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Messi came walking up towards me. It was last June, and we were playing Argentina in a friendly in Australia. We had just won a free kick, and I was standing over the ball with Willian and another player. I wasn’t going to take it. I was just the decoy.
All of a sudden, Messi walks straight up to me, looks me in the eye, and says, “So … are we going to Barcelona or not?”
That was it. No explanation, nothing. He turned around and walked away.
I didn’t even have time to think. I just said, “If you want to take me, I’ll go!”
It takes a lot for me to lose my focus in a football match, but from the time Messi said those words to the time Willian kicked the ball, all I could think about was, Is he serious? Why did he say that? Oh God, what is going on?
I was playing in the Chinese Super League for Guangzhou Evergrande at the time, and nobody would believe that Barcelona were interested in me. I thought maybe he was joking, like he was trying to mess with my head or something. But we were just playing a friendly … so maybe not?
After the match, I gave the security guard my shirt and asked him to give it to Messi. He came back from the Argentina dressing room with Messi’s shirt for me.
So then I thought, Wait, is this real?
But after our tour of Australia, I went back to China and didn’t hear anything about a transfer. A whole month passed, and I forgot all about it. I was just enjoying my football in the Super League. Then, in July, we started hearing all these rumors that Barcelona were interested in me.
I called my agent and said, “Boss, for God’s sake, I’m going crazy! Just tell me if this is real or not!”
He said, “Well, it’s complicated. Maybe, maybe not.”
I was texting with Neymar, asking him, “Man, is this serious? Do you know anything? I’m going crazy, for real.”
But he was going through his own transfer situation, so he wasn’t really sure.
You know how it is with transfers these days. You can’t really trust anything. There’s a lot of things that go into it, and honestly, I was really enjoying my time in China. My wife and I had an amazing life there, and I was playing really good football. Before the Barça rumors, I was totally at peace there.
By August, the transfer window was about to close, and it seemed like it was over. We were playing for the Chinese championship that weekend, and we had friends from Brazil staying at our apartment and everything.
That night, my agent called me and said, “The deal is done. You have to come to Barcelona to sign the papers.”
And, seriously, I didn’t believe it. I said to him, “Is this real? Did Barcelona pay? Are you fooling me?”
He said, “No, no, no. It’s real. You have to be there tomorrow.”
Did I mention that it was four in the morning?
Well, it was four in the morning.
I said, “I can’t! My friends are here from Brazil. It’s four in the morning!”
He said, “It’s Barça! Bring them with you! Just get on the next plane, man!”
So I packed a bag and went to the airport, and in the back of the car, as I was staring out the window at the highway, I thought to myself … Messi!
But seriously, if you think my transfer from Guangzhou to Barcelona is crazy, then you don’t know my whole story. That was just Chapter 10. My whole story is way more unreal.
When I was 19 years old, I quit football completely.
For about a month, I stayed at home in a depression. This was in the summer of 2008. Messi was on his way to winning the treble with Barcelona, and I was on my couch, thinking about what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I had just come home to São Paulo from playing overseas in Lithuania and Poland, and it was a really traumatic experience.
When I arrived in Lithuania, it was enjoyable at first. I played in Vilnius, which is an old medieval town like the kind you see in the movies. It was very different from Brazil, and I didn’t speak the language, but it was really peaceful. Then one day, I was walking in town with one of my Brazilian teammates, Rodney, and this group of guys walked over to us very aggressively, and …
Well, it still angers me to talk about it to this day … but they started imitating monkeys and harassing us.
I mean, we were not bothering anybody. We were just going to the bakery.
It was the first time in my life that I experienced racism like that. And unfortunately, it was not the only time. In the streets, people would bump into us to try to provoke us. They would call us names. At matches, the opposing fans would make monkey noises and throw coins at us. It was a sickening feeling.
We knew that it was not our country, so we had to accept it and try to move on. But nobody deserves to be treated like that. After a season there, I left to play in Poland, but I was wounded by the experience. It was just a very lonely time. I left Brazil at 17 years old in order to give my family a better life, but when I returned home two years later, I was completely disillusioned with football.
I told my parents, my ex-wife, my agent, “I’m done.”
And you know what my ex-wife said to me? She probably saved my career. She said, “Quit football? But you don’t know how to do anything else. You don’t even know how to change a lamp!”
