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Whenever I score for Manchester City, my mother calls me. As soon as the ball hits the back of the net, the phone rings.
It doesn’t matter if she’s back home in Brazil or if she’s in the stadium watching me. She calls me every time. So I run to the corner flag, and I put my hand to my ear, and I say, “Alô Mãe!”
When I arrived at City, people thought this was really funny, and they kept asking me what it means.
There’s a quick answer, which is that I love my mother, and she’s always calling me.
And there’s a longer answer, which starts when I was a boy with a dream. In Brazil, there are millions of boys with a dream. But I was lucky, because I knew some superheroes.
See, I grew up in a neighborhood called Peri Jardim in northern São Paulo, and for some of the people there, life is a real struggle. I was lucky, because my mother worked extremely hard, and our family always had food to eat. But a lot of the kids I grew up with had it tougher. Sometimes they would only have one real meal a day, and that was the meal they got at the football pitch. To be honest, a lot of them wouldn’t even show up to play. They just came to hang out and eat the free ham sandwich and soda. It was always mortadella on white bread and a can of soda.
Sometimes, it was just the soda. That had to get you through the day, you know?
For me, all my dreams, everything I have now — everything starts with Clube Pequeninos. It means “Little Ones.” And it’s actually a lot more than a football club. Don’t think of beaches and palm trees and all that stuff. That’s not Peri. Our field was right outside of a military prison. The pitch was just dirt, there was no grass, and it was surrounded by all these big pines trees. The only people who played there other than the kids were the policemen from the prison.
When I was nine years old, I showed up there with my friend Fabinho, to see if we could play for the team. We walked through the woods with our football boots under our arms. And then we met the guy who changed our lives — José Francisco Mamede. He was the coach of the youngest team, and he said, “Sure, you can play in the next game.”
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There were no papers to sign, nothing. Because this club isn’t about trying to turn kids into a profit — it’s just about showing them something positive. Giving them something to eat. Keeping them out of the streets. Pequeninos is not a big club, so you have probably never heard about it. But I’ve gotta tell you, they perform miracles there.
Sometimes kids would ride the bus for an hour just to come for the meal and the canasta básica — the little food care boxes that the coaches would give to them to take back to their families. It has rice and beans and bread — the stuff you need to get by for the month.
It was funny because Coach Mamede had this old white Volkswagen Beetle — it must have been from the ’70s — and he would drive all the kids around in it, and we were so small that he could fit like 9 or 10 of us in there, plus the boots and the balls and the food care boxes and everything.
Man, what the club does for these kids … it’s incredible.
In Brazil, we have a name for people like Mamede: Heróis sem capes.
“Heroes without capes.”
And that’s really what he was for so many kids. Mamede and the other coaches … they gave us a chance in life.
For me, football was everything. The love of the ball was everything. Pequeninos only had training twice a week, so if I wasn’t there, I was playing in the streets of Peri. Sometimes I would stay out there kicking around with my friends until midnight — and then after, we’d stay on the streets talking about girls and making fun of one another until two in the morning.
At home, there wasn’t much to do. My father left the family right after I was born, so my mother was working every single day to support me and my brothers. She was a house cleaner in the city, and when she came home at the end of the day, she had to share a bed with me and one of my brothers.
Some kids had videogames. Me, I had the ball and my imagination. And it was actually cool because I had a real childhood out there. We’d have these big football tournaments where every street would have a team, and the trophy would be a can of soda. Man, it was a war for that can of soda. It’s all you got, you know? For real, that soda meant more to us than the Copa Libertadores.
If you won the title, you’d be passing the can around, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted. Everybody would take their sip and pass it on. The trophy soda, it’s 10 times better than champagne, man. Ten times better.
MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images
When I was 13, something happened that really marked me. Our Pequeninos team entered this big tournament in São Paulo, and we were good, man. There were games in the early rounds where we beat these bigger clubs by 12 or 13 goals. But then we got to the final, and we had to play Portuguesa de Desportos, which is a legitimate professional club. The only reason they entered the tournament was so that they could scout the kids from the smaller teams. And, you know, it was like in the movies. We’re this tiny club that plays outside the prison, and they’re this big club with real kits and everything. But me and my friends were like, “Nah, bro — we’re gonna win. We got this.”
Then the storm came. That night, it rained so hard that we woke up the next morning and they were talking about maybe cancelling the match.
By the time we kicked off, the whole field was mud. It was crazy. We started running and we were falling all over the field. None of our guys could stay on their feet. But somehow the Portuguesa players were fine. They were staying up.
They had the real metal cleats. The ones you can screw in when it rains.
Our boots were the cheap ones with the little plastic cleats. They were all worn down.
And I remember, in that moment, it was just like … Damn. This is life.
