It’s the Fighters Who Make It

Richarlison
·18 min read

Para ler em Português, clique aqui.

I want to tell you a fishing story.

When I was 17 years old and living in Brazil, I went to visit my dad for the weekend with my two brothers and my cousins. My dad, Antônio, was not having an easy time. He had been separated from my mum, Vera Lucia, for 10 years, and was living on a farm on his own. Worse, he was suffering from depression.

I was very attached to him, in part because he had always believed in my dream to become a footballer. He would go anywhere to watch me play. Of course I wanted to be a pro.

Yet the only thing I had achieved was a long list of rejections.

In fact I was running out of time to get my big break. I was training with the youth team of América-MG, one of the biggest clubs in the state of Minas Gerais. Even though I was already old by youth academy standards, I was still trying to get a contract.

So I knew this was my last chance.

Anyway, on this particular weekend the team had been given some time off, and since I was living with my mum, it was only natural to spend some time with Dad. While we were at his place, my brothers and cousins and I grabbed our fishing rods and headed out to these three ponds near the house. They must have been on the same piece of land, because the landlord had said that we were only allowed to fish in two of them. The third pond was forbidden.

So we spent the entire day fishing in the two ponds. And we got nothing.

To be honest, we didn’t really care. We were only there to have fun. But on the way back to the house, we walked past the Forbidden Pond. We looked at each other. We looked at the pond. Nobody else seemed to be watching. We still had some bait left….

And so I hooked on a piece and tossed it into the water.

Two seconds later….

SNAP!

Fish on.

I’m still not sure why I did it. Anyway, it was stupid, because the landlord eventually found out about it. He went to my dad and shouted at him in front of a group of people, saying he could kick him out of his house any time he wanted.

It was the last thing my dad needed. He was humiliated.

And in that moment, something clicked inside my head. I remember telling my Uncle Elton, “I will do anything to get a contract at América. I’m gonna get my dad out of there.”

Before that, helping my family through football had been just an idea.

Suddenly it was an obsession.

Courtesy of Richarlison
Courtesy of Richarlison

Looking back, I guess I was bound to grow attached to my dad the moment he gave me a bunch of footballs for my birthday. There is no better way to win the loyalty of a Brazilian kid. At the time, my family was living together in a wooden house in Todos os Santos, a little village in the state of Espírito Santo, near the Brazilian coast. There was a football pitch close to our home where I used to play with my friends. When I was not there, I’d be out watching my dad play for his local team. Wherever my dad went — whether he was playing cards or seeing his friends in the town square — he would take me with him.

When I was seven, my parents broke up. Dad was going to Minas Gerais to work, and the rest of us — me, Mum and my two brothers and my two sisters — were going to Nova Venécia. That was where I started my dream, really, because I enrolled at a football school there. On the first day I turned up with butterflies in my stomach. I was already fantasising about playing for the Seleção. I owned a Brazil shirt. I would watch all the World Cups and the qualifiers. I had no bigger dream than to put on the yellow jersey.

On that morning we were playing on a clay pitch. It was so much fun, and the coach liked me. Over the next few months I trained harder and harder. I also realised that football was not just a career path for me. It could also help my family. We were five people living in a house with two rooms in total, and my mum was working every day to make sure we had enough to eat. She is such a fighter. But she couldn’t do it all on her own, and pretty soon she began asking us to help her out.

So when I was 11, I got a job. I began selling ice pops.

Look, I know it sounds random. But for me it was a natural thing to do. My great-granddad was famous in the town for selling them. For years he had been sitting in the square with his cart. Now he was running his little business with my cousin, so during the summers I would join him. I’d get up at 6 a.m., wheel the cart downtown and spend the day shouting like one of those match-day programme sellers you see outside the football stadiums. “Ice pops! Ice pops! Get yer ice pops here!”

I always made sure to walk past the houses that had the most children. What kid doesn’t like an ice pop? But even though I sold a lot, I didn’t earn much. So I had to do other jobs, too, to help my mum. I sold chocolate candies that my aunt had made.

And then there was the car wash.

Oh man, the car wash….

Look, I thought it was going to be an easy job. How hard could it be, right? Well, it turned out to be brutal. I was spending entire days soaping up muddy tires and scrubbing dirty windshields. By the time my shift was over my body was aching. It was killing me!

At one point my boss actually wanted to give me the job full-time. I was like, “Sorry man, this isn’t for me!” I never came back.

I also helped out my granddad on the farm. We would stay out all day in what felt like 50°C, harvesting coffee. I used to sweat and toil so much I was nearly crying! Then I would look over at my granddad and he was having the time of his life. I was like, How is it possible?!

But seriously, I admired his work ethic. It was inspiring. He, too, was a fighter.

He taught me other stuff as well. Sometimes I would hide from him, because I knew he’d tell me off for hanging out with … well, let’s just say they were the wrong kind of people. There was a lot of crime and drugs in my area, and I had some friends who were involved in it. When my mum was out working, I would go with one of my brothers out in the streets. We saw guns, bags full of money … we saw it all. Thank God, I never went looking for anything in that world. But one time that world came looking for me.