I said, “I’ll learn! It can’t be that hard!”
She said, “But think about your parents. It would be disrespectful to them, and everything they’ve given you.”
Vanessa Montero/The Players' Tribune
She was right. Ever since I was five years old, running around the streets of Zona Norte with a football, my mother has been by my side in every situation. When I was a kid, I used to love playing football so much that I genuinely wouldn’t be able to fall asleep at night. I would just stare at the wall, thinking, Damn, I can’t wait for it to be morning so I can have the ball at my feet again!
After my experience in Europe, I fell out of love with football. But I knew that it would really hurt my parents if I quit, so I decided to play another season. I restarted my career from the very bottom, with Pão de Açúcar in the Brazilian Fourth Division. Let’s just say it was not exactly the Champions League. We would travel eight hours by bus to play matches, and it would be 40℃ at kickoff. In the beginning, I said to myself, “You’re not going to make it. You should learn how to build houses or something, because this is not going to work out.”
But slowly, slowly, slowly … just by training and playing every day, I erased the negativity, and I was happy again. I climbed from the Fourth Division to the Second Division and then to the First Division with Corinthians.
It was there that I met a man who changed my life and became like a second father to me — Professor Tite. I get emotional when I speak about Tite, because we are connected in a way that is about more than football. He would look me in the eye, and he would know when I was fine, and when I was not doing good. We didn’t even have to say any words.
There’s a funny story that not a lot of people know about that explains our relationship. Of course, we had a fantastic season at Corinthians in 2011. We won the Campeonato Brasileiro, so there were offers coming in for a lot of our players, and Inter Milan wanted to sign me.
However, it was some crazy situation where my agent called me and said that Inter needed an answer in 15 minutes. This was right before training, so I ran to Tite’s office and I told him what was happening, and I said, “Boss, I don’t know … It’s Inter. It’s one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
And Tite said, “Look, the decision is yours. Of course I want you to stay, but it’s your life. You go to the locker room and think about it. And when you decide, come out to the field. If you’re going to stay, you make this gesture (thumbs up) And if you’re going to leave, you make this gesture (thumbs down). That’s how I’ll know.”
I called my agent and I told him my decision, and he said, “Are you sure?!”
I said, “I’m sure.”
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
I walked out onto the field, and Tite sees me, and I waited two seconds just to add some drama, and then I gave him the thumbs up that I was going to stay.
And he sighed and said, “God, I thought you were going to leave!”
I worked with Tite for four years at Corinthians, and it was a golden period in my life and in my work. When I eventually left to go play for Tottenham in the Premier League, I went through a difficult time in my second season, and a lot of people lost faith in me. But one person who always believed in me was Tite.
Actually, I would like to clear up something about my time at Spurs. I really cannot say a bad word about the club or the staff or the president. It is true that it was a very difficult period for me as a player, and there were times when I did not want to leave my apartment in London because I was so stressed about not playing. For a footballer, not playing is like a fish not being in the water. I felt as though I were suffocating. For whatever reason, I was not in Mauricio Pochettino’s plans. I didn’t fit his philosophy, I guess. But we never even had a disagreement. One day, I went to the club president and told him that if they got an offer close to what they paid for me, that I would like to move on. They were very professional about it.
In the summer, Spurs got a permanent offer from Guangzhou Evergrande, and I thought, “Why not?”
My friends all thought I was insane.
They were texting me, “China? What are you gonna do in China?”
I texted back, “China, man! Let’s see!”
I live by something that Dani Alves once told me, when I was going through a difficult time in my life.
He said, “We are just kids playing in the rain, man. If it goes wrong, so what? Is it the end of the world? No, man. We’ll just go find somewhere else to play.”
I’ve played football my entire life, all over the world, and the one thing I’ve learned is that the important thing is to enjoy your work. You have to go to sleep at night staring at the wall, thinking, Damn, I can’t wait for it to be morning so I can have the ball at my feet again!
You can only play your best football in these conditions. If you’re playing in the best league in the world and you’re miserable, what is the point? People said that my career was over when I went to Guangzhou Evergrande but … well, when I was riding the bus in the Fourth Division in Brazil, nobody even knew who I was! I was in the grave, man. I was dead to the world.
So I was going to play in China for Felipe Scolari? Does that sound so bad? I was happy about it, for real.
