Article in today’s Athletic:
The Richarlison you don’t know
Jack Lang Aug 6, 2020 24
Richarlison was living at America Mineiro’s training ground when a shipment of clothing arrived with his name on it.
He was only a teenager, still just a ripple on the surface of the Brazilian game, but he had just agreed his first sponsorship deal with Nike. So they sent him tracksuits, training kit, shoes and boots, all shiny and box-fresh.
It would have been an exciting moment for any young player; for Richarlison, who had been selling ice lollies on dirt roads just a couple of years prior, it must have felt completely surreal. In the circumstances, he would have been forgiven for feeling a swell of pride, or even lording it over his team-mates. But no, that wasn’t Richarlison. Richarlison had other plans.
Quietly, he retreated to his room. He took all of his old clothes and stuffed them into a suitcase, then walked out of the main gate. The other kids in the dormitory had no idea what he was up to; when he returned, a couple of hours later, he still wouldn’t tell them. The truth only emerged later, after much pestering from his room-mate.
Richarlison had taken his belongings into town, to the centre of Belo Horizonte, and handed them out to homeless people. “He gave them everything, including the suitcase,” recalls Guilherme Xavier, one of his closest friends from the time.
It is a story to warm an Arctic soul. It is also entirely representative of Richarlison’s personality.
Speak to enough people who have known him well over the years and a picture swiftly emerges — of a talented, stardom-bound footballer, yes, but also of a human being who has greatly enriched the lives of those around him.
This is the Richarlison you could easily miss if you focused only on the goals and the warrior spirit. Away from the pitch he is funny, cheeky, adorably weird. He is generous, thoughtful and has a strong social conscience. Some of that has started to come through in England, now he is getting to grips with the language, but in Brazil there is already consensus: the kid is special, a true one-off.
Everyone has a story about him, a fond memory to share, but sometimes you can measure the depth of the connection in the underlying tone of a conversation. Take Abel Braga, one of Richarlison’s coaches at Fluminense, who chokes up when asked to speak about his old charge.
“I don’t know, man,” he says, slowly plucking his words from his throat. “He’s just spectacular. The kind of person who seems to have been designed differently by the big guy up in the sky. I get emotional just talking about him.”
Richarlison’s first steps in football came under a youth coach called Tiao Borboleta. That translates as Big Uncle Butterfly, which is a pretty solid entry point into a charmed existence.
Life was not easy in Nova Venecia, halfway down Brazil’s Atlantic coast. Poverty and crime went hand in hand; Richarlison’s neighbourhood was a hot spot for drug dealers, and he once had a gun pointed at his head. He readily admits that his life story could have panned out very differently.
“A lot of my childhood friends are in prison,” he told SporTV in 2018. “Others are dead. I could easily have gone down that path. People used to call me ‘scumbag’ or ‘trouble-maker’ when I walked down the street. But I didn’t listen to the negative voices.”
He was lucky enough to have role models around him. One was an uncle, Elton, with whom he lived with during his early teenage years. When he started playing futsal, his coach was a police officer. “He told me I had talent,” Richarlison told O Globo earlier this year. “Football put me on the right path.”
Richarlison, centre of back row, and his futsal team Palestra
In December 2014, after failed trials with local clubs Avai and Figueirense, he joined America Mineiro’s under-17 team. After four games and four goals, he was moved up to the under-20s. When a series of injuries hit the first team a few weeks later, he was called in to make up the numbers in training. He never returned to the youth ranks.
“He was so explosive,” says Guilherme Xavier, the team’s left-back, pictured in the photo below. “He was powerful and really quick. He was only young but he was ready for senior football. I was also impressed by his desire. For Richarlison, there was no such thing as a lost ball.”
Marcelo Toscano, who played in attack with Richarlison as America won promotion from Serie B in 2015, was similarly bowled over. “You could see his talent, right from the start,” he says. “He made finishing look easy, with his right foot and left. He could dribble past you on either side, so it was hard for defenders to cope with him. When he picked the ball up and set off, you could see that the opposition centre-backs were petrified.
“I always remember what he did in a game against Sampaio Correia. His assist… wow. He cut back one, two, three times, leaving the defender dizzy on the floor, then he squared for Rodrigo Souza to score. His potential was gigantic. He was a ready-made star.”
Richarlison during his time at America Mineiro. Xavier, his friend and former team-mate, is in the white shirt, while at the far end is Mancini, the former Roma and Brazil winger
The same wasn’t quite true off the pitch. Richarlison was painfully timid around strangers, which meant his media duties often became an ordeal. He would muddle his words (“Good evening to all the people watching the radio at home,” was one memorable line) and freeze when the camera rolled.
