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
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