Medi Abalimba didn’t quite live the dream, but there were times when it must have felt tantalisingly close.
There were trials at Manchester City and Manchester United, a run-out for Liverpool’s reserves at the Etihad Stadium, a professional contract at Derby County and a couple of first-team call-ups at Oldham Athletic. He was just one of those footballers who never quite made the grade.
But he couldn’t let go. He had sporting ambitions but, more than anything, he craved what he saw as the footballer lifestyle: money rolling in, big house, flash cars, designer gear, chauffeurs to drive him between five-star London hotels and the best West End nightclubs, skipping the queues, ushered straight into the VIP area, beautiful women succumbing to his charms as the champagne flowed.
This is the story of how a footballer who saw his dreams fade away fixed his sights on that champagne lifestyle — and how, by charming, deceiving and manipulating so many people in a series of wild episodes, punctuated by prison sentences, he got it.
In The Footballer Fraudster, a documentary released this week on ITVX, Dr Donna Youngs says that in her career as a forensic psychologist she has rarely come across a fraud case as extreme as that of Abalimba.
“It feels driven by a sense of a dream unfulfilled or snatched away,” says Claire McArdle, executive producer of the documentary. “The more we uncovered, the more people we spoke to, the more astounding the deceptions became.”
Abalimba’s astonishing story tells us that certain names can open doors — even if the name in question belongs to someone else entirely, be it a Chelsea footballer, a Chicago Bears running back or just another figment of a wild imagination.
In June 2014, a taxi company in Derby took a call requesting a top-end vehicle for a Chelsea footballer who was staying locally. The name they were given was Gael Kakuta.
Kakuta had not made the breakthrough at Chelsea since joining as one of the best young prospects in Europe seven years earlier, but he still had a big reputation and, importantly for the purposes of Abalimba’s scam, a big contract, reportedly worth £30,000 ($37,200) a week.
The taxi company’s sales manager recalls thinking “ker-ching”. He booked a Bentley Continental GT and a chauffeur to take this client wherever he wanted. That included a shopping trip so extravagant that it required a second car to collect his bags and a visit to a nightclub in Manchester, where he ordered £2,600 worth of Dom Perignon champagne and left claiming he had “left his wallet in the limo” before returning the next day to settle up.
Over the next few weeks, the client stayed in some of London’s finest hotels — the Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park, the Corinthia in Whitehall, the Millennium in Knightsbridge — and ran up bills totalling £9,600. He treated four girls to a £1,100 helicopter tour over London before taking them to a mansion in Ascot, Berkshire, which he claimed was his home.
In some instances, he paid using other people’s credit card details. In others, he ran up huge bills on the understanding that, as a Chelsea footballer on a huge salary, he would settle his account at a later date.
But this was nothing to do with Kakuta, who was oblivious to the frauds being committed in his name.
This was Medi Abalimba, who by this stage had drifted from Oldham to ESA Brive in French football’s fifth tier, to Farnborough in English football’s sixth tier, Corby Town in the seventh tier and then back to France to join Perpignan Canet in the sixth tier.
And rather than £30,000 a week, he had earned roughly £300 a week at Farnborough, where he had worked part-time in the office of a minicab company to try to make ends meet.
But Abalimba had taken drastic action in order to enjoy the lifestyle he felt he had wrongly been denied.
He bore only a vague physical resemblance to Kakuta, but everything else about Abalimba’s act seemed plausible to his victims.
The way he dressed, the way he carried himself, the way he spoke (not only with a French accent but with other accents when ringing ahead, purporting to be an agent, to ask nightclubs and hotels to look after him when he arrived) and — above all — the way he spent money chimed with expectations of how a wealthy young footballer would act.
As Dr Youngs says in the documentary, Abalimba was “playing on people’s respect for money, status and fame. They don’t demand payment. They stretch credit. They make allowances they wouldn’t normally make (..) because of who he is.
“And the reason he is so good at pretending to be this character is that it resonates with something deep inside him. It’s who he believes he is.”
Little is known of Abalimba’s background. He was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire) and, amid growing tensions in the country, his family fled for the UK in the 1990s and settled in London.
There are so many success stories in football and all walks of life involving people who were uprooted from Africa at an early age, but Dr Youngs wonders whether this disruption to Abalimba’s childhood had a lasting psychological effect.
“All ties with anything solid, anything stable, anything that he recognised would have been cut,” the forensic psychologist says. “This is someone who doesn’t have any solid sense of his own identity. Even from these very early beginnings, it’s somebody who sees who he is as something he can invent.”
