Fake it till you make it: my alter ego led me to success
May 18, 2022
We’re all fascinated by scammers, forgers, and impostors. We revel in their incredible stories while wondering how they built up the nerve or got so good at it, and above all, why? When Netflix released the series Inventing Anna, the story of a young woman - Anna Delvey - who scammed the New York jet set from 2016 to 2017 by pretending to be a wealthy German heiress, viewers were immediately hooked. So much so that the show gained over 500 million views in the first 28 days after airing. But why are we so obsessed with hearing about how people lied and scammed their way to the top? After all, it’s not as if we have the power to decide if they’ve committed a crime or not. What we want is to question the system that leads to situations like Anna’s: lying to be accepted by a certain social class or circle, and succeed professionally. We’ve all seen the “Fake it till you make it” posts on LinkedIn, but what if that’s the real secret to success? What if the people treating life as a game are right?
We took a closer look at what it takes to create an alter ego by meeting with the most famous fake French soccer player: Grégoire Akcelrod. He created a website that looked like those of the top pro players and pretended to be on the PSG reserve team, while actually playing in their amateur league. He traveled the world trying out for twenty-two professional clubs in nineteen countries, including the New York MetroStars (USA), River Plate (Argentina), and Sydney FC (Australia). But in 2009, a few hours before signing a three-year contract with CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria, a Champions League club, he was unmasked. Ten years after the fact, he says he doesn’t regret the lies, which helped him gain his spot in this exclusive circle as an agent, and it’s legit this time. He tells his story in his book Pro à tout Prix (Pro at All Costs).
You managed to pass for a pro PSG player while you were really playing at an amateur level. Do you agree with the idea of “go big or go home”?
When all the doors are closed, you have to knock hard. So yeah, I agree with that. At the same time, if I had said I was playing pro at a lesser-known club, nobody would have given me the chance to try out for an international team. PSG is a much bigger club and it opens hidden doors. Both the amateur and the pro clubs at PSG have the same name, so I just played with the story to make it work in my favor. There was some truth to it as I technically held a membership with the club. There are certain limits to how far you can take a lie: if you say that you’re the biggest player in the world but you’ve got no proof, no paperwork to back it up, it won’t work. You always have to have something tangible to lean on. Look at the Tinder Swindler: sure, he didn’t actually have any money, but he really was flying on private jets, and traveling from city to city staying in five-star hotels.
How did you keep a cool head and tell the professionals you met that you were a pro? Did you get cold sweats, did your heart race, or did you feel guilty about it?
People who aren’t familiar with professional soccer have a false image of what it’s really like. People always talk about Messi, Mbappé, and Neymar, but these stars represent only 1% of all pro players in the market. Most of them are unknown to the general public and are just “normal people”. If tomorrow I were to trade the right-back of one team with the right-back of another, you wouldn’t even notice and it wouldn’t change the ranking of those clubs. I didn’t want to make myself look like I was an exceptional player, just a subtly average one. And by the way, it’s no coincidence that professional clubs often lose to amateur clubs in cup tournaments.
Did I feel bad lying to coaches and real professionals? The story I had created for myself was a game where I was the only one who knew the rules. However, I’ll admit that once you start, you fall into a kind of cycle that you can’t get out of. If you break down and tell the truth, you’re out. You have no choice but to keep lying. Then again, I never said that I was on the PSG pro team, but that I was a reserve player. Sure, the level didn’t match my actual skills, but at the time, players’ game statistics were not yet available online so in that sense, it was much easier. Sometimes I went to tryouts and other times the coaches that were interested called the PSG sports manager, who would then tell them that I didn’t exist and I was blacklisted. But frankly, what did I have to lose? Nothing. For those who don’t know, there are plenty of players who are signed without trying out, using fake videos, or lying about their age, and that doesn’t shock anyone.
You say that you didn’t scam anyone, that at worst you wasted some time for the clubs you trialed at. But do you ever regret lying about your background?
The clubs that had me try out lost three days, and nobody got hurt in the process. Especially since 99% of the people who try out aren’t even signed. It was an incredible experience to be able to train with Champions League players. Let’s just say that knowing how the current system works, I have no regrets. In France, it’s always been thought that if you didn’t train at a soccer school, you were a bad player. My parents refused to let me play when I was a teenager, what else could I do? I tried to follow the traditional path to move up the ranks, but I wasted time and got little results. It wasn’t all easy; I got a job at McDonald’s to make some money to pay for hotels and plane tickets to go to the tryouts. I didn’t steal a dime from anyone. This all eventually allowed me to become an agent for young players and I’ve been able to change some lives. I think there are worse things in life.
