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I couldn’t breathe. I was trying not to panic. This was in the dressing room right before the Champions League final against Liverpool in 2018.
It felt like I had something stuck in my chest. This huge pressure. Do you know that feeling? I am not talking about nerves. Nerves are normal in football. This was something different.
I am telling you, brother, it felt like I was suffocating.
Everything had started the night before the final. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking only of the match. It was funny, actually, because my wife, Clarice, gets so mad at me for biting my nails, and she finally got me to stop a few years ago. But I woke up the morning of the final, and all my nails were gone.
A little bit of nerves is normal in football. I don’t care who you are, if you’re not feeling anxious before playing in a final, you’re not a real person. I don’t care who you are. You’re just trying not to shit your pants. It’s the truth, brother!
For me, the pressure was the most intense before the Liverpool final. Maybe people will think that is strange. We had already won two trophies in a row. Everybody on the outside wanted Liverpool to win. So what’s the problem?
Well, when you have a chance to make history, you feel that weight. But for some reason, I was really feeling it. I had never had such intense anxiety before, so I didn’t know what was happening. I thought about calling for the doctor, but I was worried that he wouldn’t let me play.
And I had to play, 100%.
I had to prove something to myself.
A few days before the final a former Real Madrid player had said something about me on TV that stuck in my head. He’d been asked what he thought about the final, and he said, “I think Marcelo should buy a poster of Mohamed Salah, put it up on his wall, and pray to it every night.”
After 12 years and 3 Champions League trophies, he disrespected me like this on live TV. This comment was meant to sink me. But it gave me so much motivation.
I wanted to make history. I wanted little kids in Brazil to look at me like I used to look at Roberto Carlos. I wanted them to start growing their hair out because of Marcelo, you know?
So I was sitting at my locker, struggling to breathe, and I thought to myself, How many kids in the world play ball? How many of them dream of playing in a Champions League final? Millions, millions, millions. Calm yourself. Lace up your boots, brother.
I knew that if I could just make it out to the pitch, I would be O.K. For me, nothing bad can happen on a football pitch. You could be growing up in chaos, everything could be going crazy around you, but if you have a ball at your feet, you stop thinking. Everything is quiet, peaceful.
When I finally stepped onto the grass, I was still having trouble breathing, and I thought, If I have to die out here tonight, f*** it. I’ll die.
Maybe that sounds crazy to some people, but you have to understand what this moment means to me. When I was growing up … Real Madrid? The Champions League? It was bullshit! A fairy tale! It wasn’t real! Beckham, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, those guys were as real as Batman. You cannot meet them in real life. You cannot shake the hand of a comic-book hero, you know what I’m saying?When I finally stepped onto the grass, I was still having trouble breathing, and I thought, If I have to die out here tonight, f*** it. I’ll die.
Those guys walk on air. They float above the grass.
And nothing has changed. It’s the same for kids now.
This is a true story: I have this kid who works as a gardener at my house in Madrid. One day, Roberto Carlos came over to see me, and we were hanging out, and the kid walked in.
He completely froze. He was a statue.
I said, “This is Roberto Carlos.”
The kid was staring at him … he said, “No! It’s not. It can’t be.”
Roberto said, “It’s me.”
Man, the kid had to touch Roberto’s head to verify that it was the real Roberto Carlos.
Finally he said, “Roberto, it’s you!”
This is what it means to us. It’s different.
Seriously, when I played my first Champions League match for Real Madrid, I heard the anthem and I said to myself, “Gee, brother, it’s like in the video game! The camera is going to come do a close-up, so you can’t laugh!”
This was my reality, you understand?
Listen, a few years ago I went back to Brazil to see my family, and I took one of the match balls from the Champions League final to my friend’s amateur match. My buddies were kicking it around, and then I said, “It’s the real ball from the final, you know?”
They looked at this ball like it was a rock from the moon.
They said, “Bullshit!!”
All these grown men, they were like little kids. They really could not believe it was the real thing. They didn’t even want to touch it. Like it was precious. Like it was holy.
Do you understand now? For little Marcelinho from Rio to have the chance to win three Champions Leagues in a row? Come on. It was pressure, pressure, pressure. I felt it in my bones, brother. I am not afraid to tell the truth.
When we went out for the warmup against Liverpool, I still couldn’t calm myself. But then we lined up for the kickoff, under all the lights, and I saw the football in the center circle, and everything changed.
I saw the holy football. I saw the rock from the moon.
The weight was lifted off my chest. I was at peace.
There was nothing but the ball.
I cannot tell you much about the match. I just remember two things very vividly.
