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The Little Genius Believes in You

15 Jun 2018
15 Jun 2018
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ll the French were in one hotel room, and all the Portuguese were in the other.

That was the only way to keep the peace.

When we faced France in the Euro 2016 final it was the biggest game in the history of Portuguese football. It was also a moment I had been waiting for my whole life — I had worked so hard to get there. But when my teammates came out of the tunnel at the Stade de France, I was hundreds of kilometers away. I wasn’t living my dream. I was in a hotel room in Switzerland, watching the game on television.

My luck couldn’t have been worse. I had been playing with the national team in the qualifiers, but I was injured while playing for Monaco, my club team, in the very last game of the season — right before the Euros. It was probably the most difficult moment of my life, and it was bittersweet watching Portugal progress through the tournament. By the time the final came around I was already back with AS Monaco, at our preseason training camp in Switzerland.

At some point, I just resolved to make the best out of it. The first step would be to get away from all my French teammates. Two days before the final, the banter had already begun, and they were feeling pretty confident. Anybody who knows my friend Benjamin Mendy knows how much he loves to talk. I couldn’t be around him if France was winning. Impossible. So I found a separate room at our hotel and gathered the Portuguese players: Ivan Cavaleiro, Gil Dias and Fabinho. (I know Fabinho is Brazilian, but we converted him to Portuguese for one night only.)

When the game kicked off, we were so anxious. The French were sweating too — they hadn’t won a trophy since Euro 2000. But we had never won anything. Ever. And I still had the emotional scars from when Zidane beat us with the penalty at the 2006 World Cup.

Then, in the 25th minute, just about the worst thing imaginable happened: Cristiano Ronaldo limped off injured. Of all people. Somehow we managed to keep the score 0–0. Going into extra time, we were all sitting there shaking in our hotel room. By this stage, Cristiano was shouting encouragement at the players from the touch line. Whatever he said, it must have worked, because Éder struck the winning goal in the 109th minute.

We jumped out of our seats. And the French in other room? Well, for the first time ever, they were extremely quiet.

We couldn’t believe it. Winning that title was a fantastic achievement for a small country like ours. And one of the things that I will always remember is that later that night, when we were all still buzzing, some of my teammates from the national team texted me saying, “Congratulations. You were a part of this journey, too.”

For them to take the time to think of me during that crazy celebration meant so much to me. Even though I was not there to experience it with them, winning a trophy with Portugal was a dream that began for me when I could barely walk.

From the very beginning, I was born into a football family. The funny thing is that it was a divided family. My mother’s side are all Sporting supporters, and my father’s side are all Benfica supporters. My mother probably tried to sway me, but for me there was no hope. I’ve always loved Benfica for as long as I can remember. Rui Costa was my hero, and whenever I had a football at my feet (which was pretty much always) I tried to be just like him.

When I was around six years old, I was spotted by some Benfica youth coaches, who invited me to come play for them. The problem was that the academy was quite expensive and far away from our home. So I had to beg my family for about a year to let me go. My parents kept saying that I was too young.

I will never forget August 10, 2001. That was my seventh birthday. At the party, I was opening my gifts, and my grandfather just gave me this card. No box, just a card. I opened it up, and — well, I don’t even know how well I could read at the time — but it didn’t matter because inside the card I saw the Benfica badge with a little message attached.

The card said, “Happy Birthday, you’re going to play for Benfica!”

Michael Regan/Getty Images

My grandfather agreed to pay the money to send me to the youth academy. It was probably the happiest day of my life. The funny thing was that he was my mom’s father — the Sporting side of the family. He swallowed his pride and paid for his grandson to go to his team’s biggest rival.

However, this is not one of those stories where I can say, “And then I went on to become a legend for my boyhood club.” In fact, my path was quite difficult. I was always very small, and when you get to be a teenager, that can start to become a problem with certain coaches. When I was 16, I was at a critical stage in my career. I was hardly playing for the youth team. To me, that was like torture. I lived to play football. So I struggled to cope with it. Actually, it got to the point where I wanted to leave the club. That’s how unhappy I was.

But luckily, I got saved by a guy named Fernando Chalana.

Chalana was one of the greatest Portuguese players of all time. He was this tiny winger with an incredible mustache, who dribbled and passed so well that people called him o Pequeno Genial (the Little Genius).

