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Aweek ago I was sitting on the Lyon team bus going toward Juventus Stadium for a game that everybody expected us to lose.
A lot of stuff was going through my mind.
We had a 1–0 lead from the first round-of-16 leg, but we were facing Juventus. They had just won their ninth straight Serie A title. Since COVID-19 had led to the cancellation of the French league season, we had only played one official game in five months. So, yeah, it made sense that people thought we would be eliminated.
What people didn’t know, though, was that I had just read a very good book about personal finance.
That might sound funny, but I’m convinced that book helped us knock out Juventus.
I had read it because I happen to study economics and finance. The book is called The Millionaire Real Estate Agent and was written by Gary Keller. One of its key lessons is that you have to aim high. If you do, you can achieve things that you never thought were possible.
While I was reading it, something clicked in my head. If this was true in finance, why should it not also apply to football?
By the time we had boarded the bus, I had told the boys that if we believed we could beat Juventus, we could do it. That might sound pretty basic, but there is a big difference between saying that you can win and actually believing it. What I had said was something like, “Guys, we have seen many unexpected things happen in football. Why should we not be able to do something unexpected as well?”
I had also asked them to visualise beating Juventus — and to then visualise winning the Champions League. Crazy? Maybe. But Lyon are a big, historic club. So we have to think big, too, right?
Then I had talked to some of my teammates individually. One was Memphis Depay. He and I have known each other since he was promoted to the first team at PSV Eindhoven in the 2011–12 season, when I was playing there. Memphis has a strong character: Not long after he had been promoted, I tackled him hard in training and he came after me wanting to fight! So I told him, “We need to believe that we will be champions.” He said, “You’re right, you’re right. Let’s go for it!”
I also talked to Bruno Guimarães, one of many fellow Brazilians in the team, who signed for us in January. He was like, “You know, I have been thinking that for a while, Marcelo. We can actually win it!”
Back then they had seemed to be buying into the message. But now, as I sat on the bus thinking about my little speech, I also knew that nobody could predict whether this belief would affect our performance. So as the bus continued toward the stadium, my mind turned to the actual game, and my task of stopping Cristiano Ronaldo.
Our coaches had given us all the tactical information we needed. We have an app that allows us to download videos of the players we’re going to face. Although I had watched everything, I was wary of overthinking things. As professional footballers we live very intense lives, especially before and after games, when our adrenaline goes up and down pretty much every three days. Sometimes it’s best to just clear your head, otherwise you might end up losing your mind altogether.
Sometimes it’s best to just clear your head, otherwise you might end up losing your mind altogether.
Thankfully, one of my teammates quickly made me forget about Juventus. On the bus I was sitting next to Kenny Tete, our Dutch right back. Suddenly he said, “Hey, out of all you Brazilians, who came from the favela?”
I told Kenny that I was one of them. Then I took out my phone and showed him a tiny, one-bedroom house in São Vicente, a small coastal city in the state of São Paulo. I told him how the roof would leak and how the water would sometimes stand a metre high inside our home. Our furniture was falling apart! I told him that I used to live there with my parents and my two sisters. Kenny looked very impressed. “Wow, Marcelo! That’s incredible!”
I actually got emotional showing that to him. Suddenly all these memories came rushing back to me. Like the days when I would ride a bike for an hour a day to get to Santos to play in a futsal tournament, and how that led to me joining the Santos academy. Or the time a reprimand from Vanderlei Luxemburgo, the coach who promoted me to the Santos first team, led me to study finance. Man, that guy is tough as nails. Shortly after I had joined the first team, Luxemburgo spotted me in the car park with a car I had just bought, a Meriva Sport. It was my first car, hardly a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, but Luxemburgo exploded.
He was like, “You! Come here. What the f*** are you doing with that? You don’t even own a house yet, do you? Do you think you can live in a f***ing car? Do you think this is what your family needs?”
He was furious. He even called the person who was then my agent. And I realised he was right. As soon as I could afford it I moved my family to Santos and bought a flat. When I decided to study a few years later, I chose finance. A lot of footballers go bankrupt after they retire, especially in Brazil, and I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to me. I guess I just needed Mr. Luxemburgo to knock some sense into me.
Sitting on the bus going toward the stadium, thinking about my time in Brazil, I realised how crazy my journey had been. I had gone from being a kid in a favela in São Vicente to playing for Lyon in a big Champions League tie. That really is unexpected. So many things could have happened that would have put my life on a different course.
In fact, one such thing had happened earlier in the season.
At the start of this year, I was supposed to quit Lyon.