It was only a matter of time before Abalimba was rumbled. Suspicions had been raised at one of the London hotels he stayed at. Police had been informed, taking fingerprints from a pair of designer shoes he had given a porter as a tip.
In July 2014, his chauffeur took him to the Trafford Centre, Manchester. Masquerading as Kakuta, Abalimba picked out more than £20,000 of clothing and jewellery at Selfridges with the help of a personal shopper — even showing off his football skills in the store. But he was unable to pay with the credit card he handed over, which was damaged. He said he would come back to collect the goods the next day.
He later tried to make a payment over the phone with compromised credit card details. When his driver returned, a suspicious store detective declined to hand over the goods. Greater Manchester Police was informed.
A pattern of fraudulent behaviour emerged: not just in Manchester, London and Derby but in West Yorkshire, where a woman had been duped into paying a £4,633 spa bill and £2,397 for the hire of a Range Rover because Abalimba (or as she believed, Kakuta) said he did not have his credit card to hand, and Glasgow, where he had spent £14,000 on a team-mate’s credit card while on trial at Hamilton Academical the previous year.
All of this led police to Abalimba, who had already been given a six-month suspended sentence in 2013 and ordered to carry out 150 hours of community service over an unpaid bill of £25,922 (mostly Cristal champagne) at a nightclub in London.
He was tracked down to the mansion in Berkshire, where, surrounded by bags of designer goods, he was arrested. He was later charged with a series of fraud offences. In October 2014, he admitted 12 charges of fraud. Another 19 offences were taken into consideration, taking the total amount of money defrauded to £163,000.
Sentencing Abalimba to four years in prison, Judge Robert Atherton spoke of a “catalogue of offences of sophisticated dishonesty, fraudulently representing that you were a person who you were not”.
Outside the court, Sergeant Adam Cronshaw, from Greater Manchester Police, said Abalimba “became so skilled in lies and deceit that his character went from plausible to unquestionable. Many of his victims treated him so differently because they thought he was a celebrity footballer. Unfortunately, this trust and goodwill was misplaced”.
In a 17-year professional career playing in England, Norway, Scotland, Cyprus, Malaysia, Kazakhstan and Belgium as well as his native France, Mickael Antoine-Curier had hundreds of team-mates, many of whom he counts as good friends.
But rarely did he click with a team-mate the way he clicked with Abalimba, who arrived on trial at Scottish club Hamilton in late 2013. “He was a really cool guy,” Antoine-Curier tells The Athletic. “I found him a really nice person. Everybody liked him.”
Antoine-Curier allowed him to stay at his apartment. When Abalimba said he wasn’t going to training one morning, Antoine-Curier thought nothing of it. He was non-plussed when, speaking to his bank a few days later, he was asked about his irregular recent spending: “designer clothes, hotels, flights, all sorts. It was over £14,000.”
Even when he realised his credit card was missing, he didn’t suspect Abalimba. “Not at all,” he says. “That’s the last thing that came to mind.
“But then the police showed me some videos — and it was Medi. I couldn’t believe it. I was fuming. To do this to someone who had helped him? Honestly, I wanted to get to him before the police did.”
Abalimba fled to North Yorkshire and moved on again before launching the Kakuta scam a few months later.
“And when he finally got caught, I thought that would be it. I thought that would teach him a lesson and he would never do it again,” Antoine-Curier says. “But he’s done it again and again. It’s crazy.”
Every time he ended up in court — handed a six-month suspended sentence in 2013, a four-year prison sentence in 2014, another four-year prison sentence in 2021— Abalimba was characterised as someone who had struggled after going from potential hero to zero when his football dreams were shattered.
Vic Wozny, defending him in the 2014 case, explained that Abalimba had been on a “very large” wage at Derby and that “when he started to slide and the money dried up, my client couldn’t accept that he didn’t continue to live the high life”. After that, Wozny said, “my client’s difficulties snowballed”.
Mark McDonald, defending him in the 2021 case, said he understood Abalimba had been earning £1,000 a week at Derby, having been transferred for “about £2million ($2.5m)”. Reports relating to the 2014 case suggest Derby bought him for £1.2m and paid him £4,000 a week during his time at the club.
But these figures are disputed. Adam Pearson, who was Derby’s chairman, says he can barely recall Abalimba’s name or his arrival from Southend, but adds there is “absolutely no chance” they would have paid £1m for such an unproven player in 2009, a year after relegation from the Premier League. A club official says the transfer fee was “five figures”, i.e. below £100,000, rather than seven.
