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Brazil's Soccer Mom Turned Top Lawyer For Stars

Gislaine Nunes, 47, is the most prominent soccer attorney in Brazil. From Pelé to Ronaldinho, she has defended many stars, and her success has earned her as much fortune as hostility.

Gislaine Nunes with Brazilian soccer legend Pele
Gislaine Nunes with Brazilian soccer legend Pele
Nicolas Bourcier

SAO PAULO — First, there is the voice: bubbly with mischief, so deep and convincing it’s easy to forget the surrounding agitation. Her cellphone, also, moving from one hand to the other. And the ashed-out jeans, so unusual for a courtroom professional.

At 47, Brazilian soccer attorney Gislaine Nunes is widely disliked among club leaders, because she succeeds in obtaining rulings against management for the players she represents. She is surprised to constantly have new cases. “If I’m here, it’s because of the incompetence of club managers,” she says. “It’s them, those idiots, those provincial and archaic leaders who created me.”

Nunes does not give in. She has represented more than one thousand players, expressing herself easily and breaking the code of silence in an industry known for its sexism and occasional brutality — two body guards escort her wherever she goes. Nunes is simultaneously confidential and explosive, but here she opens up.

Born in a poor family in the town of Bauru, in the state of Sao Paulo, she met Pelé on several occasions in her home. Then a young rising soccer star, Pelé had lived in the neighborhood for several years and became friends with the family before leaving for Santos and its soccer club.

“Together with my dad, they did guy stuff,” she says, revealing no more.

A soccer player’s wife

Nunes married her childhood sweetheart Evandro in 1988 when she was just 21 years old. He was a fullback on a team in Campinas, a university town located an hour and a half away from Sao Paulo. “His father was a bus driver, like mine,” she says. He played soccer while the young bride attended law classes, but without any precise goals. “To tell the truth, I just wanted to be a soccer player’s wife,” she recalls. “I grew up in an environment where women are there to take care of her husband and children.”

It was when Evandro injured his Achilles tendon during a match that Nunes' career was really born. He was axed from the team, which meant that no money was coming in.

When she pressed him, her husband explained that he was bound by a bizarre and unfair soccer federation rule that dictated he still belonged to the team, even though he no longer had a contract. It's essentially a property right that the clubs and sometimes agents have on the careers of the players, tying a professional to the federation until another club buys him. Such a situation can last years, or even decades, he explained.

Enslavement

The young woman couldn't believe her ears. She told him this system was tantamount to enslavement, and that she wanted to help him — but he refused. “He didn’t want me to get involved in his business,” she remembers. “Sportsmen are like that.”

Faced with financial difficulties, Evandro began selling his possessions, including a small family plot. As for the club, it occasionally loaned him to small local teams. But the situation did not improve. At that point, Nunes was pregnant. She began some research and became informed about the unfamiliar soccer world, studying the law binding her husband. She found out it was created under pressure from the clubs and passed in 1973.

“I won’t give you names, but since this date, several players have committed suicide because of it,” she says.

Nunes insisted once again that her husband let her do something, suggesting they take the case to a labor rights court “to which every employee has a right,” she told him. Evandro eventually agreed.

“Bring dignity back to their home”

She went to the players’ trade union with her father because their lawyer first refused to speak with her. “I don’t give information to soccer players’ wives,” he said. Her father joined the conversation. “It was then that the lawyer told us Evandro won the procedure, but that he now had to wait for his club to be removed from the championship.”

She took the case to a labor court in 1994, and her courtroom speech was implacable. “The Constitution says nobody should be excluded from the rules of justice, and my husband is a citizen like any other,” she told the judge. “Article 5 stipulates that the pursuit of work is free. My husband is a worker who wants to work and, still, my child and I have nothing to eat anymore. We have to ask my parents for money. This is why I am here — to point out two fundamental principles: my husband’s labor rights and my right to live. How many players go through such ordeals? I want this to stop, and no one will prevent me from doing so.”

The judge leaned towards her and told her her husband was free, that he could lead the life he wanted “in order to bring dignity back to their home.” The official verdict was given 15 days later.

“I started being known as the wife of the winger who won before a court of labor justice,” she says. The goalkeeper on Evandro’s team then asked her to handle his case, which she won. Then the players’ trade union called her to help them on their own cases, which she also won. Clients started lining up.

Demanding change

“I broke the dogma,” she says. For two years, she worked with the players’ trade union. “You can’t imagine how hard it was. I didn’t earn any money, but I did self-advertising to get new customers.”

And that's when the winds of change came blowing in. Coincidentally, a friend of her father became minister of sports. In 1998, he put an end to the law binding players with his own “Pelé law.” It allows soccer players to be free and sign contracts that do not exceed five years.

In case of a transfer during this period, clubs receive “training” compensation, limited to 200 times the monthly salary of the player. “Can you imagine, I was the first to apply this law,” Nunes says. “I had a case ready on the day the text was voted!”

In 2001, Nunes raised her profile by representing Juninho Pernambucano against the Carioca club Vasco de Gama. “I was the first to confront the powerful president Eurico Miranda,” she recalls. “I knew it was going to be difficult. In fact, as soon as I got off the plane in Rio, someone verbally insulted me.”

The player won his case, and a photograph of the lawyer standing next to the young midfielder in court made the rounds all over Brazil. Juninho then left to play for the French soccer association Olympique Lyonnais. Nunes recalls him telling her that other players needed her help. “Let them all come, I’m not scared,” she answered.

The “Iron Lady”

Three years later, Nunes opened her own legal office, where she is known as the “Iron Lady” or “Maezona” (“Mother Hen”). In addition to handling labor rights cases, her six-lawyer team also specializes in image consulting and sometimes advises players on their private lives.

“Most of the time, they come from working-class districts and are not prepared to earn so much money,” she says. “It is sometimes necessary to remind them not to sign every contract — or even to use the girls’ condoms, because they’ve planned everything.”

Experience is her weapon. “When I see the players, sometimes they remind me of my husband,” she says. In 2011, she represented the star Ronaldinho and managed to help end his contract with Flamengo.

It was just another victory. “They say I’m expensive, but I win my cases and answer day or night when someone calls me,” she says.

She puts her phone down and counts on her fingers before saying, “I’ve lost five or six cases, at most.” She ends the conversation with a smile. “Some soccer players can also be liars.”

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