To many, Gregoire Akcelrod is a fraud. A man who cheated his way to carving out an unfair and undeserved football career.
The Frenchman may have hoodwinked dozens of pro clubs across the glove into giving him trials and even earned himself a three-year deal with Bulgarian giants CSKA Sofia, despite having more skills in doctoring pictures and web articles than on the pitch. Yet his story is far more than that.
It’s certainly easy to see why Akcelrod attracts negativity, considering he travelled the world through the game without actually being the person that his CV suggested. But he’s experienced enough struggle and oddities along the way to earn some respect.
Brought up in a rich family in Paris, he got disillusioned with the glitz and glamour at a very early age. Ultimately, football was his escape from the tribulations of what his family presented him with on a daily basis.
“When I was young, I was living in a rich family,” Akcelrod tells The Set Pieces. “When I was 15 years old, my grandmother was living with Oscar-winning Maurice Chevalier and she had his heritage. So I was very lucky, I was living in a big house etc, it was amazing. But I didn’t like the atmosphere in the house too much because my parents always talked about business and money.
“It was very boring for me. So my only pleasure was to go to the garden with the ball. It was so much fun for me. When I was with the ball, I would forget everything. And of course, my dad wanted me to go to a business school and work in the company of the family.”
Feeling trapped, the idea of pursuing a football career appealed to him, but his father wasn’t willing to let him become a professional in the game. Akcelrod wasn’t fit enough and didn’t have the physique required to make the cut, fuelling the belief he wasn’t good enough.
“When I was 10, my dad came to see me play for the first time,” he recalls. “[I was] Playing with my club and we lost 4-0 and after the game, my dad talked to me and said ‘Greg, you are so bad. I don’t want you to play football again. You are so lazy.’
“For me, he broke my heart because football was the best moment of the week. So inside, I was telling myself. ‘ok dad, you forbid me from playing football but you will see when I am an adult, I will become a professional footballer.’
These dismissive tones spurred Akcelrod on and no hurdle was too much for him. His breakthrough of ‘faking’ his identity though, wasn’t intentional and it came as a result of a joke he wanted to play on his mates.
“The truth is I didn’t know anyone in the football industry,” he says. “So when I was 16, I was at the school for rich kids. I had nothing to do, so I created a fake website. I copied [Brazilian] Ronaldo’s website and took one article from L’Equipe that said, ‘Anelka is going to the bigger clubs’. I changed it to ‘Akcelrod is going to the bigger clubs’.
“So it’s true that I had a website of a top football player at that time. I was 16, I wasn’t playing for a club. I didn’t know that these websites will help me but it was really for fun in the beginning.”
It was fitting that Akcelrod’s career would be unique, just like Anelka’s. But while the would-be PSG, Liverpool Real Madrid and Chelsea man was blessed with pace and the ability to find the back of the net, Akcelrod wasn’t so gifted. He played to enjoy himself and was never told he had a bright future ahead of him.
That didn’t stop Akcelrod sending out letters to multiple clubs across Europe, carrying the edited material from Ronaldo’s website and the edited L’Equipe copy. And it worked as the letters yielded replies.
“I sent letters to Chelsea, Man City, all the big clubs in England,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was really for fun. It was to test the clubs. When I received the letter from Swindon [offering a trial], it was a big surprise.”
While Swindon may not be a huge name, but it was enough to provide an unrivalled buzz. It felt like he’d achieved something.
“For me, it was amazing,” he says. “Before, I played football in the park. Now, I was going to real stadiums and was going to meet real players. Because I had no knowledge of professional football, I had nothing to lose.”
Nothing could stop him. Well, apart from his lack of ability or someone discovering the truth. Something that was exposed early on in his Swindon trial.
“When I arrived on the first day, I was the only one who wasn’t fit in the changing room. We started to play and I was totally lost. I played in midfield,” he remembers.
“After 50 minutes, the goalkeeper of the other team played a long ball and it hit me on the face because I wasn’t used to heading long balls. Everybody in the stadium laughed and the coach took me off.”