Similarly, Pearson rejects the idea that Abalimba might have earned £1,000 a week, never mind £4,000 a week; he and others suggest a weekly wage for a young, inexperienced player at Derby in 2009 was more likely to have been in the low hundreds.
“There was always a lot of hot air with Medi,” says Roland Benedict, an American who played with Abalimba in Southend’s reserve team.
Like others, Benedict describes Abalimba as “a big personality, incredibly charismatic and charming”. He also says that, for all his apparent wealth and grandeur, “the bill would show up and Medi wouldn’t be there. And you would think nothing of it. You’d think, ‘That’s OK. Medi has fixed for us to get into this nightclub next’. He seemed to know everyone.”
Benedict says his team-mate was a good prospect. “He was a box-to-box midfielder, good engine, good in tight spaces, hard tackler,” he says. “I knew he had been on trial at Manchester United before I arrived and he always gave the impression he wasn’t going to be at Southend long.”
But another figure who was at Southend at the time suggests Abalimba was “never” Premier League level. He wonders if those trials at Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool might have stemmed from Abalimba’s connections rather than the more appealing idea of scouts alerting the clubs to his potential.
You almost start to wonder whether those trials were something else Abalimba made up.
But the trials did happen. There is a YouTube video of that reserve-team appearance for Liverpool against Manchester City — and he must have made a decent impression in training to have been picked as a young trialist. The LFCTV commentator mentions that “Rafa (Benitez) is here tonight to take a look at him”.
Seven of Liverpool’s starting XI in that game (Stephen Darby, Emiliano Insua, Martin Kelly, Damien Plessis, Jay Spearing, Dani Pacheco and David N’Gog) made first-team appearances at the club and another two (Peter Gulacsi and Mikel San Jose) went on to play Champions League and international football elsewhere. It was a big step up from Southend reserves.
Watching the game, Abalimba looked confident and enterprising on the right wing — perhaps a little too confident in the second minute, overelaborating and losing the ball when he had a chance to shoot — but the game passed him by for long periods.
He seemed to be growing in influence in the second half when he was beaten for pace by Manchester City full-back Sam Williamson. Moments later, he was substituted. As he trudged off the pitch, his hopes of a Liverpool career went with him.
Still, he was only 17, as the LFCTV commentator said. Or 16, according to various other reports at the time. Which was it? Sixteen or 17? It was neither.
Benedict recalls there being speculation about Abalimba’s age when he was at Southend. “He wasn’t big,” Benedict says. “But watching him play, he was like a man among kids.”
Suspicions about his age were heightened, according to another former Southend employee, when he reacted furiously to a team-mate’s attempts to look at his passport.
Abalimba’s entry in the 2011-12 Sky Sports Football Yearbook says he was born on October 14, 1992. That is consistent with reports that he was 16, nearly 17, when he went on trial at Liverpool in September 2008.
But documents relating to his various convictions cite his date of birth as May 26, 1989. Abalimba did not respond to a series of questions asked by The Athletic but he verified that date when contacted by ITV. That would have made him 19, rather than 16, when he went on trial at Liverpool; 20, rather than 17, when he signed for Derby; 21, rather than 19, when he joined Oldham in January 2011.
When contacted by The Athletic, officials at Southend, Derby and Oldham said they were unaware of any issue over his age. If the 1989 birthdate is correct, it would mean he was ineligible when he played for Derby in the FA Youth Cup in 2009-10.
On social media, Abalimba’s name arouses amusement among the few fans of those three clubs who recall the brief buzz around him more than a decade ago. There is also a very small niche of Football Manager fans who recall him, in one of the game’s releases, as a free transfer who could be polished into a rough diamond.
In the real world, a sense of mystery surrounds Abalimba’s time at Derby. For one thing, The Athletic has learned his contract was terminated a couple of months before he moved to Oldham in January 2011.
Various figures who were at Derby at the time — Pearson, former chief executive Tom Glick, former vice-president Mal Brannigan, former academy manager Darren Wassall — say they do not recall the circumstances behind his departure. Various team-mates from Derby do not respond to enquiries about him.
It is a similar story at Oldham. Paul Dickov, the manager who signed him, does not respond to enquiries. Alan Hardy, the club’s chairman at the time, says he “vaguely” remembers Abalimba but will not discuss the circumstances behind the player’s departure barely two months later because he cannot be certain of the details.
There is a thread on “Oh When The Blues”, an Oldham fans’ forum, reflecting on Abalimba’s debut for the club’s reserve team against Accrington Stanley.
