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1. I used to get death threats
Man, it happened so many times. We’d be in the away changing room before the game and some mob would knock on the door. I say knock but, you know, they were basically trying to smash it down. They would scream all these things at us.
“IF YOU WIN THIS GAME, WE’LL KILL YOU!”
“YOU’LL NEVER MAKE IT OUT OF HERE ALIVE.”
This was at the famous várzea tournaments.
The home of the rejects.
Man, it is hard for me to even explain the várzea to you. People in Brazil know what it is, but you have to play in it to understand what it’s really like. You have all the top clubs, right? And every kid wants to get a contract at one of their academies. That means you’ll get some money to help your family, and you might turn pro. But the kids who don’t get in, they end up in the várzea tournaments.
It really is the Wild West, man. It’s like a network of independent matches and tournaments organised by the local community. The level is a lot lower than at the academies. Any player can just turn up, you don’t even need a contract. You play on clay. Burning heat. Dust and sand. Someone will bring a ball from home. Often there are no nets, just the posts. Bibs? Forget about it. One team just plays shirtless. And these players are the rejects, man. They play with anger. They play to survive. They play like their lives depend on it.
Thankfully, the death threats were just threats. We knew it was the home supporters trying to get into our heads. But you would often see the bosses in the community stand around the pitch with guns. You could be about to score when a random gunshot would go off. Let me tell you, it can kind of put you off! The fireworks too, man.
That’s why I always say that if you can play in the várzea games, you can play anywhere.
A big European final? Don’t care.
A stadium with 90,000 people? Bring it on.
I’m still very proud that I played in so many várzea tournaments. And honestly, I loved it. Those games made me so tough. When I play now, I want to be booed. I want the pressure and the intimidation. That’s what gets me going.
2. I had two families
One at home, one in the streets.
Look, when you grow up in a place like Restinga, which is a favela in Porto Alegre, you learn quickly that you cannot live life on your own. Your friends become like a second family. You know that sooner or later they will need your help, and you will need theirs, too.
I’m not talking about saving each other from death and drug cartels here. Often it was the little things. Restinga is far away from the city centre, so for some games we would have to leave in the morning and come home at night. Often we barely had the chance to eat, so if a friend could share some food with you after the game, you didn’t have to go home hungry. Other times I couldn’t afford the travel at all, which would make me cry, because I wanted to play so badly. But a friend might have a mum who could afford the monthly top-up bus pass, and suddenly you were good to go.
When none of us had any food, we would ask strangers in the streets. You really had to be desperate to do that, but we were so hungry, man. The problem was that people were afraid of us. Think about it: You’ve just played football, you’re dirty and sweaty, maybe you’ve got a few scars and bruises, too. They thought we wanted to rob them, you know?
It was really sad, because we just wanted to taste food. A biscuit, a piece of bread … anything.
I should add that I rarely had to beg like this. My parents worked hard to put food on the table. But we weren’t rich. Our house was so small that I had to share a bedroom with my parents and my younger brother — and the dogs and the cats! Thank God we had pets around. They always cheered me up.
3. When I was seven, I went to Ronaldinho’s birthday party
How, you say? My dad was a musician in a samba band, and they were playing there.
Ronaldinho was born in the community where I grew up, so my dad and my uncles knew him. I always wanted to be like Ronaldinho. The things he did, the way he enjoyed every minute on the pitch … I was transfixed. I felt he gave everyone a promise when he played: Give me the ball and I’ll make you smile.
This party was when he had just started playing for Barcelona, I think. I remember turning up at this huge house and seeing him stand at the front door, welcoming everybody and giving out hugs. That smile, man. You know the smile.
He gave everyone a promise when he played: Give me the ball and I’ll make you smile.- Raphinha
When he saw me, he took me in his arms and walked around with me. I froze. Didn’t know how to react. But his charm can melt even the coldest little kid, haha. He treats everybody so well, even the small ones.
I’m pretty sure that was the best birthday party I ever went to that wasn’t my own. (O.K. then, perhaps including my own, too.)