A night of studying midfielders helped Akcelrod put the initial humiliation behind him and the club at 10am on the next day uninvited for the second day of trials, hoping that it was a case of a broken clock being right twice in a day.
The coach, Paul Sturrock, asked him, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here because you called me yesterday,” came the reply. But the coach was having none of it.
“No sorry, I didn’t call you yesterday,” he responded firmly. Much like his usual self though, Akcelrod wasn’t backing down.
He said, “Oh sorry, my English is bad. But because I thought you called me, I changed my train tickets and changed my hotel. So I had to pay more.”
In this wrestling game of whose resolve was going to break first, the coach lost and said, “Ok, come play for 20 minutes.”
He didn’t do enough to change the manager’s mind, but trials followed at Bournemouth and Norwich. He worked small jobs when the trials weren’t on and contact with his parents fell to a bare minimum. It may not have been the life he dreamed of, but Akcelrod says it helped him become strong mentally.
“I worked small jobs for 10 years, at McDonalds and as a host at events in Paris… it was a big shock for me,” he says.
“I used to go to five-star hotels with my parents. Next week, I went to McDonalds and lived in a small studio. Nobody knew who I was but for me, it was funny because it’s important to have different experiences in life.
“At the beginning it was funny and it was hard work, but it wasn’t a problem to do this job. I had to earn money to go for a trial and travel. I had the motivation to do it properly. I had no choice because my family never helped me.”
Soon, a new opportunity came about. After plying his trade with Paris-based club Racing Club, he got wind of Cwmbrân Town in Wales and Belgian side Givry looking for players. They weren’t the moves he wanted, but led to him stumbling on a chance with PSG – the club he always supported.
“After signing with Cwmbrân Town, I stayed there for a few months – I trained with the first team but didn’t play an official game,” Akcelrod says. “I came back for holidays in Paris. One day, I was watching France 3 and heard on the news that PSG were looking for players for the amateur team. People don’t know that in France, you have an amateur team. They were looking for players for teams three, four and five.
“The next day, I called the club secretary, said that I’d played in Wales and wanted to play for Paris. I was on trial for a week for their third team. We played in the sixth division. The coach liked me, I trained for a week and played a game but at the end of the game, boom, I was injured for two months.”
He eventually returned to earn a place with PSG’s fifth team and used the club’s name to start his trial again, leading him to South America with Tigres, where he learned a new way of football. From there came the offer for a trial with CSKA Sofia and the prospect of the Champions League.
“I went in June to CSKA Sofia, it was very exciting because it was a big club,” Akcelorod continues. “The trial lasted two days and after the second day, the agent called me and told me the coach wanted to sign me on a four-year contract for 15,000 per month. They liked me so much they made a picture of me with the CSKA Sofia jersey in my home. They published it on the website that CSKA Sofia signed Akcelrod, so for me, it was amazing. The next day in the morning, I sent a message to all my friends.”
Sadly, the move fell flat as Akcelrod’s blagging caught up with him.
“Earlier that night, a CSKA Sofia fan had gone on the PSG forum online and asked PSG fans about what they thought of me. But the PSG fans only knew the bigger clubs and didn’t know the players of the fifth team. So they told them that I was a fake player and I didn’t exist. The CSKA fans talked to many journalists, who wrote about me.
“The next day, when I arrived for breakfast, I saw three newspapers with my face on the frontpage. I told myself, ‘wow, this isn’t good’. After eating, nobody said hello to me. When I went for training, they told me that I had a taxi waiting for me outside.”
Akcelrod’s odyssey wasn’t quite over and his one-man triallist adventure took him to China, Canada and Kuwait before finally calling time on his subterfuge. And while the 38-year-old admits he does look back with some regrets on his stolen career, he has gathered a host of life experiences as a result.
“It was an amazing life,” he adds. “For me, life isn’t about staying in front of the computer or TV all day. It’s about moving and meeting people and travelling. Football players, they earn millions. For me, I didn’t see football for money. I wanted to discover the world, new places and new people. So, for me, it was amazing and it has no price.”
After hanging up his boots, Akcelrod finally achieved his dream of a full-time role in football – as an agent. It’s hard to think of a man better suited to the job.