Under Pressure

Lucas Seixas/The Players' Tribune
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This article has been translated from the original in Portuguese. 

Para ler em Português, clique aqui. 

Damn! Only now it sunk in that this is the first time I celebrate my birthday away from family and friends.

This had never happened before. Normally, at this time of the year, I’d be already on vacation from the Premier League season, and I’d be in Itu resting, fishing.... More precisely listening and telling funny stories on the riverbank with my father and cousins, rolling on the ground from laughing and scaring away all the fish.

Then my mother would prepare a cake full of candles, asking everyone to sing Happy Birthday. I would be a little embarrassed, and that was it! Another perfect birthday, with the people I love and still having a few weeks off before heading back to London and Arsenal.

But this year is obviously different….

I’m here at Brazil’s training camp for the Copa América in the U.S. Another environment, another moment, other feelings. What do I feel? Well…. I feel proud and — why hide it? — a little anxious about representing my country in another important competition.

A few days ago, at breakfast, I was traveling through these thoughts when Gabriel Magalhães arrived with that playful style that he learned in the Pirituba neighbourhood in the outskirts of São Paulo:

“So, man, what are your plans to celebrate your 23rd birthday?”

I thought to myself: No plans, man. ONE SINGLE PLAN. Because I only have one.

My plan is to face Argentina in the final. And win, of course!

I’ve been dreaming about this since I started playing football at age six. And I say it in a good way, because I respect those guys, as I respect the other opponents. I also know that they respect us, and the road is long and difficult for everyone. But Brazil versus Argentina is something from another dimension, I kid you not.

I love a match this size. Heavy shirts, high quality players on both sides: Messi, Raphinha, Álvarez, Andreas, Di María, Douglas Luiz, Mac Allister, Magalhães, Emi…. It’s crazy! Then someone could ask me: But what about the pressure of facing the current world champions in a final?

To be honest, I’m dying to feel the pressure of Brazil versus Argentina, perhaps the heaviest one in national team football. I don’t know.... Somehow, I think I learned to transform pressure into fuel, energy. I always try to see the positive side of it, to grow and extract good things.

Follow me here.... Pressure can be a responsibility: for example, carrying with you the hope of millions of fans who painted the street green and yellow and hung flags in their garage to watch a World Cup. You will do everything you can to not disappoint these people. Pressure can be a blessing: fulfilling your childhood dream, which is the dream of so many Brazilian boys and girls just like you. (And I just need to thank God for everything that has happened in my life.) And pressure can be a privilege: competing for the title of the strongest tournament in the world doesn’t even compare to the pressure of an unemployed father or mother who returns home counting the money to bring milk to their children.

I think about these things a lot. In terms of what pressure actually is, how it acts on me, how it has hindered me (I’m flesh and blood, sometimes it happens) and how I held firm and moved forward. You see, I think about it a lot, because it is part of me, of who I am. I was born inside a pressure cooker! Do you think I’m kidding? OK, let me quickly tell you about my “love affair” with pressure.

My father always dreamed of having a footballer son. I was born when he was already 40, and this desire of him was still stronger than ever. I think the first sentence I understood in my life was the one he always repeated: “When you turn six, I’m going to take you to a test”.

I had no idea what a test was, much less when I was six. But he always repeated it. We would play football in the little square in my hometown Guarulhos, and my father would show me how to catch the ball, how to protect it, insisting that I should kick hard with my left leg too. He was serious about it, but soon I understood that football was the most fun thing to do in life. I started to love the game. Just imagine, a little kid with his father always present, encouraging, supporting, the two sharing happy moments — wow, it was wonderful.

Lucas Seixas/The Players' Tribune

Then I turned six and the clearest memory I have from that week is on my first team’s futsal court. Huge, gigantic. As planned, there I was, a little kid who could barely tie his sneakers, doing the test I had dreamed of. It was magical walking into Parque São Jorge, hand in hand with my father, having him there all the time cheering me on, while on the court I tried to remember the things he had taught me to do with the ball. I passed the test and for the next seven years my life would be a dream. A double one, in fact, from father and son, starting to become reality.

A little later, I started to understand what pressure was and how to get around it. When I played badly and my father kept complaining on the way back home, saying that I could have done this or that, I would simply pretended I was sleeping in the car. Of course he wanted the best for me, he knew my potential, but when it was too much, I preferred not to listen.

Because, even when we’re very young, we know when we’re not doing well in a match. I was disappointed with myself for not having managed to give more, and that was why I was already putting enough pressure on myself. I didn’t want to argue with my father. So, “napping” in the back seat, I would let him talk to himself and just listened. I absorbed his criticism, that deep down, as I quickly understood, also had a purpose: preventing me from becoming complacent, making me put my feet firmly on the ground and keeping training hard.

And today, as an Arsenal player, in the World Cup, the Champions League or the Copa América, I really recognize myself in that kid from 15 years ago. Because I’m still a calm and focused guy. That’s where the strength of my football comes from. It could be in the little square in Guarulhos, in the futsal gym, it could be in an empty stadium during the pandemic, it could be at the Emirates with 60,000 fans shouting for us, or at Old Trafford with 75,000 shouting against us. I almost always tune out the outside world when I’m playing. I try to think positive — think that I’m not there as a favour from someone, that I deserved it. It’s 100% concentration on what I’m capable of doing to help my team win. It’s just that, and nothing else. The pitch is like my cocoon.