We still gave our lives to try to win, but we ended up losing 4-2. I’ll never forget watching Portuguesa celebrate with the trophy. Football is just like anything in life. It’s not fair. So you still have to find a way, even when it’s not fair.
It was the perfect lesson at the perfect time, because the next years of my life were very difficult. In Brazil, if you have dreams of being a professional footballer, you’re usually in a big club’s youth academy by 12 or 13 years old. But for some reason, things weren’t working out for me. São Paulo FC gave me a trial, and they liked me, but then they told me that they couldn’t offer me a bed at the academy. The club was was too far away from my home, so if I took the bus there every day, I’d have to drop out of school, and my mother … hahahaha …
Well, my mother was definitely not going to accept that. She was all about school.
I owe everything to my mom during this period. Because a lot of kids in Brazil, when they’re from humble means, they have to start working in order to help the family. They can’t do football and school and work. So the dream dies for them at that point.
But my mother, she believed in me. For whatever reason, she believed. She told me to keep going, no matter what I had to do.
Marcello Zambrana/AGIF via AP
So at 13 years old, I started playing with grown men in the Várzea.
O.K. — everybody in São Paulo knows what I’m talking about right now (and they probably just started laughing). But for everybody else, I will explain….
The Várzea is kind of like street basketball in America, or like the semi-professional football leagues in Europe. The pitches are all dirt, and you’re playing against the marmanjo — the “hard men.” It’s known for being extremely physical. There was a lot of nasty stuff going down on the field.
I’ll never forget one moment ….
We were playing a very important match against this big team. They’d always had one of the best teams in the Várzea, but they’d been out of the league for a few years for reasons that I don’t want to get into. There’s probably kids reading 🙂
This was their first year back in the league, and they were playing us in a game to qualify for a big tournament. I remember all their players were looking at me before the match like, “Who is this little-ass kid? Is this serious?”
It was serious.
Four minutes into the match, I dribbled their best defender and scored a goal, and I remember them all looking at me like, O.K., kid. We’re going to make your life hell.
So they started beating me up every time I touched the ball. They got pretty crazy — like they were really coming after me to hurt me. This one short midfielder on their team was known to be a bully, and he kept saying, “I’m going to break your legs if you try to dribble me again.”
So I got the ball … and I dribbled him again.
It was like the NBA. I broke his ankles. I made him fall right on his ass.
Now they were looking at me like they were going to actually kill me.
But … what can I say? When I have the ball at my feet, I’m in different world. So I got the ball again, and I did a no-look dummy pass to my teammate for a goal.
The crowd was going crazy.
The game ended up finishing 2-2, and we won on penalty kicks. They were so pissed. At the whistle, the bully turned to me and said, “I told you I was going to break your legs, kid. I’ll see you in the parking lot.”
He was serious. It was pretty intense. I remember thinking, Wow … I might not get out of here. Luckily, though, my teammates protected me. They all gathered around me and got me to the parking lot without any trouble, and I made it home safe.
But that’s not even the end of the story. Last Christmas, I went home to see my family, and I had to go to the bank to do some paperwork. So I pull my car into the parking lot, and the guy taking the tickets in the little booth …
This guy looks familiar.
And he’s giving me this look, like he knows me.
He hands me my ticket.
But he’s still looking at me.
And then he says, “Hey — little kid! Little kid!”
I’m looking back and him, like, Huh?
He says, “Remember me? The Várzea, bro! I was going to break your legs!”
I’m like, Oh my god. I didn’t know what he was going to do.
And then he says, “Man, I was really going to break your legs. Can you believe that?”
And I was trying to play it cool, like, “Come on, bro. No you weren’t. I know you were kidding.”
And he says, “No, bro. No. I was really going to break your legs. And now you play for my favorite team, man! I love you, bro! I can’t believe it! Can you imagine if I had broken your legs?”
We laughed, and I took a picture with him.
We have an expression in Brazil, and it’s the only way to describe what happened to me. My life turned from water into wine. Five years ago, I was playing in the Várzea just trying to survive, just trying to make it into a big club in Brazil. I played with a lot of great players who now drive buses, or work at the supermarket, or do construction. And it’s not because they weren’t talented or they didn’t work hard. A lot of it is about luck and opportunity. Some people, they need to make a living. They can’t keep pursuing their dreams.
If I didn’t have my mother’s support, I would probably be doing the same right now.
Instead, I got the opportunity to try out for Palmeiras when I was 15, and everything just took off from there. I can’t explain it. It felt like destiny, in a way. God wrote everything perfectly. I stayed on with the youth team, and I got to sign my first actual contract. From there, it was like a rocket ship. I got into the first-team, and I did really well, and then I got called up for Brazil at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
When I got the call, it was an overwhelming emotion.
