The Taxi Driver
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The number tells a story more beautiful than words can say.
I know people think it’s a weird number for a footballer. But for me 39 is special — no, it’s more than that. It's magical. The number 39 gave me everything in life. It got me here to Newcastle. It fed me, clothed me, and paid for three-hour bus rides to pursue my dream.
#039 was the dispatch number of my father’s taxi in Rio de Janeiro.
For me 39 is special — no, it’s more than that. It's magical. The number 39 gave me everything in life.- Bruno Guimarães
My life…. At first, it was simple. I came into the world like most Brazilian kids. From five years old, I was in love with the ball. We used to play in the street every day with goals made from flip-flops — the Havaiana, the Kenner, those were our posts. Sometimes we used rocks or fruit that fell from the trees. We would make anything work. It didn’t matter if it was worth a Coca-Cola or a Tubaína, no matter what, we played to win.
I grew up in Vila Isabel, in the shadow of the Maracanã — the old, beautiful Maracanã with the yellow and green seats and the net we called the bridal veil. They used to have a rule that kids under 12 could get in for free, so we used to round up 20 of us from the neighborhood and go to see anyone. Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo, Vasco. It didn’t matter who was even playing. For us, it was magical just to be there. The players were like gods to us. Even the backup goalkeeper was a god. I remember one time my futsal team went to play in São Januário and the professional Vasco squad was all there training. I lost my mind, bro. Of course, I didn’t have a cellphone at the time. I didn’t even have a piece of paper. So I went and got a napkin from the hamburger stand and I was begging the Vasco players, “For the love of God, please give me an autograph!!! I don’t care if you're the kitman!!! Just sign the napkin, brother!!!”
It’s funny now, but it was actually serious to me. That dirty napkin was a sacred object. My mother still has it at her house somewhere safe.
For me, the dream was to be one of those gods some day. But it’s so funny because my mother was against it from the start. My father was crazy about football, and when he wanted me to start playing futsal she was like, “No, no, no! He’s going to be a swimmer! I can’t have another one of you in the house! It will kill me!” She actually did put me in swimming lessons for about six months, until one day I came home crying, like, “Mom, this swimming? Seriously??? It has nothing to do with me. I’m sorry, but I need to play ball.”
My idol was Ronaldinho. I actually started out as a winger, because I was skinny as hell. I remember when we were in the football hall on Saturdays, we’d be there playing from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and I’d always beg my mom to buy me more hamburgers from the stand, and she’d say no. I didn’t know until much later, but they’d already put a bunch of food on credit there, and they couldn’t pay until the end of the month.
A lot of days, I was surviving off of a Guaravita and a ham-and-cheese. My mother worked in a motorcycle shop. My father, of course, was a taxi driver. In Brazil, especially in Rio, this is a tough life. You work basically all day and night. But that yellow taxi kept my dream alive. Pretty much the only day I saw my father was on Saturday, when he came to watch me play football. It made me nervous, to be honest. My father was my hero. I didn’t want to disappoint him. And he was quite hard on me, at first. Sometimes he’d even say, “I’m tired of seeing you lose. You can have an extra hamburger today, but only if you win.”
I've never heard many footballers talk about this, but when I started playing on a real team, I thought I sucked. I used to get so worked up the night before football that I’d have stomach pains and start throwing up. I’d get a headache and a fever sometimes and wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. When I played, instead of playing free, I worried about messing up. Whenever I played a real game, it was like my heart was always beating faster. It was a psychological block.
Then, when I was 11 years old, I was playing in a random game in the sports hall, and I didn’t think anyone was watching. Of course, since I was playing for fun with my friends, I was a beast. I didn’t realise, but my coach, Mário Jorge, was watching from behind the bar with all the older guys. After the game, he walked out onto the court and he said, “Bruno, let me ask you a question. Why do you never play like this in a real game?”
I said, “I don’t know, Coach. I don’t feel comfortable. It's complicated.”
He said, “Listen, don’t worry about all that. Just play like it’s for fun, and see what happens.”
In Brazil, especially in Rio, this is a tough life. You work basically all day and night. But that yellow taxi kept my dream alive.- Bruno Guimarães
I had a conversation with my dad after that, and I told him the truth. I asked him to stop putting so much pressure on me when I played, because it was making me too tense. When it’s your hero pushing you, sometimes it’s too much. Thank God, my father took it really well, and from that day, everything changed.
When I played, I would tell myself, “Hey, it’s football. Just play like we’re using flip-flops for goals.”
After that, I got over the “block” and developed really well. But still, my journey was not a superstar’s story. When I was 11 and 12, I tried out for Botafogo and Fluminense and was sent home. They didn’t want me. I think I lasted maybe three or four training sessions at Botafogo before they said, “No thanks.” At Fluminense, I lasted a full year, taking the two-hour bus ride after school, before they dismissed me. As a child, it can crush you to hear no like that, and many times I wanted to quit. But, thank God, every time I wanted to give up, my mom would tell me the story of Cafu — and how every club turned him away, and she would say, “You know what your dream is....”
