The Boy From Hell

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

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I was born in hell. That’s not a joke. For my European friends who don’t know, the favela where I grew up in São Paulo is actually called Inferninho — “little hell.”

If you really want to understand me as a person, then you must understand where I am from. My history. My roots. Inferninho. 

It is an infamous place. Fifteen steps from our front door, there were always drug dealers doing their business, passing stuff hand-to-hand. The smell was constantly outside our window. Actually, one of my first memories is my father getting up from the couch on a Sunday and going to yell at the guys to walk down the street a little bit and leave us in peace, because his kids were inside trying to watch the football match. 

We were so used to seeing guns that it was not even scary. They were just a part of everyday life. We were more scared of the police knocking down our door. One time, they invaded our house looking for someone and they came running in screaming. They found nothing, of course. But when you’re so young, those moments mark you. 

Man, some of the things I have seen …. Only those who have lived it can understand. On my walk to school one morning, when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I came across a man laying in the alley. He was not moving. When I got closer, I realized he was dead. In the favela, you become kind of numb to these things. There was no other way to go, and I had to get to school. So I just closed my eyes and jumped over the dead body. 

I am not saying this to sound tough. It was just my reality. In fact, I always say that I was very lucky as a child, because despite all of our struggles, I was given a gift from heaven. The ball was my savior. My love from the cradle. In Inferninho, we don’t care about toys for Christmas. Any ball that rolls is perfect to us. 

Every day, my older brother would take me to the square to play football. In the favela, everyone plays. Kids, old men, teachers, construction workers, bus drivers, drug dealers, gangsters. There, everyone is equal. In my father’s time it was a dirt pitch. In my time, it was asphalt. In the beginning, I played barefoot, on bleeding feet. We did not have money for proper shoes. I was small, but I dribbled with a meanness that came from God. Dribbling was always something inside me. It was a natural instinct. And I refused to bow my head to anyone. I would elastico the drug dealers. Rainbow the bus drivers. Nutmeg the thieves. I really did not give a f***. 

With a ball at my feet, I had no fear.

I learned all the tricks from the legends. Ronaldinho, Neymar, Cristiano. I used to watch them on YouTube, thanks to my “uncle” Toniolo. He is not my blood uncle. He was our next door neighbor. But he treated me like family. When I was little, he used to let me steal his WiFi so I could go on YouTube and get my football education. He even gave me my first videogame. If Toniolo had two loaves of bread — it was one for him, the extra for us. This is what people don’t understand about the favela. For every one person doing bad, there’s two doing good. 

I always say that I grew up in the wrong place, but with the right people. When I was 8 years old, I was playing in the square when the first angel crossed my path. This older guy was watching me doing my tricks against the gangsters like a crazy bastard. He turned to the other people watching. 

“Who is the little kid??” 

“The kid? Antony.” 

It was the director of Grêmio Barueri. He gave me my first chance to leave the slum and play for their futsal team. So then I started dreaming. I remember one day I was walking with my mom when I saw this cool red car driving through our neighborhood. It was a Range Rover. But to me, it was like seeing a Ferrari. Everyone was looking at it. It was the shit, man. 

I turned to my mom and I said, “One day, when I’m a footballer, I’m going to buy that car.”

She laughed, of course. 

I was dead serious. 

I said, “Don’t worry, after a while, I’ll let you drive it.”

I would elastico the drug dealers. Rainbow the bus drivers. Nutmeg the thieves. I really did not give a f***. With a ball at my feet, I had no fear.


Back then, I used to literally sleep in the bed between my parents. We didn’t have money for a bed just for me. Every night, I would turn to one side, and there was my dad. Turn to the other side, there was my mom. We were so close, and that’s what helped us survive. Then something happened that changed my life. 

When I was 11, my parents separated. It was the most difficult moment of my life, because at least before, we all had each other. Now, I would turn to my mom’s side of the bed in the middle of the night and she was gone. That was devastating, but it also gave me a lot of motivation. I used to close my eyes and think, “I am going to get us out of this.”

