FABIO PAIM was supposed to become the best footballer in the world.
He is the only player Cristiano Ronaldo has publicly stated is better than him.
Fabio Paim broke down in tears as he remembered going to prison: Credit: SunSport
Cristiano Ronaldo’s hard work and determination saw him rise to the top: Credit: AFP
Paim spent 12 months behind bars after his arrest on suspicion of drug trafficking: Credit: Fabio Paim
Portugal train at their Cidade do Futebol base – just across the road from Paim’s prison
And he earned an incredible £327,000 aged just 13 as fans and players travelled across Portugal to watch him.
The pair even went to eat leftover McDonald’s burgers together every night – a far cry from the famously healthy lifestyle Ronaldo enjoys today.
But while his childhood friend became one of football’s GOATs, Paim’s career spiralled into obscurity due to the fame, money and partying lifestyle.
Then it hit rock bottom when Paim spent a year in the infamous Caxias prison and literally watched Ronaldo training with Portugal through the window.
The winger was snapped up by Sporting’s academy at eight, leaving home to live in Lisbon and the hype quickly gained momentum.
Paim’s scintillating talent seemed destined to propel him to greatness – and exceed fellow Sporting academy prodigy Ronaldo who is three years older.
So much so that when Ronaldo signed for Manchester United in 2003, he said: “If you think I’m good, wait until you see Fabio Paim.”
But just how good was Paim? And was he really better than Ronaldo?
Speaking to SunSport where he resides in the Algarve, Paim said: “I was really special. I must be humble but this is the truth.
“Unfortunately back then there was not Instagram or Facebook, nothing was recorded like nowadays but I strongly and honestly believe that until today there was no other like me with the same quality I had.
“Cristiano, for all his effort and hard work, went to a level he deserves.
“But when I was playing, if I had the same effort and commitment, I would be better than him.
“If I speak about technique, I was better. I was a small Ronaldinho. But as we can see, it’s not the technique that leads us to wherever.
“But yes at that time I was better than Cristiano. I believe he should give me one of his Ballons d’Or!”
Asked if technically he would have been the world’s best and won the Ballon d’Or, Paim replied: “Yes, no doubt.”
Ronaldo amassed countless trophies, including leading Portugal to Euro 2016 glory, but Paim did not fulfil his dream of making a single competitive first-team appearance for Sporting.
The Portuguese youth international joined Chelsea on loan in 2008.
While compatriots including Deco and Ricardo Carvalho were first-team stars, the then-20-year-old lived alone and “didn’t enjoy” his year in London despite earning nearly £50,000 per month plus Sporting’s £130,000 annual bonus in Brendan Rodgers and Paul Clement’s reserves.
FABIO’S FALL FROM FOOTBALL
Paim admitted he was “overwhelmed” by money and fame as he splashed his incredible wealth on cars, women, alcohol and partying because he was never taught how to use his cash wisely.
He retired “mentally” at 22 while with Portuguese minnows Real Massama but continued a journeyman career in China, Angola, Lithuania, Qatar, Malta and Brazil, simply to fund his lavish lifestyle.
Paim, whose mother was a domestic worker, explained: “Unfortunately for me, I was born with talent.
“As I was earning lots of money, I got the illusion I didn’t need the effort. It is impossible for a person like me to be a millionaire.
“I regret some of my choices. Now I’m at a different age so can see the picture differently.
“The talent was there but my mind wasn’t. My head was on women and partying, everywhere else apart from football.
“I played some matches but my body was not in its best shape and didn’t respond to what people were demanding from me because if I could, I would have been at Barcelona or Real Madrid.”
But in 2019, Paim’s life took its worst turn when he was arrested for being in possession of 5g of cocaine.
He was held in a cell for a year a stone’s throw from the Portuguese FA’s Cidade do Futebol HQ on suspicion of drug trafficking before being acquitted when the case collapsed.
The prison is a former fort more than 150 years old, and the cells are notoriously dark, wet and airless.
It was, though, a transformative time for the dad-of-two, who realised the damage his mistakes had on his family and saw first-hand how differently his life could have played out instead.
Paim sat down with SunSport overlooking Vilamoura Marina: Credit: SunSport
Fabio Paim had the talent to become the best footballer on the planet: Credit: Getty – Contributor
Ronaldo captained Portugal as they were crowned Euro 2016 champions: Credit: AP:Associated Press
The jail Paim was held in overlooked the training pitches: Credit: Google
Paim, whose last club was Polish third-tier team LZS Starowice in late 2020, said: “The prison I was in is next to the field where the Portugal national team performs so I could watch them training every day for the Euro 2020 qualifiers.
“I was there for a reason and I never thought, ‘Ah, Cristiano is there. I should be there too.’”
An emotional Paim wiped away tears as he added: “Prison was really hard and difficult for me and my family. But it was good for me.
“I learned what comes easy is not good for you. And I couldn’t have that lifestyle anymore so I need to work and have dignity.
“My life is calmer now. I’m sure I will make some more mistakes because I am human.
“Prison was not a place for a boy like me.
“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. It was my choice, it was my mistake. But I needed the comfort and support that only family can give you.
“Family is the most important thing.
When I had the fame, money and parties, I thought that was happiness… now I am happier with less
“I had to be honest with my children. I just asked them to be there for me, to visit me.
“My mother was always my big support and she still is.
“What hurts me so much is how much I have hurt them with my errors because they didn’t deserve that. I did too much to them. I apologise for being emotional – I can’t help it.”
Fabio Paim appeared to have the perfect life and the world at his feet as a teenager, literally, with either a football or a dancefloor or the pedal of a Lamborghini or Ferrari.
But ironically with all that gone, the flamboyant, larger-than-life character insists he is happier now.
Overlooking Vilamoura Marina, where he is often stopped by adoring locals, Paim reflected: “When I had the fame, the money, the parties, I thought that was happiness.
“But I didn’t know what happiness meant. I had the money but I didn’t know what it was to eat good food and travel.
“Nowadays, I know what it is to be happy and I am happier with less.”
Paim struggled to contain his emotion as he discussed the impact of his mistakes on his family: Credit: SunSport
Paim was paid huge sums of money as a youngster but never made a competitive first-team appearance for Sporting: Credit: Fabio Paim
Brendan Rodgers was the reserve-team boss when Paim was at Chelsea: Credit: PA:Press Association
Paim played in the Portugal youth teams but never earned a senior cap: Credit: Fabio Paim
Paim is the oldest sibling and was the family’s biggest earner by 12: Credit: Fabio Paim
The ‘special’ talent was picked up by Sporting aged eight: Credit: Fabio Paim
The prodigy enjoyed waterskiing during his teenage years: Credit: Fabio Paim
The young prodigy was never taught how to handle money well: Credit: Fabio Paim
The tricky winger dubbed himself a ‘small Ronaldinho’: Credit: Fabio Paim
Paim spent the 2008-09 season on loan with Chelsea: Credit: Chelsea FC – Getty
He still has a special bond with his mother: Credit: Fabio Paim