It happened when I was 14. I was walking home with a friend after having played football. It was about 8 p.m., so it was dark. Suddenly these two crazy guys came out of nowhere and pointed guns at us.

We were scared as hell. If one had pulled the trigger, even accidentally, we’d have been dead.

We tried to explain the situation. Basically they thought we were trying to sell things in their spot. We showed them the ball we were carrying and said that we were just on our way home. Perhaps they had mistaken us for someone else. Anyway, after a very tense spell, they let us go.

Afterwards we tried to make light of it saying things like, “Dude, you nearly s**t your pants back there.” We were still just kids, making fun of everything.

In any case, after all my experiences in Nova Venécia, I realised I had no choice. I wanted nothing to do with drugs. I wasn’t a farmer. Selling ice pops wasn’t my thing. And I sure as hell wasn’t gonna go back to the car wash.

Courtesy of Richarlison
Courtesy of Richarlison

Basically, I couldn't see myself doing anything other than playing football.

Not that I needed to tell my friends that. They understood it once they saw my football shirt collection. I was walking around with the colours of Chelsea and Milan, I had the jerseys of Drogba and Ibrahimović.

And Neymar, of course. Neymar was my idol. I had his Santos shirt. On the pitch I tried to pull off his moves. I played in his position. I even copied his hairstyle.

You know the yellow mohawk? I had that one!

But wanting to be Neymar is one thing, another is to actually play as a pro. So in 2013, when I was 15, I began looking for a contract.

I first spent a month on trial with Avaí, a team in Florianópolis, some 1,800 kilometres down the coast from Nova Venécia. The way these things work is that you stay at the academy full-time, train hard and hope that they’ll give you a deal. The competition is so intense. At Avaí I went to bed with bruised shins almost every day. Then, after four weeks, a guy from the club told us that they weren’t going to be taking in any new players after all. So, yeah … thanks. All that work for nothing.

What can you say? It was just a huge injustice.

I had a second trial lined up with Figueirense, in the same city. I had so little money left that I had to borrow boots from someone at the club. Again, I put my life on the line in training. Even though I was supposed to be there for only a week, the coach invited me for a second week. I was competing with nine other kids for one of two spots. In the end I spent another month running and fighting to get noticed.

And then Figueirense rejected me, too.

And when did I get the news?

On my 16th birthday.

I was devastated. I felt as if nothing was working out. I remember receiving all these jolly greetings from friends and family — “Happy birthday! :-D” — and yet all I could think about was that I had to go back to my mum in Nova Venécia. The trials were over.

I had to go looking for another job.

James Williamson/AMA/Getty Images
James Williamson/AMA/Getty Images

To be honest, I might have thrown in the towel if I hadn’t had people around to support me. My dad was one of them. My granddad was another. Then there was Fidel — a police officer and a football coach — who I had played a lot of futsal with. “Never give up,” he said. Another one was Regis, who ran the football school. He had some good contacts, and one day he found a new team for me: Real Noroeste, a club close to Nova Venécia that was playing in the Espírito Santo state championship.

So I played for them for a year, and I evolved a lot.

But then they treated me very badly.

I had developed so much that year that América-MG wanted to sign me. They were a bigger club and I wanted to go there. The guys from Real Noroeste told my dad that there would be no problem with my transfer. But then they demanded half of the fee. They were saying one thing and doing another. It was a huge issue for my dad. We both knew América would be my last chance to make it, and their youth team had only four matches left of the season. For him to have to sort that out under that sort of pressure, at a time when he was struggling with depression … it hurt me a lot. I made some good friends at Real Noroeste, but to this day I don’t like to talk too much about that club.

In any case, I went to América for a final shot at a contract. I guess the trial could have ended with another rejection. I don’t know. One thing I am sure of, though, is that after we went on that fishing trip and my dad was humiliated, I got another source of motivation. I found a gear I didn’t know I had.

So I began training even harder. The goals started to fly in. The coaches took notice.

And in December 2014, I was offered a contract by América.

It’s hard to describe the feeling when you finally get something you have chased for so long. I had been through so much pain and so many setbacks. Now I was finally able to help my family. My mum no longer had to worry. My dad could quit his job.

And I could play and train without worrying so much. First I made the América first team. Then in 2016 I signed for Fluminense, one of the biggest clubs in Brazil. That enabled me to buy my first house, in Nova Venécia.

Thanks to God, it all worked out.

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

After that break my motivation shifted. The fishing story had driven me for a long time. Now I was focusing more on what had initially motivated me as a kid: playing for Brazil.

Moving to Europe was important. In 2017, when I was 20, I signed for Watford. Many people doubted that I could make it in the Premier League because a lot of Brazilians struggle when they first come over. But I never felt that pressure. I was just happy to be there.