After all, I “trained” a lot on those trips home with my father picking me up in the car, right? So much so that it took me a while to connect with the little song that Arsenal fans sing to me, which is a great honour. Now, when I hear the singing during the warm-up for the match, I get goosebumps and even worry a little: Will my father’s heart be able to handle so much emotion?

(Hold on, dad! You were the one who started this…. hahaha)

Well, going back.… When I was 13, a huge upheaval took place in my life. My father got a better job in Itu, and we had to move. I left behind everything I knew, enjoyed and was comfortable with: my friends, my school, my house, the square, and the futsal court. It was a blow for me. I started training at Ituano, which, despite having a great structure, was very different.

Lucas Seixas/The Players' Tribune

In that new reality, in a small regional club, I only had one option if I wanted to avoid being crushed by a kind of self-pressure: maintain the same will, the same focus and the same determination that had shaped me until then. If I didn’t do it for myself, no one else would.

A short time after arriving at Ituano, still at age 13, I was called to try out at Manchester United. There I did feel the pressure. Overwhelmingly. I was very young, and everything was very new to me. The cold weather, the formality in a club that size, the language, the first time away from my mother for so many days…. Everything was heavy, and nothing seemed fun. To top it all off, I felt the huge expectation of being able to do everything right and be approved, which took away my peace of mind.

In the end it didn’t work. I couldn’t “nap in the backseat,” and the pressure got the better of me. I failed the test, was dismissed, and returned to Ituano, feeling somewhat insecure about my future in football, not knowing where to draw the strength to continue doing what I liked most in life. One option was to give up everything, go to college and…. remain insecure about the future, maybe take a job that I would spend the rest of my days doing without enjoying it. So, I took a breath and continued training.

When I turned 17, United called me again. Now, instead of nervous, I was very excited. I bumped into Pogba, Juan Mata, McTominay and other video game guys in the cafeteria. I managed to train well, and I was sure I would stay there. Besides, it was the second chance they had given me. They had seen something in me.

But no. They sent me home again. On my way back, I still spent 15 days in Barcelona, ​​enough to take another no. But something had changed.

I didn’t feel hopeless. A little sad, perhaps. But for the first time I was aware that my strength could also come from difficulty. Or rather, that I can extract energy, concentration and serenity from it. If in life not everything is flowers, I can try and avoid the thorns. That’s my nature. And I was happy to find it out.

A year later, when Arsenal called me for trials too, I was stronger, I think, despite my young age. I was 18. It was my third time in England, in the cold, away from my mother and closer than ever to my dream. I also knew exactly how I would feel and react if I was sent home again. So I arrived in London with a feeling, like…. “It’s yours, Gabi! The ball is in your court. Another chance to be the protagonist of your story.” And this time it happened.

I transferred to Arsenal with the certainty that, if I continued to be myself, true to my essence, focused and serene, no amount of pressure would stop me from finding a whole garden of flowers in North London. It’s been quite a journey. The team becomes more consistent every season and I am sure that we will give our fans a Premier League title. And the Champions League too.

Lucas Seixas/The Players' Tribune

The other day I was asked if I felt scared in my first game for Arsenal. What?? Fear?! Are you crazy? I felt pride. Playing for Arsenal is such a wonderful experience that I can’t even explain it. I feel very comfortable, happy, light, as if I were arriving at my grandmother’s house on Sunday to eat lasagna (my favourite).

But I have to say that at the beginning it was complicated. Big changes are a bit traumatic for me. I keep asking myself too many questions, I think because of anxiety. Like…. What’s the training like? Can I do this? Do that? When I have a question about positioning on the pitch, do I ask the manager or his assistant? As a new guy, if I keep asking for the ball will they find me inconvenient? This is, let’s say, a bit of an annoying pressure. If you don’t stay smart, it consumes you and all that excitement ends up turning into frustration.

Then, at these times, the most important thing is to have someone to help you. Alone, it’s not possible. Someone with the sensitivity to understand that you are a little lost and is willing to help you. That’s how I learned another valuable lesson: camaraderie is also a good remedy against pressure in football. An escape valve, you know?

As soon as I arrived at Arsenal, an angel came to take care of me. An Argentine angel … but OK hahahah. It was Emiliano Martínez, one of our goalkeepers at the time. Man, Emi was really solid. Sometimes people think he’s a bit cocky, a bit loose, but he’s not like that at all. The guy is a great partner, has a good heart, and was important in my arrival on the team.

Emi speaks Portuguese, so he helped me with communication. He explained to me how day-to-day life at the club worked. He introduced me to the employees. He would drive home so we could go to training, or to the Emirates on game day, and then he would take me back. In the first season he invited my entire family to spend New Year’s at his house. The guy really welcomed me, took care of me as if he were my older brother.

But, Emi, my friend.... Don’t take it the wrong way, but I need to tell you that.... brothers do score against brothers — and I’m dying to score against you in this Copa América.... hahaha.... My mother even fights with me because of that, you know ?

 “But, Gabi, are you going to score against Emi?! After how much he helped you when you arrived in London?!”

 Oh, mom, yes I will. If the opportunity presents itself, I can’t waste it. It’s Brazil x Argentina. They’re the world champions. Let me put a little pressure on them ;-)