I have met Ronaldinho many times since then, and I feel blessed to consider him a friend. I get even more starstruck now than when I was a kid!! It feels unreal to hang out with the guy you used to watch on YouTube and TV. He even watches my games and says that he admires the way I play. I mean, how do you even respond to that?
4. I escaped the drug underworld
I was lucky. By the time I was 17, I had still only played in várzea tournaments, and I was spending more money on travel than my family could afford. My goal was to get a monthly allowance from an academy to help them, but since that didn’t happen, it was easy for me to consider other ways to make money. Very easy.
But there is no peace in that world, and I’ve lost enough friends to know that. You’re alive today, dead tomorrow.
My parents knew. There were some examples in the family of people who had gone down that road, and it had not ended well. I was lucky just to have a family who could give me advice, because in my community it was very common to be raised by a single parent, or even just an older sibling or a neighbour or a friend. If I had to count the friends I had who were raised by two parents, I wouldn’t even need a full hand.
5. I could’ve been a barber
You can only take so many punches before you go down. When I was 18, I had been rejected by the academies more times than I could bother to count. Internacional, Grêmio, everywhere it was the same: a one-week trial and then an excuse.
“He’s too small.”
“He’s too frail.”
“He’s got no power.”
Always the same, man. Always the same.
Just before I turned 19, I was training with the U-20 team at Avaí. They were based in Florianópolis, a six-hour drive north of Porto Alegre. I had never spent so much time away from home trying to get a contract. But then I got injured, and when I was fit again, I couldn’t get into the team. I didn’t even make the matchday squad. They told me to train on my own.
Usually I would have gone back to the várzea community, because that was my home. I played well there. Nobody there told me that I was too small. In fact, I would often hear that, hey, if I really, really wanted it, I’d make it as a pro.
But at Avaí I cracked. I called my parents and said that I’d had enough. I wanted to go home. I was done.
My dad said he was fine with it. My mum, too.
“But,” my mum added … “If you give up on your dream, you’ll have to get a normal job.”
I was like, Hmmmmmm….
The thing was, I had wanted to be a footballer since I was seven, so I never finished school. Which meant that I would have to find a job in a supermarket or a barber shop or something. I knew what that life was about, because my mum had changed jobs so many times. Her CV must have been the length of a book. Hairdresser, manicurist, seller of perfumes and clothes, receptionist, waiter, etc., etc., etc. Finally she saved enough money to get a degree, and now she was doing what she loved, which was to work with children who had learning difficulties.
She never gave up, you know?
So she explained it all to me. She said that I would end up playing somewhere, and that every tough moment passes. She suggested that maybe, due to all these setbacks, I had forgotten what I really wanted in life, which was true. By the time we hung up, I remembered.
6. My uncle had a point
He also made it as a professional footballer, but he gave it up because he missed his friends and family. I’m not planning on doing that, but I can understand how he felt. People think that we exist merely to chase a ball for 90 minutes every weekend, but we are human beings too, and many of us have to cope with being far away from our loved ones.
The price is heavy, man, especially when you come from far away like I do. You don’t see your friends grow up. You don’t get to know their kids. When your grandparents fall ill, you can’t be there to help them. Since I come from a favela, I have also lost a lot of friends to crime. Many are in jail. Some are dead. We never got to say goodbye.
7. My older brother is Bruno Fernandes
At least that’s the way I see it. Our friendship began even before we became teammates at Sporting. Once he knew that I was going there, he texted me saying he was looking forward to playing with me. I know that I would have arrived at the club in a very timid way if I hadn’t known anyone there before, so he really helped me settle quickly.
Bruno has helped me so much, man. In Portugal we would talk a lot and go out for meals. When I went to Rennes, he advised me. The guy is so clever. When I was on the plane to Leeds, he texted me saying my style would fit the league. He was right again.
Just being around him is an inspiration because of the way he behaves. At the top level I have never seen anyone work as hard as him. You know it will be very difficult to do what he does, but if you try long enough and listen to what he says, you might get close.
I like to tell him that the next time we play each other, I’m going to nutmeg him, hahaha. We always joke around with each other.