To make you understand that moment for me … only two years before that, I was on the streets of Peri painting the curbs yellow and green for the 2014 World Cup. The guys from the neighborhood who could draw really well would outline the big murals on the walls — with the faces of the Brazilian players like David Luiz and Neymar.
Two years later, I was playing in the Olympics with Neymar. I can remember the feeling of putting on the yellow national team shirt for the first time. It was the feeling of conquering your dreams.
That 2016 tournament was so special for Brazilians, because the Olympic gold was the only trophy that the Country of Football had never won before. I remember the weight of the tournament was so heavy — not just because it was in Rio, but because of what had happened at the last World Cup. After we didn’t play well in our first two games, the criticism was really intense, especially on Neymar. I really admire Neymar so much for how he handled everything and how he led our team.
You know, before that tournament, I was just a fan of Neymar, like everybody else. He’s an incredible footballer, which everyone knows. But getting to really know him during that time … it was so special, because of the kind of person he is. The way that he treats everybody surprised me a lot — because even in the short amount of time that I’ve lived in football, I’ve seen so many guys who are not even amazing players, who haven’t won anything, being mascarado. This means a person who wears a mask. They’re one way to the public, and another in the dressing room. But with Neymar, he treated everybody like his brother. He was a huge reason that we were able to come together and ignore the pressure and play for one another.
When we won the gold medal, it was an incredible moment for us, and for the country. Before the tournament, Neymar got a tattoo, and I was inspired to get a similar one, because it really says everything in one picture. It’s a little kid, and he’s standing at the bottom of a hill, looking up at the favelas. He’s just holding a football under his arm and dreaming.
That’s not just me, and it’s not just Neymar. It’s so many Brazilians. And that’s what winning gold meant to us.
Chung Sung-Jun/FIFA via Getty Images
I want to do everything I can to make the 2018 World Cup squad, of course, but Brazil is Brazil. There’s so much competition, and nothing is certain. That was a big reason why I decided to come to Manchester City. I know that I need to keep growing as a player.
I will tell you, it’s very different from Brazil. You don’t see much of the sun. I had a few offers to go to other clubs, and warmer places, but for me, the decision to come to Manchester City was all about playing under Pep Guardiola.
This is my first time coming to a country that is really cold and where I don’t speak the language. It’s a challenge to be understood, and it can be lonely in that sense. However, when Mr. Guardiola called me as I was deciding where to sign, he told me that he was counting on me, and that I would be important to the future of City.
That call was really important to me because it showed that he really cared about my future. When you have enough of these conversations, you can tell when someone is being real with you. I could tell Mr. Guardiola was being genuine — and in football, that means a lot.
When he said this, I didn’t think twice. My decision was made. It was City.
But before I left for Manchester City, I had to do one final thing. I had to close a chapter in my life.
So I went back to the field where Pequeninos play, with boots under my arm, just like when I was nine years old. But this time, I had 250 pairs of the really nice boots for the kids.
Now, when any of the big clubs play Pequeninos on a wet pitch, they better watch out. There’s no excuses.
I will not lie. When I first came to Manchester City, I felt lost about everything. My mother was going back and forth between England and Brazil, and it was extremely hard to be away from her, because she’s been everything to me. She was both a mother and a father to me when I was growing up.
I remember when I was playing for Pequeninos, I’d see some of the kids after the match with their fathers, and I was alone. That was heavy for me. It marked me. But now, when someone asks about my father, I say that my mother is my father. She did everything for me and my brothers.
She was another hero without a cape.
So when I score a goal now, even when she’s not in the stadium, I “pick up the phone” and talk to her.
When we were kids, my mom would be calling me all the time to find out where I was, and if I didn’t pick up, she’d start calling all my friends.
Rex Features via AP Images
When I pick up the phone, it is in honor of my mother and our struggle. But it is also in honor of my friends and family and Coach Mamede and everyone in Brazil who helped me get here.
I was always a dreamer. But even in my best dreams, I did not think I would be living what I am today. I know there are so many kids who will be painting the streets for the World Cup this summer. Maybe they don’t play for a big club. Maybe they’re being told that they can’t make it.
I would tell them to never stop fighting.
Four years before I walked out of the tunnel at the Etihad, I was still playing in Várzea — and guys were telling me they were going to break my legs in the parking lot.
Seriously, your life might be mortadella sandwiches and soda right now. But if you keep running after your dreams … man, who knows what can happen?
Water can turn to wine.
So, to all those kids … If you made it to the end of my story, I have a final message for you, and I really mean this …
Don’t ever stop dreaming.
Oh, and do one more thing for me, OK?
Call your ma. She misses you.