My father used to leave the house for work at 5 in the morning. He would return at 8 at night. I used to tell him, “Now, you are running for me. But soon, I will be running for you.”

If you talk to the media, they always ask you about your dreams. The Champions League? The World Cup? The Ballon d’Or?

Those are not dreams. Those are goals. My only dream was to take my parents out of the favela. There was no Plan B. I was going to make it or die trying. 

At 14, I got my chance at São Paulo FC. Every day after school, I would travel to the academy on an empty stomach. Sometimes, if it was a good day, my teammates and I would pool our money together to buy a cookie for the bus ride back home. I did not have to pretend to be hungry for motivation. The hunger was real. 

Inside of me, there was an intensity — maybe you could say an anger. I had some problems with my emotions. Three different times, I was nearly dismissed from the club. I was on the list to be released. And three different times, someone at the club stuck up for me. They begged to keep me on. It was God’s plan. 

I was so skinny, but I always played with “blood in my eyes.” This is the kind of intensity that comes from the streets. You cannot fake it. People think I am lying when I tell them this, but even after I made my professional debut for São Paulo, I was still living in the favela. No, no — this is the truth — at 18, I was still sleeping in the bed with my dad. It was either that or the couch! We had no other choice. Man, even in 2019 when I scored the goal against Corinthians in the Paulista Final, I was right back in the neighborhood that night. People were pointing at me on the street. 

“I just saw you on TV. What are you doing here???”

“Brother, I live here.”

Everyone laughed. They did not believe it. 

One year later, I was at Ajax, playing in the Champions League. That’s how fast things changed. I not only had my own bed, but the red Range Rover was in my mother’s driveway. I told her, “You see? I told you that I would conquer. And I conquered.”

Antony | Brazil | The Boy From Hell | The Players’ Tribune
Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty; Manchester United via Getty

When I told her that when I was 10, she laughed. 

Now, when I remind her, she cries. 

I went from the slums to Ajax to Manchester United in three years. People always ask me how I was able to “turn the key” so quickly. Honestly, it is because I feel no pressure on a football pitch. No fear. Fear? What is fear? When you grow up having to jump over dead bodies just to make it to school, you cannot be scared of anything in football. The things that I have seen, most football pundits can only imagine. There are things you cannot unsee

In life, we suffer enough. We worry enough. We cry enough.

But in football? With a ball at your feet, you should only feel joy. I was born a dribbler. It is part of my roots. It is the gift that took me from the slums to the Theatre of Dreams. I will never change the way I play, because it is not a style, it is me. It is a part of me. A part of our story as Brazilians. If you just watch one 10 second clip of me, then you will not understand. Nothing I do is a joke. Everything has a purpose. To go forward with boldness, to strike fear into the opponent, to create space, to make a difference for my team. 

If you think I’m just a clown, then you don’t understand my story. The art of Ronaldinho and Cristiano and Neymar inspired me as a child. I watched these Gods in amazement on stolen Wifi, then I went out to the concrete pitch to try to imitate their genius. 

Even if you are born in hell, that is a small gift from heaven. 

When people ask, “What’s the point of your style? What message are you sending?” 

Brother, I am sending a message home. 

Even if you are born in hell, that is a small gift from heaven. 


In Europe, where there is bread on the table every night, sometimes people forget that football is a game. A beautiful game, but still a game. It is life that is serious, at least for those of us born in the little hells of the world. 

I always say that wherever I go in life, no matter what happens to me, I represent the place that taught me everything. Without my home and my people, none of this matters. On my boots, before every match, I write myself a little reminder.


When I tie my laces, I remember. I remember everything

This is my story. If you still don’t understand me, or if you still think that I am a clown, then I will just point to the ink on my arm….

Whoever comes from the favela knows a little bit of what I’ve been through.

Those words speak for me. And for us all.