She went from wanting me to be a little swimmer to being my biggest supporter. She always believed in me. So I persevered.
I switched to defensive midfield at 13, thanks to that same coach, Mário Jorge, who took me on at Audax Rio without even a tryout. (Sometimes, angels come into your life.) Right when I turned 15, I got the chance to move to Audax São Paulo. It was a huge opportunity, but I had to leave my family and live all on my own. I will never forget, my parents drove me the five hours to Sao Paulo in my father’s yellow taxi. They left their only child in a strange city, with a bunch of kids he didn’t know, in a cramped dorm room with 18 bunk beds.
I cried the first night. Then I cried every night.
A lot of us cried, to be honest. Every night, when the lights went out, you would see the kids turn to face the wall, then you’d hear the little sobs. At that age, you miss your dog, your bed, the smell of your own home.... And the living conditions are not the best.
My journey was not a superstar’s story.- Bruno Guimarães
Until I die, I will never forget this one story. My parents got me a cheap cellphone when I left home, and I always used to hide it under my pillow when I left for training. When I’d come back, I’d fetch it under the pillow and see if anyone called. So one night I come back from training late, and I’m getting ready for bed, and I hop up into my top bunk and I put my hand under the pillow.
But instead of a plastic phone, I feel something ... furry. But like, not cute. No, not the cute kind of furry, bro. The gross kind of f***ing furry. Then I felt a tail.
On my life, I felt a tail!!!
Bro, if you could have heard the way I screamed….
This fat little rat is looking at me like, “Yo, what are you doing in my bed???”
No, it wasn’t even a little rat. It was big. It looked like it had been drinking protein shakes.
I hop down from the bunk so fast I hit my head on the post. The rat starts running around the room — and some guys are jumping up on chairs, and the brave ones are trying to chase it with a boot.
They get it into a closet and then everything kind of calms down, and I’m sitting on the edge of the bed like, “Bro, I can’t sleep here. Find me another bed. Any bed.”
Right then, who comes strutting into the room?
TWO MORE RATS.
Everyone’s screaming, “AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! MEEERRRDAAAA!!!”
They walked in like they owned the place. They weren’t even scared. Hahaha.
I remember sitting up that night, thinking, “I’m in hell, bro.” I wouldn’t even lay my head down on the pillow for like a week.
I won’t lie. There were a few times that I had my bags packed. Once, I called my mom and told her to send me money for a bus ticket home. And I can hear her voice saying, “Stay calm. In a little while, we’ll be there together. This is your dream. This is what you want.”
They used to drive up to see me in the taxi on weekends. Even on his day off, my dad couldn’t escape the yellow taxi, number 039. For three years, I struggled at the academy. By the time I was 17, I still didn’t have a professional contract. It’s crazy to think about kids like Vinicius Jr. and Endrick — 16, 17 years old and — they were already stars. Me, I was making backup plans to become a taxi driver like my father. I was only earning about R$400 a month, and I think my cellphone bill was R$100. If I didn’t get a pro contract at 18, I had to be realistic. I didn’t want my parents to be disappointed, so I lied and said that I was taking my license test because I dreamed of having a VW Beetle when I signed my contract. But really, I was working on my back-up for “real life.”
I was months away from becoming 039 myself, if I didn’t get my break.
Then.... Yeah, I can’t even explain what happened next. It all seemed to happen almost overnight. The great Fernando Diniz came into my life as the manager at Audax, and I remember he came up to me during the preseason, and he said, “Bruninho, whatever you choose for your life, you’re going to be one of the best, because you’re determined, you’re focused.”
And I didn’t even have a contract at the time, so I thought, “Whatever I choose? Ha. Does he mean football? Maybe I will be the best taxi driver, eh?”
Then he said, “You have the soul of a great player.”
I thought the guy was either making small talk, or just crazy, to be honest. I was tired, and I didn’t think I was going to make it.
The next season, I was proven right! Diniz didn’t take me with the first team. Then I thought he was definitely full of shit! Hahahah. “The soul of a great player? Damn, boss!”
But I guess he saw some vision that I could not see. Finally, right when I turned 19, he gave me my dream. He called me to play in the Paulista Championship, and I never looked back. That was the start of a crazy rollercoaster. In just four years, I went from planning to get my taxi license to getting loaned to Club Athletico Paranaense and winning the Sudamericana, to moving to Lyon and playing in the Champions League semifinal, then moving to Newcastle and getting the ultimate dream of my life, playing in the Premier League.
I can’t explain it, except to say, “39.”
There is magic in this number, and I will prove it to you….
