinde became a Botswana international after claiming to be AFC Wimbledon’s brightest young thing, bagging himself a man of the match award and being voted into the League Two Team of the Week after breaking through the AFC Wimbledon under-21’s team. Shillinde tweeted about being on the team coach, shared his team of the week achievement (by crudely photoshopping his name in the place of Wycombe Wanderers' Joel Grant and showing off a match ball "signed by the lads"). Alas, Shillinde has never once played for AFC Wimbledon.
Of course, Shillinde is not the first player to try and con everyone in this manner. Arguably Graeme Souness’ finest moment in professional football was his signing of the majestic Ali Dia. Dia, as you’ll no doubt remember, failed a number of trials at lower league clubs before getting on the pitch for Southampton in the top flight. Dia’s lucky break came after Souness received a call which he believed was from Liberian Pele and former FIFA World Player of the Year, George Weah. Weah told Graeme that Dia was his cousin and that he’d played for French giants, Paris Saint Germaine. However, what the world soon found out was ‘Weah’ was in fact Dia’s friend from university and the whole thing was a crock. In a moment of football magic, Dia managed to play for Southampton against Leeds, coming on as a substitute for Saints’ legend, Matt Le Tissier. Dia was so poor that he was substituted himself for Ken Monkou. After being released from his contract early by a Souness who could hear the whole world of football laughing at him, Dia eventually graduated his business degree at Northumbria University, becoming one of the most infamous and brilliant football tales in football.
While Shillinde and Dia are impressive enough on their own, how about a whole squad of hooky players? In 2010, Togo fielded a team of imposters while playing a friendly match against Bahrain. The match was such a farce that the Togo football association (FTF) didn’t even know that there was a match on. So hilariously poor were the Togo team that Bahrain strolled to a 3-0 and complained that the quality of the opposition was too poor to comprehend. Josef Hickersberger said at the time that the Togo team weren’t even “fit enough to play 90 minutes”, signing off with a disarmingly honest “the match was very boring."
Not all soccer shams are confined to the pitch though. How can forget Michael Knighton charming his way onto the Old Trafford pitch at the start of Manchester United’s FA Cup winning season in 1990? Knighton appeared in a United kit, juggling the ball on the opening day of the season on that famous pitch, backed by a promise of a £20 million takeover. However, he didn’t have the money and, almost as soon as he was sent packing, Manchester United went on to become one of the richest organisations in the world. Knighton was next seen at Carlisle United, again promising the Earth before being roundly ridiculed for things not of this planet, neatly summarised by the newspaper headline ‘Knighton: Aliens Spoke To Me’. However, this footballing charlatan wouldn’t let a little thing like this knock him from his stride as he continued his pretence that he’d return Carlisle to the top flight, as well as masquerading as a manager, when he got Carlisle relegated to the third tier. Knighton was there just before Manchester United got huge and was at Carlisle when goalkeeper Jimmy Glass scored a last minute winner to keep Carlisle in the football league. Knighton, through madness and hoodwinkery, makes magic happen, clearly. He must be taking advice from Mork.
Better than real con-artists are imaginary ones, and there’s a surprising amount of them floating around in football’s annals. Take, for instance, the tale of Didier Baptiste, who in the late 90s, was rumoured to be making the switch from AS Monaco to Liverpool in a deal for £3.5 million. The under-21s starlet was all set to be a marquee signing for Gerard Houllier according to the English press, but there was one small problem. Didier Baptiste was a fictional player for Harchester United in Sky One’s dreadful football soap, ‘Dream Team’. That didn’t stop the News of the World’s editor claiming to have seen Baptiste in action, fizzing with enthusiasm by saying: “We think Didier Baptiste would be an ideal addition to Liverpool’s back four. He’s a really attractive player, and you will be seeing a lot more of him in The News of the World.”
Another favourite is the mighty Masal Bugduv who made The Times’ ‘Top 50 Rising Star’ list in 2009, with a move to Arsenal widely reported in the world’s press. However, Bugduv was the creation of an Irishman who created a Wiki page, wrote false blog posts and posted stories on forums about the player, waiting for the papers to nibble... and of course, they did. The best bit of the story is that Masal Bugduv sounds like the phrase ‘M’asal Beag Dubh‘ which is an old Irish tale about a dishonest salesman who gets tries to get an inflated price for his donkey - a masterstroke of fooling a media who are too keen to beat everyone to the punch with a breaking story, without doing the proper research first. This clever tale included reports from a fake Moldovan newspaper called ‘Diario Mo Thon’, which translates into ‘Diary, My Ass’.
Another fake player is Alessandro Zarelli, who took money from Bangor City, Lisburn Distillery, Connah’s Quay Nomads and clubs in Italy, and effectively ran off with the takings. Zarelli is a fascinating tale which saw a man being exposed by a TV show in a sting operation, showing that he was not only pretending to be a footballer, but also, his own agent (by the name of Matteo Colobase) who was sending faxes from a shop ‘round the corner from his mum’s house. Zarelli was touted as someone who had played for Sheffield Wednesday, Rangers, Torino and MK Dons.When the whole thing came to bite him on the rump, cameras tore through his front door and found Zarelli calm as you like, and giving the kind of slick performance some would’ve hoped he’d done for the clubs he rinsed. Marvellously, when talking to the TV producers, he quipped: ““Thank you for the big story, you have made me famous, you’ve helped people know about me…” signing off with “...and you are big son of a b****!”
While these tales are acts of deception, sometimes to the detriment of football clubs, one can’t help but admire the chutzpah of these men. Football can feel too rigid and impenetrable, but Zarelli, Dia and Shillinde have shown that, if you simply want to be a footballer, you can. All you need is a lot of nerve and the luck to find a gullible manager. Applaud these sly bozos because, without them, football would be a very tedious place indeed. And huge praise should be shown to the footballing hoaxers of the world for making fools of newsrooms and sending their practical jokes onto the national stage!
If you disagree, you’re a big son of a b****.
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