“You lot are gonna love this guy,” @oafcprozac told his fellow supporters. “Played in the holding role and ran the game for us. Strong in the tackle, skilful and vocal beyond his tender years. He looks a helluva prospect.”
Another poster, @BP1960, went further: “If he fulfils his early potential, Latics could have unearthed a gem worth millions.”
Abalimba was named as a substitute for Oldham’s next two first-team games, against Huddersfield Town and Carlisle United, but he didn’t get on. And that was as much as Oldham fans saw or heard of him until the club announced on April 1 that he had been released because Dickov “did not see Abalimba as having a long-term future at the club”.
Some former Oldham officials offer more colourful theories about why Abalimba’s spell was cut short. What is certain is that those two games as an unused substitute were as close as he came to playing in the Football League.
There is a fascinating moment in the documentary which shows a video of Abalimba standing on a street in France with a group of men who are lauding him. “Google him! Medi Abalimba!” one of them tells whoever is behind the camera.
“More expensive than a Ferrari!” says a second, referencing his trial at Manchester United in his youth. “Ballon d’Or! Medi Abalimba, it’s him!”
It’s not clear whether the men are victims or participants in a delusion. But by this stage, a few months after his release at Oldham, Abalimba was at Brive in French football’s fifth tier. Dreams of Manchester United and the Ballon d’Or could hardly have been more remote.
Nobody at Brive responds to enquiries about Abalimba’s time there. Erwan Jarrige, who now works for a bank, played alongside him at Brive but tells The Athletic he doesn’t remember him among many other Medis.
It seems the only real legacy of Abalimba’s time in France was felt at Farnborough, his next stop.
Farnborough’s owner and manager Spencer Day recalls him as “a thoroughly nice young man, charming, very personable and seemingly very respectful” and as a “very gifted” player who “could easily have earned a decent living” in the EFL rather than two levels below. He says the midfielder stood out during a brief spell at Farnborough in 2012, but … inevitably there is a “but”.
The Football Association discovered Abalimba had not obtained international clearance to resume playing in England, i.e. his registration was still held in France after his spell with Brive. Day says Abalimba failed to inform Farnborough about his spell abroad.
It meant Farnborough had unwittingly fielded an ineligible player in six Blue Square Bet South games at the start of the season. As a result, they were docked four points.
From there, Abalimba moved on to Corby Town and then back to France to join Perpignan Canet, who did not respond to enquiries about his time there. He played some pre-season games for Ilkeston Town in 2013 but was without a club when he was arrested a year later.
One of the first things he did after his release from prison in early 2017 was to find a new club: back to Derbyshire to join Mickleover Sports in the Northern Premier League, the seventh tier of English football.
Neil Hadfield, the club’s treasurer, doesn’t “remember him playing a lot of games” for Mickleover. It’s not surprising. Abalimba was sent off for a wild challenge on an opponent just 14 minutes into his debut against Stafford Rangers. Remarkably, he was also sent off in his second appearance, against Whitby Town.
His first spell at the club was brief — three games, two red cards, one goal — but Abalimba returned for a second spell the following season, saying he was “finally over a major knee issue” and was “keen and ready to go”.
Interestingly, an article on the club’s website in January 2018 states Abalimba was 24. Even going by the October 1992 birthdate that had previously been attributed to him, he would have been 25. According to the birthdate the courts were supplied with, he would have been 28.
Hadfield says his only real recollection of Abalimba was that he was “very friendly and he bought me a drink in the bar, which was unusual for a player because I don’t think we were even paying him at the time”.
Georgia Steel was smitten. From the moment she met ‘Miguel Johnson’ in a Mayfair nightclub in early 2019, the pair of them were inseparable. They made quite the couple: she a television personality from ITV reality show Love Island; he… a native of Atlanta, Georgia, apparently, with a very famous mother but he couldn’t say who.
They had been dating for a couple of months when they were snapped by paparazzi. The next day The Sun ran the pictures, asking if anyone could identify Steel’s date: a “mystery American man who appeared to be very wealthy”.
Within days the newspaper, having had a tip-off, revealed the “mystery American man” was Abalimba, a notorious fraudster. Steel told the ITV documentary she “was instantly in shock, completely numb”.
Abalimba said he had told Steel everything. “She was shocked,” he told The Sun. “Initially she was concerned for me. It’s a ‘beauty and the beast’ story. I’m considered a monster but she doesn’t judge me. We like each other. We’re getting on.”
