Ever heard of a player ageing four years overnight? Paul Virgo reports on the remarkable tale of Chievo’s Brazilian star who admitted to faking his own identity
Luciano Siqueira de Oliveira is not the man he used to be. The man he used to be was Eriberto Silva da Conceição, a classy 23-year-old Brazilian midfielder who played for Chievo of Verona in Serie A. The man he is now is also a skilful footballer, but is four years older and doesn’t fill his pants every time a police car passes by.
“Eriberto” was a key element of Chievo’s much talked-of fairy-tale rise to success. His unpredictability, pace and knack of setting up goals played a major part in taking the team from an outlying district of a provincial town into Italy’s top flight in 2001. The year after, he put in another storming season to help Chievo charge to fifth place in Serie A and qualify for the UEFA Cup at the first attempt.
The team was soaring, Eriberto was playing out of his skin and the big time came knocking at his door in summer 2002, when he signed for Lazio. The player himself, however, was more concerned about the law. ‘‘Every morning I woke up terrified I’d find the police outside my house,’’ he said. ‘‘I spent years living with the fear of being found out.’’
So he decided to return to Brazil and purge his conscience. On August 21, 2002, Eriberto went into a police station in São Paulo and, a few hours later, Luciano walked out. He explained that he assumed the false identity at the age of 19 when an agent – known only as Moreno – saw him play for an amateur team and promised to get him a trial with a major club. The catch was he had to come up with a younger alter ego, as, fast approaching 20, he was already too old for most clubs to take on as a promising talent.
Luciano accepted – not hard to understand given that he was an orphan living in a slum, scratching an existence together with work at a local supermarket – and convinced a 16-year-old neighbour to lend him his birth certificate and let him take on his identity. Moreno’s devious plan worked a treat. “Eriberto” joined first division Palmeiras’ youth squad. He broke into the first team a few years later, where he was spotted by a scout from Bologna. The Italian club bought him in 1998, but he failed to impress and two years later moved to Chievo.
When the story erupted, the Brazilian and Italian press reported rumours he had confessed because he was being blackmailed by an organised crime syndicate that had found out about the scam. Other voices suggested the real Eriberto had threatened to blow the whistle and sue. But Luciano dismissed this gossip, claiming the truth was much less sordid. What really pushed him to come clean, he said, was the knowledge that he couldn’t give his two-year-old son, Gabriel, his true surname. Besides, he said the real Eriberto had been kept sweet with a steady supply of cash, which sounds reasonable enough.
FIFA and the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) suspended him immediately, the Lazio deal fell through – not least because FIGC had no record of a player called Luciano to transfer – and the authorities considered pressing criminal charges. Once the initial furore died down, though, a more compassionate line emerged. In October the FIGC banned Luciano for seven months, which was later reduced on appeal to four. The criminal charges were dropped entirely.
Luciano became eligible to play again at the end of January. After winning back his first-team place and netting his first goal, he seems to have finally overcome his identity crisis. There are even rumours that Internazionale and AS Roma are hoping to lure him away from Verona with fat contracts.
The player says he’s sorry he did what he did, but as things have turned out so well, it’s difficult to believe that’s true. After all, he was good enough and, without his four-years-younger false identity, the Italian clubs would probably have given him a miss. Chances are that he’d never have made it into professional football at all.
And let’s be honest, when the alternative is stacking shelves in the Brazilian equivalent of Kwik Save, would you be sorry?
From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month