He was one of our youth coaches at Benfica, and I guess he must have seen some of himself in me, because one day he took me aside and said, “Listen, your manager hasn’t got a clue about football. You’re the best player here. And trust me … One day you’ll be very important.”

That was probably the single most important conversation I’ve had in my life. Without Chalana, I don’t know what would have happened to me. He even started calling me “Messizinho.” I guess he did it because Lionel Messi and I are both small, technical and leftfooted. Of course, you can’t compare me to a genius like Messi, but the fact that Chalana did it anyway gave me so much confidence.

So I told myself, O.K., if the Little Genius believes in you, then you ought to believe in yourself too. With that boost, I climbed the ranks until I made the Benfica B team. But it seemed like no matter how well I did, I couldn’t break into the first team. At 18, I still wasn’t playing at the top level, and I actually started to study for my bachelor’s degree in European studies at the University of Lisbon.

To be fair, Benfica had a brilliant team. In the 2014 season they won the league and the two domestic cups. I played in one league game all season — as a sub. And that was it. So in the summer, I knew I had to leave. I had to say goodbye to the only club I had played for since I was seven years old.

At first, it was so hard to leave Benfica for AS Monaco. I had never lived outside of Lisbon, let alone Portugal. A lot of people thought I wouldn’t play, and to be honest, I could see their point. Monaco was a club with big money that had just finished second in Ligue 1. I was just a 19-year-old coming straight from the Portuguese second division.

But as it turned out, joining Monaco was of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I was lucky to work with a Portuguese manager, Leonardo Jardim, and Portuguese players like Ricardo Carvalho and João Moutinho. I broke into the team, and in my third season our young team really clicked. We reached the semifinals of the Champions League — and better still, we beat Paris Saint-Germain to the league title.

Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

That was a sensational triumph. And you know what? We knew PSG were better than us. We just didn’t care. We had this fearlessness. Maybe we were too young to be scared, I don’t know.

But the one moment I’ll never forget was in 2017 when we played the Champions League match against Manchester City at the Etihad. It was the crazy game that ended 5–3, and as I was going for some interviews in the tunnel, I ran into Pep Guardiola. I didn’t even think he would look at me, but he stopped and shook my hand and told me that I’d played a great game. We spoke for a bit, and it was just unbelievable because I had admired him so much for the way his teams always played football in such a creative way. It was exactly my style of football.

It’s funny, because when that season ended there were so many rumors that all the young Monaco players were going to be sold. I had become good friends with Benjamin Mendy and Kylian Mbappe, and we were being linked to Manchester City and Chelsea and PSG and a bunch of different clubs. The rumors these days are so ridiculous that you don’t know what to believe. So we would joke around every day on our WhatsApp group. Mendy would be sending fake photos of him in a Real Madrid kit, like, “See you later, guys! I’m off to see Mr. Zidane!”

To this day, whenever I see a text notification from Mendy, I just shake my head because I know it’s going to be something crazy.

But, in the end, I was the one who won our little game, because I was the first to be sold. For me, there is no better place to be than Man City. A lot has been written about Pep, but I still don’t think people fully understand how much he is a master of details. Before games he often says that he is giving us the map, but that we have to solve the riddles out on the pitch. For anyone who is obsessed with football, he’s the perfect manager to learn from. I wake up every day so happy to be playing football here.

On the day that I signed with City, I sent the Monaco guys a message with a photo of me holding up my jersey, and I said, “It’s done, guys. When are you joining us?”

Mendy said, “Man! Now I’ve gotta come over too!”

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Kylian grew up a fan of PSG, so I think he was destined for Paris, but two months later, Mendy signed with City, too. Of course, he immediately became the biggest joker in the City dressing room. But, man, let me tell you, he’s not alone. The problem is that now I’m the only Portuguese guy on the team. I am surrounded by the Brazilians, the Spaniards, the English, and they think it’s funny to play pranks on me on Instagram. They’ve tied my boots to the ceiling. They’ve tossed me in the pool with all my clothes on.

Even though we were Premier League champions, going to training every day felt like it did when you were a kid, when you were just having fun. That’s pretty rare in football, I think.

The guys behind it are usually the Brazilian Crew: Fernandinho, Ederson, Danilo and Gabriel Jesus, and I’ve become really close friends with them. I swear, this summer, after the World Cup, I’m gonna convince Pep to buy some Portuguese players. I don’t even care whether they’re good or not. They just need to be very creative with pranks. That’s all I ask.