So do you think that some lies are more damaging than others?
Lying to steal money is unacceptable and I never would have done that. I lied to fulfill a childhood dream and I succeeded. I don’t see what’s wrong with doing everything you can to achieve your goals. Again, I didn’t want to sign a pro contract without going through tryouts. The goal was for a coach to give me a chance and judge my technique and physical abilities. That’s what I did with CSKA Sofia, the biggest club in Bulgaria: I went through all the tryouts and after three days, the coach said I had potential. He wanted to sign with me. Unfortunately, the day before the signing, I got found out. The next day, I was on the front page of every newspaper in the country. They said that the club had been scammed, but the coach had seen that I was good enough. I have friends who claim to speak foreign languages or master certain software on their résumés when they actually don’t. That’s even more of a lie than what I did because I could actually play and had real skill.
When the story was revealed to the public, you were insulted and mocked. That’s a high price to pay for a lie like yours, don’t you think?
When the first newspaper that talked about my story released their piece, I wished the editorial staff had taken the time to contact me to hear my side of the story, especially since the headline was tabloid-worthy: “The soccer impostor”. The consequences of this article were disastrous for me. My girlfriend left me, my family cut me off, and many of my friends at the time turned their backs on me. Everyone I knew got scared, even those who knew that in my personal life I was an honest person. Also, I couldn’t find work anymore, because all my potential employers were reading articles about how I was a scumbag, a crook, a fraud. However, the experience allowed me to sort out my life and figure out how the media works.
But I wouldn’t say that the price was too high because what is it that really matters in life? Experiencing things, and not just happy experiences. I prefer that to staying at home on my couch and watching Netflix, waiting for something to happen in my life. I make things happen and I deal with the consequences. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my journey has inspired so many others. I still get about 50 messages every day from young people wanting to know how I managed to succeed. Yes, life is complex enough as it is without having to play games or try new things, but just look at politicians, all they do is lie. It’s all theater. So why not take a step back and laugh about it?
You might have heard the story of Anna Delvey, the young Russian woman who pretended to be a rich German heiress and planned to create a foundation by borrowing several million dollars from American banks. Like you, she almost achieved her goals until she was exposed at the last minute. Do you agree with her “fake it till you make it” attitude?
We all lie at some point, and as long as we stay within the limits of what’s acceptable and don’t steal money, that’s ok. Why? Let’s look at soccer again as an example: if your dad isn’t a coach, if you don’t have the right network, if you don’t have the right agent who gets the right commission, you’re not going to make it. We keep hearing that these systems are open to everyone, but they’re not. Everything is closed off. Today, I’m interested in politics, but if I really wanted to get involved in them, it would be impossible because I didn’t go to the equivalent of an Ivy League or big-name school. However, people who go to these schools are no better than anyone else. They’ve simply followed a path that had been laid out for them, and they’ve been conditioned to do this. So we have to just trust them when it comes to this kind of thing? That’s too easy. To mess with the system, you have to outsmart it, taking the side roads and going in through the window when all the doors are closed.
When you created your first website when you were 16, you already understood how important image is. Would you say that nowadays image is more important than real skills or social background?
When I was a teenager, my parents sent me to a boarding school for rich kids in the countryside. Since I lived far away, I often stayed there alone on weekends with nothing to do. To stand out and make a name for myself, I spent a lot of time hacking online and I managed to create a website similar to those of the greatest pro footballers. And while the site got me noticed by clubs, all I was trying to do was make my friends laugh. It was supposed to be a joke! On the other hand, I realized at a young age how important image is, and how important marketing yourself is when you want to achieve things or catch the attention of potential recruiters.
Unfortunately, there’s too much weight given to image today. It’s not unusual to see people checking every three minutes to see if they’ve got a new notification, or constantly tracking the number of people who’ve looked at their story. There is a fine line between self-marketing and narcissism. Many people feel a real need to exist online and constantly take pictures of themselves. It’s a shame because it’s harmful when it comes to having a real social connection. People think they’re in contact with each other, but we’re just coexisting without ever meeting each other.
Would you say that creating a fake persona comes down to being smarter and more creative than everyone else?
The world won’t just hand you what you want; you have to be a little bit creative to achieve your goals. Most people I meet are envious or want to make money and be famous without getting their feet wet. But if you don’t take the slightest risk, nothing will happen. Just like Anna Delvey knew the codes of a milieu that wasn’t hers, I knew that lying was the only option available to me to make it in the soccer world. It’s like playing roulette: you pick your color and hope for the best.
Translated by Kalin Linsberg
Photo: Grégoire Akcelrod
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