Joosep Martinson/UEFA/Getty Images
With about 20 minutes left, when we were winning 2–1, the ball went out of play for a corner and I thought to myself, “A Salah poster on my wall, yeah? Thank you, my brother. Thank you for the motivation.”
Then with about 10 minutes left, we were winning 3–1, and it really hit me that we were going to be champions.
The ball went out of play for a throw-in, and I had a moment to think, and.…
Brother, this is true: I started crying. I was sobbing, right on the pitch. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.I was sobbing, right on the pitch. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.
After a match? Yes.
Holding a trophy? Yes.
But not during a match.
It was just for 10 seconds, and then the ball was thrown back in play, and I thought, “Shit, I have to mark my man!”
I came back to reality and went on playing, like a child.
As athletes, it is our responsibility to be role models. But we are not superheroes. This is why I am telling you what happened to me. This is real life. We are human beings. We bleed and we worry, like anyone else.
Four Champions League trophies in five years, and every single time it was brutal. You see us with the trophy, smiling, but you don’t see everything that went into the story.
When I think of all the finals, there is a beautiful movie that plays in my head. But the images flash in reverse — from the end of the story to the beginning.
The 2017 Final against Juventus, the movie plays: The boys are sitting around the table at the pre-match lunch — me, Casemiro, Danilo and Cristiano. Total silence. Nobody saying anything. Everybody just staring at their food. You can hear people’s stomachs making funny noises, you know? But nobody is saying anything. It’s really tense.
Finally, Cristiano says, “Question, guys.”
We say, “Yes, brother?”
Cristiano says, “Is it just me who is feeling this pressure in the stomach?”
And everybody replies at the same time, “Me too, brother! Me too!”
Nobody wanted to admit it! But if this guy is feeling it, then we’re all O.K. to admit it, you know? Cristiano is ice-cold. A machine. And even he is shitting himself!
It broke all the tension. Only he could have done that.
We shouted to the waiter, “Brother, please bring us some sparkling water! We need some help to get this food down!”
After that, it was all laughter.
As we got up to leave for the stadium, Cristiano told us exactly how the match was going to be. He said, “In the beginning, it will be difficult. But in the second half, we will win peacefully.”
I will never forget this. He predicted it.
Then he said, “Gonna take it down, man. Gonna take it down.”
We took it down, man.
I have this image of his face in my mind. It is permanently recorded.
It is so beautiful. These are the stories that I will tell my grandkids.
And, honestly, in 30 years, when I tell them that I played on the same grass as Cristiano, as Messi, they will probably say, “Grandpa, you’re telling us they scored 50 goals in a season? You are lying. You are senile. We need to get grandpa to the doctor!”
The 2016 final against Atletico, the movie plays: Griezmann is running down the wing, and I’m marking him. The ball goes out of play, and for a moment, I hear this little voice cry out from the stands.
Normally, you do not hear anything during a match. You do not see the fans. You think of nothing but your job. Because of this, you feel no anxiety. You’re free. But for this match in Milan, they had the families of the players sitting by our bench, very close to the pitch.
All of a sudden, I heard this tiny voice in the distance, so clear.
Denis Doyle/UEFA/Getty Images
“Go, Daddy, go!! Go, Daddy!!”
It was my son, Enzo.
In that moment, I was cramping, and hearing his voice gave me so much strength.
When the match went to penalties, I can see the image clearly in my head: Lucas Vasquez picking up the ball and spinning it on his finger, as if we were just playing in the park. This quiet kid, doing something with so much balls. I remember thinking, This little brat! If he doesn’t score, we’ll beat him up.
Then I can see Lucas scoring, super cool.
I can see us all hugging so tight, waiting for Atletico to take their penalty. Casemiro on his knees, praying. Pepe crying like a child.
Then I tell Cristiano, “Juanfran will miss, and you’ll win it for us, brother.”
I see Juanfran missing, and Cristiano winning it for us.
I see myself sprinting 20 kilometers per hour toward where my family is sitting, to hug my wife and my sons.
I look completely crazy with happiness.
The 2014 final against Atletico, the movie plays: I’m sitting on the bench, so pissed that I’m not starting. But I keep repeating this phrase in my head that my grandfather always said. He was a huge character, world-famous for his sayings. Before he would play football, he used to tell his friends, “I’m going to leave everything on this field. I’m going to leave my beard, my hair, my mustache!”
In the second half, I start warming up before the coaches even tell me to get warm. I just grab my bib and say f*** it. I keep repeating to myself, “If I get into this game, I’m going to lay it all on the field. My hair. My beard. My mustache.”