Alex Livesey/FIFA/Getty Images
Of course, at the time, I was not dreaming about playing in another World Cup. I definitely was not dreaming of playing for Barcelona. My goal was simply to play good football, every day. When Tite was named manager of Brazil in 2016, I was extremely happy for him, because he deserved it. I used to tell him back when we were at Corinthians, “Professor, you always talk about players who are deserving. Well, I know you’re deserving of coaching the national team one day.”
But, to be honest, I did not expect him to call on me.
Then one day he sent his son, Matheus, to China to watch me play, because we were doing very well as a club, winning a lot of trophies, and I think he was just curious, like “What’s going on with Paulinho in China?” And it turned out to be a comedy because when Matheus arrived, I told my wife, “Barbara, please, please, please make sure that Matheus gets to the match O.K. Because the traffic is crazy sometimes and it’s very confused to get to the stadium and I need him to see me play.”
But for some reason, there were no taxis available, so they arrived to the match in a tuk-tuk. It was crazy. That day, I didn’t try to do anything special. I just played how I always play, because I thought, “They know me.”
After that match, I waited … and I waited … not expecting anything. And then a few weeks later, there was a convocation for the national team for World Cup qualifying, and my name was called.
Everyone in the media said, “How can Tite call Paulinho? He’s in China!”
Tite gave me the chance to show the world that I was not dead. And I think I showed my value many times in qualifying. In football, things happen in a fraction of a second. I’m not the most technical player, but that fraction of a second is where I have always excelled. Something happens, and bang … you can’t even think. You have to be there. You have to seize it.
There was a joke that Tite liked to say in training. He’s looking at all these incredible players — Neymar, Coutinho, Jesus, Marcelo — and he says, “You always have to be ready when we’re attacking, even though we all know that the rebound is always going to find its way to Paulinho.”
They joke that the ball follows me around like magic.
And I said, “No, Professor! You always talk about deserving. You gotta be there to score!”
When I was named to the squad for the World Cup, it was not just a moment of joy for me, but also for my entire family.
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
But I want to share something that many people don’t know. A lot of people look from the outside and they say, “Oh, wow, you went from China to Barcelona. What an incredible story. What a miracle.”
But, in fact, after I signed for Barcelona, it was one of the most dramatic moments of my life. At the time, Barbara was pregnant with twins. They were due to be born in December, right before Christmas. One day in October, she told me that she was in a lot of pain and that she needed me to drive her to the doctor right away. She always refused to go to the hospital for anything, so I knew that something was wrong.
When we arrived at the hospital, they did some tests and took her straight into the ICU. Our twins were trying to come into the world, but it had only been 28 weeks. It was extremely dangerous. The doctors wanted her to hold on for two more weeks before giving birth in order to give their lungs a chance to develop.
I remember calling my parents back in Brazil and saying, “What will happen? Will they live?”
It was terrifying.
But my wife was a warrior. She held on for seven days … 14 days … 20 days …
A lot of nights, I slept in the armchair in the room. But during the day, I had to keep playing football. On October 30, I had to go play a Champions League match against Olympiakos in Greece. There was nothing I could do. I had to get on the plane.
That night, I got a call from Barbara to say that our daughter, Sofia, and our son, Zé Pedro, were born.
My wife had held on for 21 days. I cried and cried. I wanted to be there to see them come into the world. But they were here. That’s what mattered.
They both needed to stay in an incubator at the hospital for two months. They were not strong enough to come home. In those times, football seems very unimportant. People were talking about how well I was doing on the pitch for Barcelona, but privately, it was an extremely difficult time. There were days when I would be getting ready for training, and I would think of my children hooked up to tubes at the hospital.
I have to give all the credit to my wife. She was the hero. Me, I just had to play football. She had to fight for the lives of our children. It is unimaginable the strength that a mother can find when her children are in danger.
On December 23, Sofia and Zé Pedro came home.
That was the greatest Christmas gift I ever received.
People hear about my story, and they say, “Man, you went from China to Barcelona. You’re going to the World Cup. How can you explain it?”
I don’t know. Football is full of ups and downs. It’s unpredictable. In many ways, I feel like I am the same player I was when I went to the Super League. Going from China to Barcelona is incredible, but it’s not a miracle. It’s not life or death. It’s just football.
A miracle is when you come home from football, and no matter what the result was that day, your children look up at you, and their eyes say, Olá, Papai.