Barely 24 hours later, Steel discovered that a “drastic” amount of money had disappeared from her bank account.
Abalimba insisted it was nothing to do with him but Steel says her mother demanded she sever all ties with him.
Later that year, Abalimba was arrested at another Mayfair nightclub. He was charged with defrauding Steel of £13,000 and pleaded guilty to five counts of fraud. This time, he was sentenced to 23 months in prison.
There is more. Even while back in prison, Abalimba kept up a relationship with Claire Merry, former wife of Thierry Henry, telling her he was a U.S. Navy SEAL called ‘Miguel Johnson’. He told her he was in Kuwait and that the background noises she could hear, when he was calling her from prison, were military manoeuvres.
On his release from prison — or, as he claimed, his return from Kuwait — the pair hooked up, again staying at luxury hotels, and Abalimba (or ‘Johnson’) somehow contrived to ensure Merry kept picking up the bill. With his talk of cars, private jets and meetings with Pippa Middleton (sister of Kate Middleton, now the Princess of Wales), he sounded plausible.
But soon Merry, like Steel, found unrecognised payments from her bank account. In total, she ended up defrauded of more than £50,000.
Around the same time, in late 2020, Marc Bilton, who has a chauffeuring and concierge company, received a call from someone claiming to be a representative of Chicago Bears (now Carolina Panthers) running back Tarik Cohen, asking if Bilton could look after his client while he was in London.
Like others before him, Bilton went the extra mile to please this high-end client, laying on cars and agreeing to settle hotel bills on his behalf, paying for suites at the Corinthia and the Rosewood.
Abalimba charmed him, not just as ‘Cohen’ but as his purported agent ‘Gustavo’, who promised him gifts, talking up a friendship with Elton John, assuring him that Diana Ross, supposedly his godmother, would “only do business with your company” when she was next in London.
Just when Bilton was starting to worry about a bill that had run into tens of thousands, he was invited to meet ‘Gustavo’ at Battersea Power Station. ‘Gustavo’ arrived in a Rolls-Royce and proceeded to show him three apartments he said he was about to buy for a total of £45m. Bilton’s cashflow worries were eased. At the Rosewood alone, Bilton ended up making payments of £104,911.59 before learning he had been conned.
There were other victims — another chauffeur, a record producer whom he convinced he was a rapper named ‘Miguel Gonzalez’ — but Bilton’s financial loss was the greatest of all.
In September 2021, admitting 17 charges, 15 of them for fraud, Abalimba was sentenced to four years and two months in prison. He was released earlier this year.
It is hard to keep track of just how many people have fallen victim to Abalimba’s scams.
As well as the financial losses, there is a psychological impact: Steel says it has caused her trust issues in subsequent relationships; Antoine-Curier, who recovered his money through his credit card insurance, says these days “I don’t even trust my own shadow”; Bilton, who was unable to recover his losses because he had knowingly made the payments, says that, as well as the severe impact on his businesses, he was traumatised; another chauffeur, speaking anonymously on the documentary, says the affair sent his “anxiety through the roof”; another individual who shared their experience with Abalimba with The Athletic said he was unwilling to discuss it publicly because, more than a decade later, he had “only just put it behind me”.
And then there are those whose names Abalimba used.
Kakuta has never spoken publicly about the matter and it is not known whether he, an innocent man, was questioned by police at any point. In summing up Abalimba’s 2014 trial, Judge Robert Atherton said Kakuta was “a victim as much as (…) others in this case”. Neither his agent nor his club, Amiens, responded to The Athletic’s invitations to discuss it.
Cohen and his agent, similarly, did not respond to The Athletic’s attempts to contact him over the case.
Everyone who appears in the documentary talks about Abalimba’s charm. Some talk in almost awe-struck terms about his ability to juggle all these different personas. Antoine-Curier calls him a “genius”. He also calls him a “snake”.
In a statement to ITV, Abalimba disputed some of the allegations made about him but again cited the demise of his football career as the catalyst for his deceptions. “The way I dealt with falling short of my dreams wasn’t right,” he said. “I sincerely apologise to everyone I lied to and used.”
Antoine-Curier snorts at the idea of an apology from Abalimba. These days, he runs his own chauffeuring service in Brussels and it occurs to him that this is just the kind of business his former team-mate exploited. He talks about how he might react to Abalimba should their paths cross again. It’s pretty graphic.
The Footballer Fraudster, part of ITV’s Swindles & Cons series, is available on ITVX from November 9
(Top image: Getty Images; design by Eamonn Dalton)