Finally, the trainer turns to tell me to get warm, but I’m already warm. There is steam coming out of my ears! I’m smoking, brother!
To this day, I cannot tell you if I played badly or well when I finally got on the pitch. I just know that I left everything on the grass — my anger, my will, even the coffee I drank before the match.
I know that the vision that everyone has from this match is 92:48.
We were dead, cramping, defeated. And Sergio brought us back to life.
But this is not the movie that plays in my head.
The movie that plays in my head is after we won, in the dressing room. I am speaking to one of our kitmen, Manolín. He tells me, “Marcelo, we were in the tunnel in the 90th minute, and we saw the kitmen from Atletico. They were already bringing out the Campeones T-shirts! They were already bringing out the champagne!”
He is laughing, and crying tears of joy.
I tell him, “Now I can die happy.”
This is the image that I will never forget.
The trophies go in the cabinet, but the memories go in our hearts.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune (2)
Four Champions League trophies in five years, and every single time, it was brutal. You don’t see the pressure, only the results.
At Real Madrid, there is no, “Ah, well, tomorrow.”
No, brother. Today.
Last season was a failure. We know this. We won nothing. Zero. It was a terrible experience. But my head is held high, because it has given us hunger again. I feel a passion like when I was a young kid.
You know, when I got on the plane to Spain when I was 18, I didn’t know that I was going to sign a contract for real, right then. I thought Real Madrid were bringing me over to take a look at me, maybe do a physical. I came over with my future wife, my grandfather and my best friend. The four of us and a GPS. That’s all we had. The only other person in Brazil who knew where I was going was my father.Last season was a failure. We know this. We won nothing. Zero. It was a terrible experience. But my head is held high, because it has given us hunger again.
We didn’t want to get everybody’s hopes up.
Real Madrid is a fairytale, remember?
You don’t get on a plane and tell your family, “Ah yeah, I’m going to play for Real Madrid, I’ll see you later!”
I’ll bullshit! You’re dreaming, brother!
I remember sitting in the offices at the Real Madrid facility after my physical, and one of the trainers said, “Well, Marcelo, you’ll have to go buy a suit and tie for tomorrow.”
And I said to him — for real, I swear to you this is true — I said, “Gee, brother, a suit and tie? What for?”
And the guy said, “What do you mean what for? For the presentation. At the Bernabéu, son.”
When they put the contract in front of me, I signed my name so fast.
Bam. Marcelo Vieira da Silva Júnior.
I would have signed it in my blood, brother.
I remember it was a five-year contract, and I made it my goal to be here for 10.
Well, it has been 13 years now, and little Marcelinho from Rio is still here.
Valerio Pennicino/UEFA/Getty Images
I am sorry to those who doubt me, but I am not going anywhere. For me to be the longest-serving foreign player to wear the Real Madrid shirt is more than an honor. It is a fairytale. It is nonsense. It is insane.
I hope now, after reading this, you understand what it means to me.
You have to understand where I come from, brother.
The final movie plays in my head: I am eight years old. We are out of money. My family can’t afford the gasoline to drive me to football every day. So my grandfather makes the sacrifice that changes my life. He sells his old Volkswagen Variant and uses the money for bus fare. Every single day, he takes me to training on the public bus.
Every day, on the crowded 410, in the heat, side-by-side, all across Rio.
Every day, no matter how I am playing, he tells me, “You are the best. You are Marcelinho! One day, you are going to play for Brazil. One day, I will see you in the Maracanã.”
This image from 25 years ago plays in my mind in 4K resolution. I can still smell the inside of the bus.
My grandfather gave his whole life for my dream. His friends used to tease him that he was broke, and he would say one of his world-famous lines. He’d turn out his pants pockets and say, “Hell, look at me. I don’t have a single penny, but I’m happy as a motherf*****!”
He believed in me. We were partners.
This is why I broke down in tears during the Liverpool match, when the ball went out of play.
Everything came flooding back to me.
The movie played in my head.
Listen, I don’t know how many more seasons I have left at Madrid. But I can promise you — hand to God — that I am going to leave everything on the field this season.
Like my grandfather said: My hair, my beard, my mustache.
There are so many stories behind the scenes that people don’t know. I want to share these stories so that you can understand what we struggle with, what we laugh about, and how far we have come from. I have a lot more stories to tell. For that, you will have to wait a little bit. Coming soon, brother. Coming soon.
But for now, I have one final message for those who have doubted us.
Real Madrid will be back.
You can put that on a poster.
Stick it on your wall.
Pray to it every night.
We will be back.