Instead, the real issues took place off the pitch.

The language was one; I spoke no English. The weather was another. When I arrived it was sunny, so it felt like Brazil, but in November I could no longer feel my toes when I was playing, and by Christmas I had lost contact with my hands. That was tough, especially for someone who had never seen snow before.

Then there was the food. For the first two weeks I stayed in a hotel with my agent and his wife. In the morning we went downstairs to eat and ... well, let’s just say that in Brazil, we’re not used to fries for breakfast. In fact, the food was so strange to me that I skipped breakfast altogether. I started a diet of two meals a day. The menu? Burgers and Coca-Cola. They were the only things I was familiar with.

I ate like that for two weeks. I lost five kilos.

Thankfully I eventually adapted, and I want to give a big thank you to Heurelho Gomes, my best friend at Watford, who helped me so much. Obrigado. I still remember the first time I played against Manchester City, and not just because we lost 6–0 at home! I was so special to stand next to their players in the tunnel before the game — stars like Sergio Agüero and Kevin De Bruyne. They were players I had met only in video games, and now I was about to play against them. Honestly, I felt like a little kid again.

Anyway, I did well enough in one season at Watford to get a move to Everton. And then, just a month later, I got my first call-up for Brazil.

I had been hoping for a call because I had started off well at Everton. I remember watching the squad announcement on TV. My name was not there, but I was like, That’s O.K, I’ll keep trying. My chance will come. Then Pedro, the winger, unfortunately got injured. Suddenly Professor Tite called me. I felt a strange sensation in my body. I’m not sure how to explain it. My heart was thumping. He asked me if I was ready. I was like, “Professor, I’m ready! When do you need me??”

When I turned up to join the squad, I felt like I had arrived on another planet. I thanked God for the opportunity. I couldn’t believe I was about to put on the yellow shirt.

For my first two games, which were friendlies against the U.S. and El Salvador, I got the number 9 shirt. It felt twice as heavy as any other shirt I had worn because, you know, it used to belong to the main man, Ronaldo. Obviously that’s a little bit, I don’t know … crazy.

Both games were special. The first because it was my debut, and I got to play the last 15 minutes. The second because I started up front next to Neymar — and I scored two goals.

Playing with Neymar was incredible. I had met him once before, in his house in Paris, but I had only had time to take a picture with him. This time we were sharing the pitch. I had already told him that I’d once copied his yellow mohawk.

He just burst into laughter.

Now we are great friends. He always looks for me when he has the ball, and I feel we can become a great duo. It was a shame that he could not take part when we won the Copa América last year. But the next World Cup will be another for us to win a trophy together. I just want to make sure we keep winning in the qualifiers and get there in good shape.

Until that happens, I just want to do my best for Everton. Sometimes my friends ask me if I miss Brazil and my family. Even though my life is great on Merseyside, of course I do.

But I came a long way to get here, and I don’t want to stop now. There are millions of Brazilian kids who are trying to go the same way.

To those kids I just want to repeat the advice that I got five years ago.

Never give up.

It’s the fighters who make it.

Save Pantanal

Now that I have told you one story, you might as well hear another.

After I had finished the season with Watford in 2018, I went straight on holiday with some friends. We went camping and fishing in Brazil.

One of the areas we visited was Pantanal, in the southwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Pantanal is famous for being the biggest tropical wetland in the world — a beautiful place, full of rare plants and animals. At one point during the trip, we drove past a village, and when we spotted a group of kids playing football there, we stopped the car and asked if we could join them. I feel fortunate that I got to play with them. Before we left I gave a football shirt to the village chief.

I spent nearly a week in Pantanal and had so much fun. I would recommend that place to anyone.

That is, whatever is left of it now….

I want to speak about something that matters a lot to me, and that should matter a lot to you, too. I’m sad and worried about what has happened to Pantanal. About a quarter of the whole region has been on fire this year. In the beginning I was seeing it on the news all the time, which made sense — it’s an area we should all fight to protect.

But I didn’t see anyone doing anything about it.

Which raises the question: Why?

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

Look, I’m not a politician. I can’t stop the fires on my own. But as a player for Brazil and Everton, I can show people what’s going on. So I have posted a few pictures on social media in support of Pantanal. Not just to show sympathy, but to make the authorities wake up.

Right now there is way too much greed in politics. Some people do whatever they can to win elections, but once they have power they just exploit it for their own gain. And that ends up harming Brazil. I want the authorities to know that we are concerned about our country and its natural resources.

Some of my Everton teammates asked me about Pantanal when they saw the posts. I showed them some more pictures of the fires and they were shocked. They all knew about the wildlife in Brazil, but they didn’t know about the dangers it was facing.

Guys, let me be clear here: It is very bad.

So I hope, through posts and campaigns, that we can all mobilise enough people to make the authorities wake up and do more to save the wetlands. People with many followers need to speak out. People who have authority need to use it.

The earth is our greatest treasure. Let’s make sure we take care of it.