But First We Attack

Where do we begin? I want to tell you about how my grandfather changed my life. But I also want to tell you about Ronaldo. And about Romario hanging out of the airplane, and about the orange Volkswagen.

We have a lot to talk about. Let’s start with a smell.

It’s one of the first things I can remember in my life. When I was about six years old, we were on summer vacation from school, but I would still wake up at 7:30 every morning and take my football down to Botafogo Beach.

That’s in Rio, where all the best footballers come from ?

There was this park by the beach with a futsal court and a little slide for kids, and there would always be the same old guy yelling out to the people parking their cars, “One dollar! One dollar! One dollar!”

He would “protect” your car for a dollar. I remember the sound of his voice, but mostly I remember the smell of the earth. There was a broken drainpipe that used to dump water all over the soil on one side of the court, turning it into muck. So every morning when I walked down to the park, I’d smell that smell, man.

The court was the territory of the Botafogo FR fanatics. Some days I would show up and they had taken it over, so I’d have to kick around on the side by myself. Other days I’d show up and nobody would be playing at all. It didn’t matter — Little Marcelito was out there every day.

I have a profound memory of the smell, and the feeling of the ball at my feet. I realized something that is still true for me. Whenever you have a ball at your feet, you can’t be mad. You don’t even need people to play with. It’s all about the ball.


That same summer, the ’94 World Cup was going on in America. In Brazil, right before the World Cup begins, everybody in the neighborhood goes outside in the streets and paints murals to celebrate. Everything gets covered in green, blue and yellow — the streets, the fences, the walls, people’s faces. This is such a special memory for every little kid in Brazil. I was reading Ronaldo’s story the other day, and he was talking about how he went out into the street before the ‘82 World Cup and helped paint a mural of Zico.

Well, guess what, Ronaldo?

If you’re reading this, when I was six years old, my friends and I painted your face onto our street. You were our hero. It is a memory that really sticks in my heart.

It’s funny what you remember about life. I don’t remember much about watching Brazil win the final. That’s all kind of a blur. But I have a very clear memory of this one specific photo on the front page of the local newspaper. The national team had just flown home, and Romario was literally hanging out the front window of the airplane cockpit, waving a huge Brazilian flag, like he had just conquered the world for us.

I remember seeing that photo and feeling like my heart was going to explode with pride. I thought, My God, I need to do that some day.

Of course, this was a ridiculous dream for a lot of reasons. First of all, there’s 200 million people in Brazil, and they all want to be footballers (even the old men). Second of all, I wasn’t even a real footballer yet. I only played local five-a-side futsal. Traveling for club football wasn’t very realistic for my family. Maybe people in America or England won’t understand this, but gasoline in Brazil, especially back when I was a kid, was very, very expensive.

Luckily, my grandfather was willing to sacrifice everything for me. He is the single most important person in my story. If you want to visualize him, well … he was a character. He always had on a pair of cool sunglasses, and he used to have a special saying. He would say it every day when he was around his friends.

How can I translate this into English?

He’d say….

“Hell, look at me. I don’t have a single dollar in my pocket, but I’m happy as a motherf*****!”

He used to drive me to futsal in this old Volkswagen Variant. I think it was from like 1969. But when I started traveling a lot with my team when I was about eight or nine years old, it was too expensive for us to pay for the gas and for lunch and everything, so my grandfather made a decision that changed my life.

He sold his car and used the money to pay for our bus tickets. Making a sacrifice like that, maybe you would think that he would feel like a martyr or say, “Oh, poor me.”

Hell no.

“My grandson is the greatest player in Rio! The greatest player in Brazil! Magnificent! Unstoppable!”

In his eyes, I never made a mistake. It was hilarious. He would come home from watching my matches, and he’d tell my father, “You have to come watch Marcelo! What he did today? Oh my God. It was magic. Incredible!”

But my father hardly ever got to see me play because he always had to work. He probably thought my grandfather was crazy. The funniest part was when I played like shit and we lost. He’d just shrug and say, “Ehh, whatever. You’ll figure it out later.”

He made me feel like I was Ronaldo when I was like nine years old. I swear to God, I would walk into the house with my chest out, like, Yes, I am a footballer.

“Hell, look at me. I don’t have a single dollar in my pocket, but I’m happy as a motherf*****!”

Then one day when I was maybe 12 years old, my grandfather showed up after my game driving this orange Volkswagen Beetle.

He says, “Get in, we’re driving home.”

I’m like, “What’s going on? Where’d you get that?”

He says, “Jogo do Bicho.”

In Rio, we have this thing called the animal lottery. It’s maybe not 100% legal, but hey — it’s the game of the people. You pick a number associated with an animal, like an ostrich or a rooster or whatever. Every day, there’s a new drawing. My grandfather won I don’t know how much money in the animal lottery, and he used it to buy the Beetle.