When I was loaned to Athletico Paranaense, I was talking to my father on the phone on the day I arrived, and I said, “Hey, what number do you think I should take? I’m thinking of using 97, because I was born in 1997.”
And he said, “What about 39? That is more than a number. 039 gave us everything we have, Bruno. Our house, our food, our furniture, your football boots. It was all because of our taxi.”
So I said, “Yeah, that’s cool. I’ll ask if it’s taken.”
I went to the facility to take my medicals and everything, and when they took me into the dressing room, I saw that they had my kit and everything laid out on the bench. I said to the kitman, “Oh, I was meaning to ask about my number....”
And he said, “Number? Oh, they gave you one already.”
I opened the bag and unfolded the shirt, and I swear to you:
The kitman said, “If you don’t like it, we can change.”
I said, “Wait, are you f***ing with me? Did you talk to my agent?”
He said, “Huh? No, we didn’t talk to anyone. It was a free one. We can change to whatever.”
I told him, “No, no, no. This is perfect.”
I immediately rang my father and I said, “Dad, are you playing a joke on me? Did you talk to someone from the club about my number?”
He said, “What? No. What are you talking about?”
I said, “They had a shirt waiting for me already. A random number. Number 39.”
He started crying. Damn, even I started crying!
I said, “This is a sign. Make no mistake. Here, I’m going to shine.”
That was the start of the most beautiful period of my life. A period that continues to this day. When I was sleeping with the rats, I didn’t really believe in myself. I did not expect any of this. I did not think that Athletico fans would be singing my name as one of their legends. I did not think that I would get a phone call from the great Juninho asking me to join Lyon. I did not think that I would wear the yellow shirt in a World Cup.
It’s funny, but when I had the opportunity to move to Newcastle last year, I remember a lot of people telling me, “You’re crazy. This could be a disaster for you. They’re going to get relegated. You’ll never make the World Cup squad if you move there.”
At the time, Newcastle were third to last in the table. Everyone knew we were in trouble. But any time someone asked me what my dream was, from the time I was 15, I always said it was to play in the Premier League one day.
So I chose to come to Newcastle. But I have to be honest and say that never in a million years did I expect THIS experience. No, I would be lying to you if I said I would love it this much, and for the fans to have embraced me and my family like this.
When I got here, my mission was just to get us safe. I remember we were winning, winning, winning, but we’d look at the table and it was like we were stuck to the bottom with glue. We would still never move up from 18th....
Then we played Leicester City at home, and for me this was probably when I fell in love with Newcastle. I scored the two goals in the match, and they could not have been more different — more me. The first one was a goal from the streets of Rio. The keeper bobbled the ball when he fell on it, and I didn’t hear the whistle, so I just kept kicking and kicking until it popped out of his hands and rolled across the line. And then the second goal, in the 95th minute.... All I can tell you is that, when the Newcastle fans are really on fire, like they were that day, you simply don’t get tired. I don’t know the science behind it, but you can just keep running forever. We got the ball in our own half, and I ran the whole length of the pitch, and when I saw the ball floating in the air, I took an old trick from my mom’s swimming lessons. I dove in the air like a dolphin, brother.
I headed the cross in and then I heard the roar from the fans, and it was goosebumps. I ripped my shirt off, and that’s when I knew that I was really in the Premier League. It was an atmosphere I’d never seen before, even in Brazil. I remember I collapsed on the pitch at the whistle, and I was just praying to God, thanking him for bringing me here.
In the dressing room, we all knew that we were never going down after that day. For me, everything that’s happened since — finishing 11th that season, then making it to the League Cup Final this season against Manchester United — it was born that day.
I hope to be a legend here. I know that this club can be one of the giants. It starts this weekend. Win or lose, we’re back at Wembley, and I know how special it is for the fans.
I really took “the long way” to this moment, but I think that maybe I appreciate it more because of all the setbacks. When I see these little boys and girls around Newcastle with their No. 39 kits, with their hair dyed white like mine, I just love it so much. It reminds me of running around with the napkin from the hamburger stand, begging for the Vasco players to sign their autographs.
I hope to be a legend here. I know that this club can be one of the giants.- Bruno Guimarães
Lately, I’ve had many mothers come up to me when I’m walking on the street, saying, “Bruno, can you please change your hair? My daughter only wants white hair now.”
It brings back memories of the 2002 World Cup, when I was begging my mom to please, please shave a triangle into my hair like Ronaldo.
Now that I am older, I know that footballers are not gods. We are just people. We get nervous, just like anybody. We fail, just like anybody.
But for me, football is still a magical game. My mother worked in a motorcycle shop. She suffered so that she could see her son fly, and now she is my biggest fan. My father drove a yellow taxi all day and all night, so that I could have a ham-and-cheese sandwich and a Guaravita. Now, when he walks on the street in Newcastle, halfway around the world, people stop him and ask for pictures.
Here, he is famous. The legendary 039.
The real 39.