The legendary Brazilian football star Romario has been conned out of $4.85m (£2.5m) by a gang of international fraudsters who are said to include a former Everton player. Considered one of the greatest football players of all time, Romario lost the money in a complex investment fraud.
The name of the Brazilian star emerged after Polish law-enforcement investigators filed an application to collect evidence at a US district court in Nevada. The documents disclose that at least seven other investors were defrauded in the $10m scam.
The Brazilian star is said to have suffered "financial difficulties" as result of the fraud. Romario, whose full name is Romario de Souza Faria, led the Brazilian team to victory in the 1994 World Cup. Now 39, he is the second highest scorer in the history of professional football, surpassed only by Pele. In March he scored his 900th goal.
According to the court documents, Romario is alleged to have entrusted a large sum of money to Piotr Osuch, 38, also known as Peter von Hochburg, a Pole who had posed as an investment adviser.
The District Prosecutor's Office in Lublin, Poland, has been investigating Osuch for allegedly misappropriating the funds of investors, engaging in cheque forgery, and using a false passport and driver's licence to obtain financing for property transactions.
Osuch has been held since August 2003. Eight other Poles face prosecution; all were said to be part of a broader international investment fraud. The court documents allege that 15 other people - American, British, French and Iranian citizens - helped in the schemes.
The documents claim that Ian Burns, a 58-year-old former professional footballer who played for Everton, Frenchman Michael Kupfer and Swiss-based Peter Shackleton are some of the other figures in the fraud. In 2002 Burns, from Duffield in Derbyshire, was sentenced to three and half years in jail in Britain for investments frauds.
Burns had gone into partnership with Kupfer, running a company called KB Securities, which was registered in Luxembourg. KB raised more than £3m from investors seeking high returns from so-called bank trading programmes.
The former Everton player and his associate embarked on a spending spree with investors' money, blowing £1.5m on the high life in just nine months. Barcelona-based Burns extravagantly hired private jets and took his family to the Ritz.
The Serious Fraud Office said: "One payment for £500,000 was made into Burns's wife's bank account in Macclesfield - all of which was spent in the 10 days that followed." Around £100,000 was spent on two BMWs for Burns and his son and two Fiats for his wife and daughter.
Attempts were under way to net another £5m from investors when the SFO moved in.
Kupfer was wanted by the SFO but the French do not allow their own nationals to be extradited. The Nevada court documents also mention four other Britons. One, Peter Shackleton, mounted an abortive takeover of Burnley Football Club in 1998. At the time, Ian Burns acted as spokes-man for Shackleton. Burnley's management were suspicious of the mysterious group of investors. Romario, unfortunately, was not as suspicious. The Brazilian player is understood to have flown to Lublin to give secret evidence against Osuch and his associates.
David Marchant, publisher of the Miami-based Offshore Alert newsletter, which has published the Nevada court documents, said: "There is something inevitable about a poorly advised, highly paid sportsman being parted from his money by a conman. It is unusual, though, for the conman to be another sportsman. While Ian Burns was never any match for Romario on the football pitch, the reverse is true on the much more rugged playing field of investment fraud."Reuse content