It was unbelievable. We drove everywhere in that car. But when I was 15, I was invited to go play real 11-a-side football with the Fluminense youth team. The problem was that the training camp was in Xerém, almost two hours away from my house, and it was going to be impossible for us to pay for the gas to drive there every day. So I decided to stay there in the dormitories. I was in Xerém all alone, away from my family. My grandpa would drive up on Saturday night so I could spend Sunday at home in Rio, and then he’d drive me back.

You gotta understand. He won the animal lottery. It wasn’t that much money. So this was an old Beetle from the ’70s. Every time you’d turn the steering wheel too far, the radio station would change.

After a while of going back and forth from Rio to Xerém, I was just worn out. I felt like a slave to football. I saw all my friends back home going to the beach and enjoying life, and all I did was train.

One day my grandfather came to pick me up and I told him, “I’m done. I’m quitting and coming home.”

He said, “No, no, no. You’re not doing that. After everything we have fought for?”

I said, “I’m stuck on the bench. I’m wasting my youth. I’m done.”   

And then he started crying.

He said, “Marcelo, just stay calm. You can’t quit now. I have to see you playing at the Maracanã one day.”

That really hit my heart. I told him, “Alright, I’ll play another week.’

Eventually, I gave up on giving up.

Two years later, with my grandfather in the stands, I walked out onto the pitch at the Maracanã with Fluminense’s first team. He knew. He had been betting on me from Day One, and he just knew.

When I turned 18, some teams in Europe started sniffing around. I heard that CSKA Moscow wanted me, and Sevilla. At the time, Sevilla was flying, and they had a lot of Brazilians, so I thought, Hey, that might be cool.

Then one day, I got a call from an agent. He said, “Do you want to go to Real Madrid?”

He said it just like that.

So I said, “Uhhh. Obviously, of course?”

But I didn’t know who this guy was.

He said, “Then you’re gonna go to Real Madrid. Write it down.”

A few weeks later, we were playing a game in Porto Alegre, and Real Madrid sent someone to meet with me at our hotel. So I go down into the lobby and this gentleman introduces himself. But he’s not wearing a Real badge. He doesn’t hand me a card or anything.

And then he starts asking me these questions like, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

I say, “Uh, yes.”

He says, “Who do you live with?”

I’m like, “Uh, my grandma?”

Again, no official card. No paperwork. So I was literally thinking to myself, Is this real? Am I about to be put on a plane to Siberia or something?

Two days later, I got a call saying that Real wanted me to come to Madrid to “do a medical.”

And still I was thinking, Is this actually legit?

You have to understand something about me. Until I was 16 years old, I didn’t even know there was a Champions League. I remember the moment exactly — I was sitting in the team room in Xerém, and some of the guys were watching a match on TV. It was Porto and Monaco. But the game actually looked different. At night, under all the bright lights, with all the fans. And the field was so beautiful and spotless … it was just amazing. In the Brazilian league, at least at that time, the lights weren’t so bright. The grass wasn’t so green.

This game looked like it was being broadcast from some other planet that I didn’t know about.

At some point, I was like, “Hey, what the hell is this league?”

My friend says, “Champions League.”

I said, “Champions of what?”

He’s like, “Dude, it’s the Champions League final.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. In Brazil, the Champions League was only played on the pay-per-view channels. Most people like me didn’t have access to it.

So, as I was saying, I’m on a plane to Madrid. ?

Remember, I had just turned 18. I swear to God that I thought I was just going there for a chat. When I arrived to meet with the club, I saw the contract on the table, with the Real Madrid crest on it and everything — and I signed that shit so fast.

Then the guys in the suits walked me straight out onto the field. They unveiled me to the media that day. I had no idea. My own family back in Brazil told me that they didn’t believe it was real until they saw the news on Globo Esporte:


I think the reason that everything seemed so unreal to me was that Roberto Carlos was my idol. To me, he was God. To come into the same team as Roberto, at the same position, I couldn’t believe it.

Walking into that locker room … you had Robinho, Cicinho, Júlio Baptista, Emerson, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos. Then of course Casillas, Raúl, Beckham, Cannavaro.

Little Marcelito walked in there like, Oh shit, I only know these guys from video games!

They could have eaten me alive. But let me tell you something important about Real Madrid. It is a special club in this way. Roberto Carlos walked up to me the first day and said, “Here’s my phone number. You need anything — anything — you call me.”

My first Christmas in Madrid, he invited my wife and I over to his house with his whole family. This guy is my idol, and we’re fighting for the same position at left back. Most guys wouldn’t have done that for the young kid. But that’s Roberto Carlos. He was confident. That’s the sign of a true man.

I took inspiration from him on the pitch, too. Roberto Carlos would go up and down that left wing like a beast. Whether you love me or you hate me, you know what you’re getting when I’m out there. I love to attack. No, not just attack. A-TTACK, you know?

And then later on, in the back? If we got a problem, we’ll fix it. We’ll figure it out. But first, we attack.

You can only play with this kind of freedom if you have a good understanding with your partners. Fabio Cannavaro would play on my side, and he’d say to me, “You can go, Marcelo. I’m here. Kick off your shoes. Relax. I’m Cannavaro. I got this.”