It’s still hard for me to talk about what happened because it was such a painful period. I love Lyon. I have been here for three years now, and every time I go out onto the pitch I give 100% for the club. But in October last year we lost 2–1 away to Benfica in the Champions League group stage. We made two really bad errors. When we got to the airport in Lisbon, a small group of Lyon fans was waiting for us. One of them, an influential guy among the ultras, approached us in a very aggressive way. Obviously, we were all disappointed with the result, but this guy went way too far. I felt I had to intervene on behalf of the team, so I said, “You’re wrong. You cannot act like this. Don’t you think this hurts us, too? Do you think football is some kind of joke to us?”
He did not react well and we kept arguing. From that point on my relationship with the ultras was not good. Whenever I played, a small group of fans in the stadium would curse me. There were even some banners against me. It went on like that for weeks. If that was tough for me, imagine how hard it was for my family, who had to sit there and listen to all the abuse. It got so bad that I felt I had to leave. Eventually I went to the president, Jean-Michel Aulas, and told him that it would be up to the club whether I stayed or not. I didn’t want to be a problem. But both Aulas and our coach, Rudi Garcia, wanted me to stay, and so I did.
I came to regret the incident at the airport. I had gotten carried away by my emotions. So after we had beaten Bordeaux away, in January, I went over to the fans and apologised to the guy I had argued with. I said that we were all fighting for the same objectives, that I might not be the best centre back in the world but that I was out there every week putting my body on the line for them. For the club. For Lyon. Somebody filmed the whole thing, and I know it touched a lot of people’s hearts. A friend of mine watched it and began to cry.
My apology improved my relationship with the ultras. It lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. Regardless of who is right or wrong, I think it’s always wise to apologise so that everyone can move forward. I’m convinced that this episode has made me and the team stronger. Without setbacks, there is no way you can evolve.
Don’t you think this hurts us, too? Do you think football is some kind of joke to us?
Soon we were back to focusing on qualifying for the Champions League, which meant making the top three in Ligue 1. But then we had another setback. Ligue 1 suspended play in March, and in April the French government stopped all contact sports until September. That led to the league season being cancelled. Since we had just lost a game, we were now seventh, which was confirmed as our final position. As far as the league table was concerned, we would not even qualify for the Europa League. We would have to do it through the cups.
We were very disappointed with that, and I think the government made a very premature decision. We could have completed the season behind closed doors like the leagues in Germany, England, Spain and Italy. Instead, we went for months without playing. I did take some positives from it. I was able to take French classes, do yoga and read more books about economics and entrepreneurship. But when we returned to action in July, with only a few friendly matches to prepare us for the restart, we knew that we only had two chances left to qualify for Europe.
One was to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the League Cup final, which would send us to the Europa League. But we lost to PSG on penalties.
The last one was to win the Champions League for the first time in our history.
And that meant eliminating Juventus….
Suddenly the bus stopped. We were at Juventus Stadium. We climbed out and began to focus on the game. In the dressing room before kickoff I reminded the boys that we had to aim high. We had to believe — to really believe — that this was possible.
When we walked onto the pitch, I could feel the confidence flowing through the team.
The penalty we scored early on was crucial. You could see in the way Memphis took it how much he believed in himself, because he chipped it down the middle of the goal. To do that when the stakes are so high, you have to be super confident.
With a 2–0 lead on aggregate we could manage the game. Again, I tried not to overthink things, to just do my best and trust my teammates. Our midfielders were doing a great job protecting our defence. But just before halftime Ronaldo equalised with a penalty. Then in the second half, just when we felt we had regained control, Ronaldo got the ball outside our box. I was quite confident that we would stop him, because we had nine players behind the ball, and we had forced him over on his left foot, which is weaker than his right. But, well, it turned out that stuff like that doesn’t really matter with Ronaldo. He scored from 25 yards — with his left.
At 2–2 on aggregate we were still ahead on the away goals rule, but one more goal would knock us out. For the last 30 minutes we defended for our lives. We suffered a lot. Fortunately, in the end, we got the result we needed.
When the final whistle went, it was an amazing feeling. I ran into the dressing room screaming, “I told you so! I told you that it was possible!”
And the boys were like, “Yeah! Yeah! Come on!”
The atmosphere in the team was electric. I have played other big Champions League games, but this one was special. Very special. When I got home, I stayed up with my wife, Tatiane, and my publicist, Leo, talking about the game. I watched it back, too. The adrenaline wouldn’t allow me to do anything else.
When I finally tried to go to sleep, I had no chance.
Man, what a night it was.
Right now, we are in the quarterfinals. Since the ties are played over one leg this year, that means we are three games away from winning the Champions League. Three games, three finals. We know we are not the favourites. But three games? Three games?? That’s nothing.
The other day Tati made the point that this year has been different in every sense. Who knows whether something different will happen in football as well? I knew what she was saying, though she didn’t need to convince me.
You see, Lyon are already dreaming of winning the Champions League. We really believe we can do it.
Because in this crazy game, just like in life, anything can happen.