“He really didn’t like doing interviews,” laughs Carlos Cruz, America’s press officer at the time. “It was hard to get a full sentence out of him. I tried to do a few exercises with him, explaining the importance of interviews, but he would literally hide from me when I wanted him to do one.
“On one occasion, Jair Bala — the biggest idol in the history of the club — came to the training ground to take a few pictures alongside Richarlison. The idea was that they would shake hands and Jair would give him a few words of encouragement. A nice, easy thing. But Richarlison just disappeared. I found him hiding in the changing room. The manager, Givanildo Oliveira, had to order him to go and talk to this club legend, just out of respect.
“That was Richarlison. He ran from microphones and cameras like a vampire runs from a cross. Every interview was like childbirth.”
At one stage, it became so stressful that Richarlison broke down in tears. That prompted Oliveira to decree the forward only had to speak to the press once a week, no matter how many requests Cruz received. Oliveira also asked the other players to form a barrier in front of Richarlison when they walked off the pitch after matches. It became a running joke for the local press corps.
In private though, he was far more relaxed. His team-mates loved the way his serious face (has there ever been a more firmly furrowed brow?) would melt into hysterics at the drop of the hat. They mocked him relentlessly about his big nose and found that he was a capable wind-up merchant himself. “He always took it well, and gave a lot back, too,” says Toscano. “The chemistry was just right.”
The younger players from the time characterise him as an adorable goofball. He kept all his money in a creaky old spring-action piggy bank in his room rather than in a bank account, and he was prone to acts of bizarre showmanship. Hugo Miller, a team-mate in America’s under-20 side, remembers going to a party with Richarlison and seeing a film crew at the venue. “They were recording for a publicity video,” he says. “When the camera passed him, he went into this massive celebration, as if he had scored a goal. He had a soft drink in his hand and ended up splashing it all over himself. He was drenched.”
Xavier recalls a trip to the local food market: “The vendors there always gave out little tasters: fruit, local delicacies, that kind of thing. Richarlison was such a simple, pure person that he couldn’t lie when he didn’t like something. Someone at the market would give him something and he’d say, ‘Yuck! That is gross! Horrible!’ Then he’d throw it away, right in front of them. He made us laugh so much.
“On the way home, he asked me whether he could drive. He had never driven a car before, but he insisted. ‘Teach me, Xa!’ So we swapped seats. It was an automatic and he pottered along slowly. But when we came to a roundabout, he forgot to turn. I went to grab the handbrake but he accelerated and we ended up on the grass in the middle.”
Richarlison quickly outgrew America Mineiro. But those who knew him then say they will not forget him any time soon. They are delighted he is succeeding; they are even more delighted that he is growing as a person, without losing his essence.
“I’m always following, supporting him,” says Xavier. “I watch his interviews and can see how much he’s developed. I used to study English and he was always asking me how to pronounce random words, and now he’s starting to speak a bit himself. I’m really pleased to see that. He was a really shy boy, but I now see a man who is at ease in front of the cameras, happy to have a laugh. He’s a class apart on the pitch, and he’s developing culturally off it, learning new languages. It’s great to see.
“He’s a special guy and such a pure person. He is simple, modest, with an enormous heart. It was great to live those moments with him.”
Rafael Arruda, one of the local journalists Richarlison frequently dodged during his time at the club, holds the now 23-year-old in the same esteem. “He was natural; there was nothing forced about him,” he says. “He always treated everyone with respect. He was a simple, modest kid. I can see that he hasn’t changed, even now he has made it in Europe. He deserves every success.”
Interlude: Stay weird
You are weird in the best possible way.
You dance like a pigeon, which is probably the least cool thing in the animal kingdom.
You cried when you got taken off in a Watford match, even though Watford were winning.
You managed to get mumps — mumps! — during the Copa America, like this was the 1930s or something.
You dedicated your goal in the final of that tournament to your great-grandmother, but then forgot her name, live on TV.
You almost certainly aren’t reading this, but just in case you are, indulge this request: stay weird, Richarlison. It suits you.
Barra da Tijuca, Leblon, Ipanema… these are the places you usually expect footballers to live when they come to Rio de Janeiro. A posh flat in a gated community overlooking the beach: thank you, pleasure doing business with you. But no, that wasn’t Richarlison. Richarlison had other ideas.
