Few stories of lost talent are as sad as Fabian O’Neill’s.
In the early 2000s, the Uruguayan had a unique opportunity to establish himself at Juventus and become a star in Serie A, but instead fell under the influence of alcohol, gambling and women, lost his entire fortune and stayed away from big football.
His life ended tragically in late 2022 when O’Neill finally lost his battle with alcoholism and died of chronic cirrhosis at just 49.
And twenty years ago, he was a skilled playmaker with a great future in football. Like many other South Americans, Fabian relies on sports to escape the poverty he has known well since childhood.
Abandoned by his parents, the future footballer was raised by his grandmother and forced to work from the age of 9, when he began selling food in front of a brothel. By then, O’Neill (descendant of an Irish immigrant) was already a regular drinker.
His football career began at Nacional in the Uruguayan elite, and three years later he moved to Italy, where he played for Cagliari. Serie A is the most competitive league in Europe then, but the technical and creative O’Neill has the qualities to impress the Italians.
It quickly becomes apparent that, for all his talent, he sees football more as entertainment than competition – and for him, beautiful performances seem to be more important than winning. The case of 1999 is still remembered when Fabian passed the ball three times between the legs of future world champion Gennaro Gattuso, then still a midfielder for Salernitana.
The following year, O’Neill was relegated for the second time with Cagliari and then made the transfer to Juventus. There he managed to impress Zinedine Zidane himself, the #1 playmaker in the world in those years.
“The most talented player I’ve ever seen? Fabian O’Neill,” Zizou is emphatic. Alas, then the Uruguayan is already an alcoholic and simply cannot show his best.
“You should be dead, not playing football,” Juve’s medical staff tell him when they measure his cholesterol level. “But I didn’t stop. Before I got on the bus to go to the matches, the cooks kept two glasses of wine for me,” says Fabian.
“I would drink them in a hurry and burp in someone’s face. Del Piero, Buffon and the other stars would ask me if I had been drinking, and I would say to them, ‘So what if I had?’ Shall I drink milk like you?”.
No wonder the troublemaker failed to stay at Juve and was sold to Perugia just a year later, even though the Bianconeri paid 10 million euros for him.
His career didn’t last long and he retired at just 29 years old, but managed to record 19 appearances for the Uruguayan national team. Injury kept him out of the 2002 World Cup, although he was part of the squad and traveled with the others to Japan and South Korea.
There he wasted no time and began his relationship with a woman who later became his third wife. “Diego Forlán helped me to contact her, he opened my computer and downloaded her photos, I didn’t understand these things,” recalls Fabian.
In his autobiography, published in 2013, O’Neill recounts a series of scandalous stories, including his involvement in two match-fixing in Italy.
“While I was playing in Cagliari, we arranged the match with Chievo. The draw suited both teams because we were fighting not to be relegated”.
“We also received an award from the club’s management for staying in the league. I arranged with the captain of Chievo, as well as my team-mates, to finish in a draw. Of course, we then went to the bookie to bet. Then we conceded a goal at the end of the game ” explains O’Neill.
He claims to have fixed a match while he was playing in Perugia: “Then I was the captain of Perugia. I arranged the result and we bet again. Everything went as we agreed”.
His book becomes a bestseller in Uruguay, but some parts of it sound like fiction, so Fabian is forced to answer questions about whether he was being completely sincere.
“The only lie in the book, because everything else is true, is this sentence: ‘I’m 39 years old and I’ve been drinking for 30 years, it’s time to stop’. Should I stop? I’ll drink until I die,” he snapped.
He explains how he lost his fortune of 14 million dollars with a famous phrase: “Slow horses, fast women and bets!”. However, he adds that he does not regret becoming poor again – he is not a person who keeps money in himself anyway.
It is known that once, while drunk, he went to a cattle auction and gave 250 thousand dollars for 1104 cows. He also owns a dozen racehorses in Montevideo, pays his neighbors’ electricity, water and gas bills.
“I’m poor, but I’m still happy. The main thing is that me and my family have something to eat. I found new friends, the real ones, not the fake ones that were by my side when I was rich,” Fabian continued.
“Women fell in love with the drunken version of me and then tried to change me. But no one could change me. Now even my ex-wives are richer than me,” admits the former football player, who after the end of his career is coming back in his ranch in Uruguay, and for a while he also worked as a waiter.
“Are you afraid of anything?” he was asked once and he answered: “Only death. I don’t want to die yet, life is something sacred.”
Fabian O’Neill had three children by three different women, and after he died, one of his daughters, Marina, said a heartbreaking goodbye to him:
“I hope you rest in peace, Dad. You lost your spark and joy a long time ago. Each time we saw you sadder, sicker and withered, with a withdrawn look. It hurt me to hear you say ‘I don’t want to live anymore “in the few hours when he was sober”.
“I hope that your fate will sharpen attention to alcoholism, this disease that tempted you as a child and that took everything from you. But the most important thing is that I forgive you. I swear I forgive you.”