I’ll see you on the pitch soon, brother. Make sure to keep your legs closed.
8. I grew up on Thierry Henry’s goals
I’d be watching the Prem with my dad on the free-to-air channels. Henry was flying, man. The runs, the finishes, it was crazy. I also remember that the stadiums were always full. The songs, the shouts. The noise. I can’t remember the details, but I was probably sitting in a run-down bar somewhere in Restinga when I made the vow. One day I’m going to play there.
9. The first time I met Bielsa, he ambushed me
Man, he appeared out of nowhere!! I was at my first training at Leeds, but he only showed up after we had started. I was on my own, playing around with the ball, when someone poked me in the back. I turned around and there he was: Bielsa.
To be honest, I was anxious. So many people had told me, “Wow, you’re gonna work with Bielsa!” so I knew he was a big deal. But Marcelo is the most humble coach you can work for, and he made me relax right away. He welcomed me to Leeds and said that he was here to help me — which he really has. In the first few months he would stop training, pull me aside and explain to me where to move and what decisions to make. I owe a lot to him.
By the way, Marcelo always goes for the win. Doesn’t matter who or where we play, we never change who we are. I love that.
10. I feared I was gonna lose my leg
You remember when Fernandinho fouled me at the Etihad towards the end of last season? He hit my thigh hard. I’m still used to the várzea, where you put ice on it and carry on. No blood, no foul, man! You have to break your leg to get any sympathy there!!
So I told Marcelo, “Don’t worry, in two or three days I’ll be fine.”
But when I came home and removed the bandage, my left leg was swelling. It was twice as thick as the right. My blood pressure dropped. I called a doctor, who took me to the hospital. The pain was so bad that I had to be given anaesthesia. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t even get into the car.
Apparently I had something called internal haematoma. The doctors said I needed surgery to remove all the blood. I had never had surgery before.
They also said I would miss the rest of the season, though sometimes it felt as if I was gonna lose my leg. Thank God, they never found a blood clot, as they had feared. I stayed there overnight on painkillers and medicines. The next morning I went home, and after three days I could put the crutches aside.
But then the pain returned.
I had to have even more blood removed from the leg. I went to the hospital four times — four times, man — and the doctors drained nearly 100 millilitres. It was awful. But the worst part was the fixtures I was about to miss.
Manchester United (H)
Still, I had a target. I was going to play the final game of the season, the one where we would have fans at Elland Road. Luckily I returned sooner than expected and even got a few minutes against Spurs. I played with a lot of pain, man. But in that final game, it was worth it.
11. That free kick was for Ronaldinho’s mum
She had passed away a few days earlier. I couldn’t get to Brazil to pay my respects, so before we played Southampton in February I sent him a wreath of flowers. When I got to the dressing room, I had this idea of scribbling a message on my undershirt.
Muita força para a família Assis Moreira
Descanse em paz, Dona Miguelina
I just had the feeling that I would score that day. When we got that free kick towards the end, I considered it a blessing, and thank God it went in. Later I signed the shirt I had been wearing and sent it to him. From what my dad tells me, he was very happy about it. Him, his nephew, his brother, his niece, they all appreciated it. That meant a lot to me.
Even though we have left Restinga, the old rules still apply. Always take care of your second family. Always look out for your brothers.
12. I just love Leeds, man
I’m so happy here. Everyone has welcomed me with open arms: Marcelo, the owner, the players, the staff, the fans. A friend of mine sent me the song. I couldn’t understand all of it, but to get my own song really is a dream.
All I could think about last season was to play in front of a packed Elland Road. It was very difficult for me to arrive to empty stadiums, because the fans were such a huge part of what made me want the Prem.
But to all you Leeds fans, I want to say that even then I felt your love and affection. Honestly, I cannot put into words how grateful I am for the way you welcomed me to the club.
As for the game against Everton last weekend, well, it was worth the wait. That noise, man. It was just like I remembered it. It was everything I hoped it would be.
I already can’t wait to play in front of you guys again. You’ll cheer us on. We’ll put on a show. And I’ll do my best to make you smile.