Whatever happened to the likely lad?

The protege.  The next big thing.  Have we been here before?  When an outstanding talent falls by the wayside, where does the blame lie?  Can we just point at cash?   Thomas Wood on one that got away.

“If you think I’m good, just wait until you see Fabio Paim”.

-Cristiano Ronaldo.

Widely regarded as one of the most naturally gifted players of his generation, Fabio Paim lit up the 2006 vintage of Sporting Lisbon’s Academy. Fast forward to 2010, and after loan spells at Moscavide, Trofense, Pacos de Ferreira, Rio Ave and even Chelsea, Paim now plies his trade at Toreense, a side in the 3rd tier of Portuguese football.

So where did it all go wrong?

Raised in the outskirts of Estoril, a town about 14 miles west of Lisbon, Paim dazzled on the concrete pitch in his neighbourhood. Jorge Vicente coached Paim when he was six and who now writes for the Sporting newspaper recalls a wonderful moment “..he dribbles two players, passes the half way line and sees the goalkeeper off his line. It was on one of these small 5-a-side goals. He then passes his right leg over the ball, and as he rotates he back-heels it with his left foot into the goal at a tight angle. I stopped the practice, there was no point doing anymore [smiles].” Fabio Paim was 8 years old.

Paim was eventually spotted by Sporting during an annual tournament. The Lisbon giants lost 3-1, but Paim scored the only goal and spent the game doing his usual “thing”. “He’d dribble the opponents, and if he was unable to score then he’d return to the half-way line and dribble past them all again” recalled Vicente. At the end of the season, young Fabio joined the Sporting Academy. “I may be a bit biased as I’m his friend, but I’ve never seen a talent like that. And I met Cristiano Ronaldo when he was 14”, reveals Vicente.

At 9 years of age, in what is widely regarded as the best youth academy in Portugal, Paim was surrounded by other promising youngsters. He continued to be mentioned in the same breath as Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho, and it seemed a given that he would usurp Ronaldo as Portugal’s brightest star.

Aged 11, despite being just a child Paim was already the most important person in his family and had half the neighbourhood after him. Vicente compares him to current Sporting captain Carriço “who had a good structured family and all the conditions required to be what he is today and Fabio, who was the leader of a ‘hood”.

The hype surrounding Paim was such that the French FA approached the then 14 year old and offered to move his entire family to France in the hope that one-day Fabio would turn out for France. He was receiving offers from top European clubs, agents were vying for his contract; a race eventually won by now super-agent Jorge Mendes.

Paim played in a Sporting side that won the title at every youth level they played in, setting records as they went. The problem though, was never Paim’s talent, it was his work ethic. He would regularly miss training and stay up past curfew. In an attempt to curb his behaviour, the club would bench him yet as soon as the side was losing, Sporting would bring Paim on to “resolve” the game.

When he made the step up to the first team things unraveled further; he continued to miss training, he would fall asleep and miss reserve games. At this point Sporting loaned him out, first to Moscavide where he made his professional debut, then to a host of other Portuguese clubs before he even wound up at Stamford Bridge, “It is a very important step, undoubtedly the greatest in my career” Paim said at the time. It was hoped that the attitude of fellow Portuguese players Carvalho, Bosingwa et al would rub off on the youngster. Instead, Paim would regularly fly back to Lisbon spending vast amounts of money as he went.

Paim tells of how he spent over 300,000 Euros in a little under 12 months. “I remember a time when Renato Queiroz [a friend from the Academy] and I went to Mexico. I didn’t take anything, all I took was my credit card. I came back with 3 or 4 bags”.

Suddenly Fabio found that there were people in his life who had no interest in him as an individual, all after a piece of the Paim-pie. He’d spend his money on nights out, women, clothes and cars. “I had all the cars you could imagine, I had Porsches, Hummer’s, Audi’s..”, now he drives a rented Vauxhall and earns 1000 Euros a month.

When he bought his first car as a 16 year old, (a Mercedes) he would drive it illegally to practice, ignoring the advice of those around him. They took his car away from him, but not his ability to buy more cars.

Jorge Vicente hits the nail on the head, “he was never prepared for a world like this, where everything was allowed, he probably thought life was like that. It isn’t”.

Eventually the good faith ran out, culminating in Sporting refusing to renew his contract and the player being dropped by Jorge Mendes. The days of sharing a laugh on the training ground with Didier Drogba were long gone.

Now playing for his career at Toreense, Fabio lives a modest life; exercising in the local park with a personal trainer; living in a one-bed apartment in Torres Vedras North of Lisbon and as his new manager Paulo Torres says, hopefully focusing on his football. “It’s not just on the training pitch where he needs to work, outside of football-practice life is also a practice. Only after that will he value what he had, and what he still has”.

As he looks out of his balcony over the arid landscape with its red roofs and its giant wind turbines, thoughts of the future come to the fore. At 22, there is still a chance that this once great talent could still go some way to fulfilling his potential; “I have to make sacrifices to be able to move forward. If I don’t make them, no one will make them for me”.

“It all depends on him” says Vicente “and if one day he can become 50% of what he could be, he’ll play for the national team and a big club. No problem, no problem.”

If you would like to read more from Thomas, please visit the excellent Heaven’s 11.