It’s like Casimiro does with me nowadays. “Go ahead, Marcelo. We’ll worry about the other stuff later.”

Ahhhh, Casimiro. He saved my life. I might play until I’m 45 with this guy by my side

When I first got to Madrid, Cannavaro helped me loosen up a lot. The rule was that I could attack as long as I sprinted back. But if I was late? Man, then it got real. The man could yell. In Brazil, we have an expression. Pegava no pé. It’s like, you’re hard on them for a reason.

Cannavaro was hard on me for a reason, and I love him for that.

Bernat Armangue/AP

Still, you learn very quickly at Real just how high the standard is. At the end of my first season, the director called me into his office. I was still young and crazy. I walked in with my baseball cap on, expecting that we were going to have a little chat.

He told me the club wanted me to go out on loan.

I understood what they were trying to do. They wanted me to have experience. But I thought, This is Real. If I leave now, they might never have me back.

He wanted me to sign this piece of paper.

The only thing I asked him was, “If I don’t sign this, then I don’t have to leave, right?”

He said, “Well, yeah. If you don’t sign, then you stick around. If the coach wants to keep you, then it is what it is. But I think you need to get some experience.”

I thought, They’re gonna have to bring goons in to beat me up to make me sign this.

I said, “I’ll get experience. Leave that to me.”

I thanked him and left the room.

Roberto Carlos left that summer and I started playing more. After that, little Marcelito took off.

Whenever I would go back home to Brazil for vacation, I’d go to visit my grandfather, and his cabinet kept getting more and more full.

Let me explain the cabinet.

When I was like six years old, he started a shrine to my career. He put all my team pictures and trophies in this big wooden cabinet, and whenever I scored a goal, he kept track in this book. Literally every single goal since I was playing in school. Whenever I started getting in the local newspapers for something, he would get out his big scissors and cut out the article and laminate it and everything.

So I came back from Real Madrid one summer, and I noticed he was still doing it. Still cutting out everything, still laminating. But we were winning La Liga! There was a lot of material coming out! He would get every paper. He wouldn’t miss a thing.

Power Sport Images/Getty Images

I always wanted to add two things to that cabinet: A photo of me holding the Champions League trophy, and a photo of me hanging out the front of an airplane after winning the World Cup, waving the Brazilian flag like Romario.

When we got to the 2014 Champions League final against Atletico, my grandfather was very sick. Before the final, I had started four matches in a row. I was ready to go. Unfortunately, the manager picked another player to start in my place against Atletico.

What do you want me to say? I was extremely sad at first. A little angry. But in my mind, I knew that there was something bigger waiting for me that night. I sat on the bench and waited. When we were down 1–0, I waited. In the 90th minute, I was still waiting. And then, in the 93rd minute Sergio Ramos saved us once again with a header at the death. I don’t know what it is with the guy. I think maybe it’s the hair.

When the manager called on me and Isco in extra time, I ran onto the field with a lot of anger — but the good kind of anger. I wanted to conquer. I wanted to leave everything on the field.

When I scored in extra time, I think my brain shut down, for real. I thought about taking my shirt off. Then I thought, Shit, you can’t take your shirt off, you’ll get a card. Then I got serious. Then I started to cry. It was craziness.

It was 10 years to the day after I had looked at the TV in Xerém and seen the lights and the green grass and said, “What the hell is this league?”

Ten years later, I was holding the damn trophy. La Décima — the 10th European Cup in Real’s history.

A few months after the final, my grandfather passed away in Rio.

I am very proud that he lived to see me lift the Champions League trophy. It was because of him that I got to that stage.  

Sometimes I wake up and I think, “Eleven seasons for Real Madrid. Eleven years playing for Brazil. For a crazy attacking fullback like me. How am I still here?”

If I told you it was normal, I would be lying.

Every day when I show up at training and park my car and walk into that Real Madrid locker room, it’s a giant emotion. Even if I don’t show it, inside I feel it so deeply. I am still in awe by it every day.

For me to be a part of this club’s legacy is priceless.

But I do have one final mission.

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

At the 2018 World Cup, Brazil is coming back. Write it down. Put a stamp on it. Mail it to yourself. With Tite as our manager, I truly believe we can bring the Brazilian flag back to the highest level.

I can tell you that Tite is a phenomenal person.

In fact, when he took the job, he called me and said, “I’m not promising you that I will call on you, but if I do, are you still willing to play for the national team?”

I said, “Professor, just the fact that you are calling me — for me that’s a giant emotion. I’ve been playing for the national team since I was 17. I would get on 20-hour flights sitting in the middle seat, and now that I’m sitting up in the good seat, you think I’m not gonna go? I’m available whenever you need me.”

That call for me was everything. It was the first time I ever got a call from a national team manager, and I’ve been in the national team for 11 years. I would kill for Tite, and I’m going to do everything I can do to put a little gold trophy in my grandfather’s cabinet.

And if I don’t, what can I say? I’ll still be Marcelo. Happy as a motherf*****.