He took a property in Tanque, a deeply unpicturesque neighbourhood amid the city’s working-class sprawl. No bells, no whistles, no delusions of grandeur. “This place helped me settle,” he told Globo. “This is my little corner. Everything is calm and simple here. The plan was to adapt as quickly as possible, away from the spotlight. You don’t feel like you’re in a big city here.”
At the start, it probably helped that he had a hideaway. His first six months at Fluminense were tricky: he impressed on a pre-season tour of the USA but two injuries slowed his progress and when he did start playing, he was out of touch. He went 10 games without scoring. There were tears (this is a running theme with Richarlison) and recriminations. He later admitted that barren run dented his confidence.
(Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
It didn’t interfere with his work ethic, however. “The other guys would finish training and he’d still be there, showing his commitment,” recalls Marcao, Fluminense’s assistant manager. “He’d be working on some part of his game, with a spark in his eyes. He was a great listener and was happy to receive advice from the more experienced players in the squad.
“He worked hard to improve, even when the coach wasn’t picking him. He kept doing that until his chance came. He was mentally strong, prepared for everything. You see the same mentality in him today. He’s always fighting, looking to be the best. That’s our Richarlison.”
A goal in the derby against Flamengo lifted his spirits, but it was not until 2017 that he fully came out of his shell. The arrival of the paternal Braga as coach was critical; he and Richarlison hit it off instantly and the results were staggering. By the end of April, the forward had scored against all four of Fluminense’s city rivals and was being talked about as a future Brazil international.
“I’ve got real affection for that kid,” Braga tells The Athletic. “It goes beyond the usual player-coach relationship. When I arrived, I spoke with him a lot, giving him support and building his confidence. The response he gave me was unbelievable.
“Across my whole career, I’ve only seen a few forwards with his characteristics. He was aggressive and he could play all across the front line. He could track his full-back and get back to cut out diagonal passes, then go up the other end to score or create a goal. The word I always use for Richarlison is ‘hungry’. He brought an intensity to every game. It was unreal.”
That level of commitment was also visible between matches. “He was with me for seven months and I never saw him without a ball,” says Braga. “Not once. He was like a four-year-old who wanted his dad to know he was ready to go out and play. He would go out onto the training pitch early, before his team-mates, with a ball in his hands. He’d do keep-ups and practise his shooting, or smack the ball against a wall.
“He never leaves anything for another day. ‘Ah, I could have given 10 per cent more today’ – that’s just not him. He’s not that type of player. He didn’t get where he is today by accident.”
Yet Richarlison’s single-mindedness almost sabotaged his legacy at Fluminense. In June 2017, he learnt of interest from Palmeiras, who were willing to offer him a significant pay rise — and, on the field, a much better chance of lifting the Brazilian title. Awkwardly, Fluminense’s next game was against Palmeiras. Richarlison asked to be left out of the side.
“He came to me and asked not to play because his head wasn’t in the right place,” recalls Braga. “You can imagine what that was like, having to think about playing a team he was going to sign for one day later. I told him, ‘Look, you’re going to get abuse for this because it’s not good for the team. I’ll stick up for you, but it won’t be good for your image. The Fluminense fans won’t like this’.”
They really didn’t. Nor did the club’s hierarchy, who pulled the plug on the deal. The next day, Richarlison visited Braga in his office again. He cried and offered a grovelling apology. Braga, true to his word, went to bat for the youngster in his next press conference. “We can’t crucify him,” he said. “Who has never done something stupid as a kid?”
(Photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
Today, Braga thinks it was an important moment in Richarlison’s growth. Back then, he could be impatient and rash; there was also the suggestion he was listening to the wrong people. “He definitely learnt from that,” Braga says. “We learn from the tough moments, not the easy ones.”
The fans did forgive him. So too did his team-mates and club staff, who chalked the affair down to naivety. It helped that he had such an infectious, breezy personality, which quickly broke down any barriers. “He was such a light person to be around, always spreading positive energy,” says Marcao. “He always made a point of having fun, even with all the responsibility.”
His colleagues also found he had the happy knack of being able to make people laugh — whether intentionally or not. Marcos Junior, who played in attack with Richarlison at Fluminense and is still friends with him today, cites an interview his team-mate gave after scoring twice in a 3-2 win over Botafogo.
“They asked him about his willingness to try his luck from difficult positions,” the winger tells The Athletic. “Richarlison wanted to say, ‘You won’t score if you don’t shoot’. But he was nervous and ended up saying, ‘You won’t shoot if you don’t score’. We rinsed him about that one for absolutely ages.”
