Joy back in Brazil

> Firmino’s international ca­reer is flour­ish­ing af­ter be­ing born from the ashes of Brazil’s hum­bling 7-1 de­feat to Ger­many

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPORTS -

ON 6 JUNE 2014, Brazil played their fi­nal warm-up game ahead of the World Cup. Ser­bia were their op­po­nents at the Mo­rumbi and Luiz Felipe Sco­lari named the XI that would start against Croa­tia six days later, Hulk and Fred lin­ing up along­side Ney­mar in at­tack.

24 hours later, some 1,200 miles up the coast, an­other Brazil­ian for­ward was also in ac­tion. Roberto Firmino, back in his home­land for foot­ball’s big jam­boree, ran out to warm ap­plause at the dinky Está­dio Luís Pontes, in his home state of Alagoas.

He was the star turn that af­ter­noon, but this was a dif­fer­ent world to that in­hab­ited by the stars of the Sele­cao: he was cap­tain­ing a ‘Friends of Firmino’ side in a lo­cal char­ity match (en­try fee: 1kg of food for the poor).

He may have been hot prop­erty in Europe – many a big club was mon­i­tor­ing his progress af­ter an ex­plo­sive 22-goal sea­son for Hof­fen­heim – but Firmino had been so far from mak­ing Sco­lari’s fi­nal squad that he may as well have been Bul­gar­ian or Bel­gian. There had been no great clam­our for his in­clu­sion, ei­ther, de­spite at­tack­ing op­tions be­ing so sparse that Sco­lari deemed Jo wor­thy of a berth.

The is­sue was one of vis­i­bil­ity: Firmino, hav­ing moved to Ger­many from Figueirense be­fore even hav­ing fea­tured in Brazil’s top flight, was an un­known quan­tity and lacked a con­stituency. Do­mes­tic-based play­ers were seen as safer op­tions.

Things are markedly dif­fer­ent three and a half years on. Firmino is a fix­ture in the squad un­der Tite, hav­ing proven him­self a player of rare poly­va­lence for Liver­pool over the past cou­ple of sea­sons.

The Premier League fac­tor has helped, too, boost­ing his pro­file in Brazil as well as in Europe. With a World Cup place beck­on­ing, the 26-year-old seems happy to have come the long way.

“I left Brazil very early, be­fore reach­ing the top level of the Brazil­ian cham­pi­onship,” Firmino ex­clu­sively told “That made a dif­fer­ence: I was not seen as a ‘name’ around the coun­try.

“But I never wor­ried too much about that. I knew I had the po­ten­tial to play at a high level and that the recog­ni­tion would come in a nat­u­ral way. Now I’m play­ing in one of the strong­est, most im­por­tant leagues in the world, I feel I have more re­spon­si­bil­ity. I’m be­ing watched the whole time. But this gives me strength and mo­ti­vates me to do a great job.”

Now, his ab­sence in 2014 looks sus­pi­ciously like a bless­ing. We all know what Brazil did that sum­mer, af­ter all, and so many of the play­ers who came up short in those fret­ful, fate­ful four weeks – Fred and Hulk most notably but also Os­car, Bernard, Ramires – have since been ush­ered off the international stage.

The crush­ing 7-1 loss to Ger­many and the bone- Coutinho and Gabriel Je­sus.

The re­sults tell half of the story – Tite started with nine con­sec­u­tive wins – but there is also a breezy spirit in the camp and a clear de­ter­mi­na­tion to right the wrongs of 2014.

“That de­feat was a re­ally big blow to all Brazil­ians,” Firmino says of the Ger­many game. But we put it into our heads that what hap­pened then doesn’t mat­ter any­more; it’s what we do from now on that counts. Clearly, it was a les­son but we now see it as ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion for do­ing our best on the pitch and bring­ing the glory years back to Brazil.”

So the at­mos­phere in the dress­ing room is pos­i­tive? “It couldn’t be bet­ter. We have been able to re­store Brazil’s rep­u­ta­tion, play­ing joy­ful foot­ball that is re­spected around the world. That is our essence. Our play­ers have great qual­ity and have brought their club form to the national team.”

Firmino re­serves special praise for the coach who has helped re­store that lost lus­tre: “Pro­fes­sor Tite has played a big role in the Sele­cao’s as­cent. He’s a bril­liant coach, with a unique way of work­ing, but he’s also a mar­vel­lous per­son.

“He makes ev­ery­one feel at ease. It’s be­cause of his man­ner that the team spirit as good as it could pos­si­bly be. He trans­formed the at­mos­phere, im­posed his style of play and ev­ery­one em­braced his ideas.”

On a per­sonal level, a friendly against Eng­land at Wem­b­ley would doubt­less have been a memorable oc­ca­sion for a for­ward who has thrived in the hus­tle and bus­tle of the Premier League.

Firmino may not be a reg­u­lar starter for Brazil as he is for Liver­pool – Gabriel Je­sus will lead the line in Rus­sia bar­ring in­jury – but he is con­vinced that play­ing in Eng­land has helped him. Build­ing up chem­istry with Sele­cao col­league Philippe Coutinho hasn’t hurt, ei­ther.

“It’s dif­fer­ent: the game is quicker, but very phys­i­cal at the same time,” Firmino con­tin­ues. I think my game is suited to it be­cause I’m fast and I know how to use my strength. My team­mates play an im­por­tant part in that, be­cause we seek to com­ple­ment each other’s games.

“It helps hav­ing Coutinho with me. He’s a ‘dif­fer­en­tial’ who helps swing games. The fact we’re to­gether day to day at Liver­pool means we have a good un­der­stand­ing, so we can use that in Brazil games.

“Coutinho is a friend and also a great player. He’s got in­cred­i­ble pass­ing abil­ity; he knows how to put at­tack­ers in on goal.”

Firmino also sees tac­ti­cal par­al­lels be­tween Tite and Liver­pool man­ager Jür­gen Klopp: “I think the Brazil sys­tem is sim­i­lar to the one we use at Liver­pool, with lots of move­ment, play­ers open out wide and qual­ity mid­field­ers who join the at­tack and score goals.”

The recipe is work­ing: in 16 matches since Dunga’s de­par­ture, Brazil have scored 38 goals and con­ceded just five. Ja­pan were brushed aside on Fri­day and it begs an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: are the Sele­cao favourites in Rus­sia?

“The word ‘favourite’ is very strong,” says Firmino. “A lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity comes with that [sta­tus]. Be­cause we have won the most World Cups and have played in ev­ery edi­tion, Brazil are al­ways seen in that way.

We’re among the coun­tries who have a chance of win­ning and we’ll do ev­ery­thing to get the hex­a­cam­pe­onato (sixth ti­tle).

Con­fi­dence lev­els are re­ally high now, but there’s still a long road ahead of us. We’ve only qual­i­fied; we haven’t won any­thing yet.” – The In­de­pen­dent

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