For Braga, though, it was Richarlison’s kindness that shone through more than his quirky side. Memories of 2017 come flooding back to him every time he visits his son’s office in Rio. On the wall is a framed painting of him and Richarlison locked in an embrace during a game. It was a present from Richarlison, who brought it to his house a few months after joining Watford that summer. He wanted to say thank you to Braga for all he had done for his career.
“That really touched me,” Braga says. “He was a great person to work with, and that just shows that the respect is mutual. He’s a sweetheart.”
Interlude: English lessons
Are these going well? Hard to say. At the Copa America, you had to ask Thiago Silva to translate the words “Fair Play Trophy” on the piece of metal you were holding, which isn’t a great sign.
But you’re trying and it is very, very endearing. “Please, please, thank you very much,” was a great little outburst in the Amazon series about the Brazil national team, and then there were the sheets of phrases you posted to Twitter a while back, lovingly written out in pencil.
“My name’s Richarlison. I am 23 years old, from Brazil. You have brothers? Yes I have two brothers and two sisters. My father is Antonio. My mother is Vera Lucia. I live in Liverpool with my friend and my dog. In training I use gloves to protect my hand. After the training I have lunch and after the lunch I come back to my house. In my house I play video game with my friends. I like to go centre because very beautiful girls.”
Followed by the Everton chant: “He’s Brazilian, he only cost 50 million, and we think he’s fucking brilliant, RICHARLISON…”
Sorry, but how could people not love you?
America Mineiro and Fluminense seem like a lifetime ago now; Nova Venecia may as well be in a different galaxy. Yet while Richarlison edges towards superstardom in Europe — Barcelona will not be the last Champions League team to ask Everton about his services — his influence continues to be felt back home.
Many Brazilian players support charitable causes, but Richarlison has become something of a one-man social crusade, chipping in to help countless causes with his time, money and profile.
A charity match in Nova Venecia last summer yielded 6.4 tonnes of food donations for people who struggle to make ends meet. “If you have the chance to make a small difference in someone’s life, don’t think twice,” he said, struggling (and again failing) to hold back tears. At the start of 2020, he arranged for care packages to be distributed after floods in his home state. He then did the same as COVID-19 took hold, helping 500 families. He is also an ambassador for the University of Sao Paulo, helping to fund and promote coronavirus research.
Before the Copa America last summer, he donated 50,000 Reais (£7,000) to a group of schoolchildren who wanted to travel to Taiwan for the International Mathematical Olympiad. A few weeks later, someone sent him a picture of kids in his hometown wearing hand-made ‘Richarlison, 21’ Brazil jerseys; he turned up at their school and gave them official ones.
In 2019, he was given an official commendation by the state legislature. He turned up in parliament, smartly dressed, to receive a medal. He posed for photos. Then he took the microphone and called for more investment in education and healthcare.
Most of those didn’t make the news, at least not beyond a small area of Brazil. He did them out of genuine compassion, not because it was going to burnish his public image. The hardships and the challenges of his youth have remained with him; he wants others to have more opportunities, and bigger ones.
That commitment has started to come to the fore in England in recent months.
Anyone who follows him on social media will know he likes to engage with Everton fans, and it was no great surprise that the club named him their PFA Community Champion for 2019-20.
(Photo: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)
“From the beginning of my career, I set out to lend my voice to causes that are really important to me and to my community,” he said after receiving that award. “All of us who play in major leagues and have some space in the media have a great social responsibility. I want to be remembered as someone who tried to change things around me for the better.”
Those who know Richarlison best are certain he will do just that. Certain, too, that he will continue to enchant everyone around him with his winning authenticity. “Like a 12-year-old, but very likeable,” is one take on him from inside Goodison Park, which chimes nicely with the cheeky-kid-brother schtick that has made him the darling of the Brazil squad over the last couple of years.
Whatever the future holds for him, he won’t change. That much is evident when you speak to those who carry memories of Richarlison in their hearts and minds.
“What really stays with me is his big heart,” concludes Marcao. “At the end of last season, I had the opportunity to go to Liverpool and see a few games. He hosted us and gave us such a great reception. He was generous and attentive, with the sense of joy that he always had.
“We ate with him at the stadium after one of the matches. He took out his phone and showed me a video. It was of us working together at the Fluminense training ground, late one evening. Night was falling, but there we were, me, him and a goalkeeper, working on his finishing. He hadn’t forgotten it; he kept the memory with him, and the video is still on his phone, all these years later.
“That’s what makes the kid such a winner. He remembers his roots and the people who helped him get where he is today. Even though he is now strutting his stuff out in the big, wide world, he is still the Richarlison I knew. That is the best present you can receive as a coach.”
(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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