Player bi­og­ra­phy

Roberto Firmino

World Soccer - - Contents - WORDS: Nick Bid­well

Scout­ing for over­seas tal­ent is no job for the naive. Just ask Hof­fen­heim, who had an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in 2010 when run­ning the rule over 18-yearold Roberto Firmino, who at the time was a mid­fielder with sec­ond divi­sion Brazil­ian side Figueirense.

“We’d got hold of a video of Firmino from an agent and it left us puz­zled,” re­veals the club’s for­mer di­rec­tor of sport, Ernst Tan­ner. “In it, Firmino ap­peared to have a shot like an ab­so­lute rocket. But we knew he didn’t hit a ball like that in re­al­ity.

“The video had been speeded up. Ev­ery bit of play was that lit­tle bit quicker.”

Whether cut­ting-room shenani­gans or just tech­no­log­i­cal in­com­pe­tence, the Ger­man club was not go­ing to be put off the scent and they set about watch­ing him in the flesh over a sus­tained pe­riod of time. Con­vinced he was made of the right stuff, they fi­nally signed him for a cut-price € 5mil­lion in De­cem­ber 2010.

Plenty of wa­ter has passed un­der the bridge since then, with the Brazil­ian meet­ing ev­ery ca­reer ex­am­i­na­tion with fly­ing colours and de­vel­op­ing, at the age of 26, into one of the world’s best all-round for­wards.

“The boy was just a re­ally good player,”

re­calls Tan­ner. “What im­pressed me the most was his at­ti­tude.

“His coaches in Brazil did a tremen­dous job of pre­par­ing him. They used to crit­i­cise him a lot, but he never took it the wrong way. He’d come back for more. He wouldn’t be de­terred.

“In train­ing ses­sions [with Figueirense] he worked like a man pos­sessed. He was ir­re­sistible. He had a real never-say-die at­ti­tude. That was awe­some.”

A great deal of fake-news folk­lore has grown up around how he came to the at­ten­tion of Hof­fen­heim. Some claim club of­fi­cials first no­ticed him on the

Foot­ball Man­ager video game, while oth­ers say coach Ralf Rang­nick spot­ted him on YouTube.

But while renowned tal­ent-spot­ter Rang­nick would cer­tainly have checked him out on YouTube and was ex­tremely keen to bring the young­ster to Europe, he did not per­son­ally kick-start the head­hunt­ing process. The man who

ef­fec­tively planted the seed in the Hof­fen­heim con­scious­ness was player agent Roger Wittmann.

His com­pany Ro­gon en­joyed a close work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the Ger­man club and had al­ready sup­plied them with Brazil­ian mid­field­ers Car­los Ed­uardo, Luiz Gus­tavo and Maico­suel, striker Welling­ton and cen­tre-back Fabri­cio. With his ex­ten­sive net­work of con­tacts in Brazil, Wittmann very much had his fin­ger on the foot­balling pulse there. So as soon as Firmino be­gan to make a name for him­self – with a key role in Figueirense’s pro­mo­tion to the top flight in 2010 – he was on the phone to Di­et­mar Hopp, who is the Ger­man club’s fi­nan­cial backer.

But it wasn’t a smooth ride all the way for the young­ster on ar­riv­ing in Ger­many. Home­sick­ness was a malaise he could not shake and he couldn’t mas­ter the lan­guage, usu­ally hav­ing to com­mu­ni­cate through a trans­la­tor. And he was even dropped from the first-team squad for a spell when guilty of turn­ing up late for train­ing. But de­ter­mined not to quit, he knuck­led down and in­te­grated.

Hof­fen­heim proved to be the per­fect point of en­try into the Eu­ro­pean game for Firmino. He never had to worry about first-team ro­ta­tion – if he was fit, he played – and he could learn his trade in a good qual­ity Bun­desliga side, where he was used mainly in an ad­vanced mid­field role but also clocked up time as a winger, sec­ond striker and leader of the line.

But af­ter four-and-a-half sea­sons at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, both player and club knew it was time for Firmino to move on from Hof­fen­heim.

As the club’s di­rec­tor of foot­ball Alexan­der Rosen ex­plained: “Be­cause of his qual­ity and spec­tac­u­lar de­vel­op­ment in the past cou­ple of years, we were no longer in a po­si­tion to hold onto him.

“It was al­ways clear that at some point he was go­ing to be­come too big for us. His de­par­ture for Liver­pool left us with one eye laugh­ing and the other shed­ding a tear.”

Hof­fen­heim did not merely pro­vide Firmino with a plat­form for fame and for­tune; they also schooled him to be the sort of player that Liver­pool man­ager Jur­gen Klopp loves.

Un­der Hof­fen­heim coaches Rang­nick and Markus Gis­dol, the Brazil­ian was an in­te­gral part of a Klopp-like ma­chine: with at­tack­ers as the first wave of the high press, split-sec­ond tran­si­tions and turbo-charged at­tack­ing for­ays.

So it’s easy to see why Klopp says of the Brazil­ian: “He is world class pretty much ev­ery day.”

Much to the fore as Liver­pool fin­ished as Cham­pi­ons League run­ners-up last sea­son, Firmino is ar­guably the key player in their at­tack. While Mo­hamed Salah and Sa­dio Mane are the fleet-footed flank ar­rows, he is the one who lights the fuse, cre­at­ing all sorts of havoc with his

“The boy was just a re­ally good player. What im­pressed me the most was his at­ti­tude” Ernst Tan­ner, Hof­fen­heim’s for­mer di­rec­tor of sport

clever runs off the ball, aware­ness around the box, cre­ativ­ity and hunger to win the ball back.

Bren­dan Rodgers, who was Klopp’s pre­de­ces­sor at An­field, wasted Firmino on the wing in his early days, ex­pect­ing him to do too much track­ing back and keep­ing him away from goal. But Klopp plays to the Brazil­ian’s strength: his sharp­ness of mind. “He thinks so quickly that he seems to have faster nerve im­pulses than any­one else,” for­mer Hof­fen­heim boss Gis­dol once de­clared.

Born and brought up in Ma­ceio, the cap­i­tal of the north-eastern Brazil­ian state of Alagoas, Roberto Firmino Bar­bosa de Oliveira grew up in the Trapiche quar­ter of town, where life was hard for fa­ther Jose Roberto, mother Mar­i­ana and younger sis­ter Roberta Mar­cella. With his dad mak­ing a mea­gre liv­ing sell­ing wa­ter and soft drinks, there was barely enough money for food so the ado­les­cent Roberto had to do his bit, sell­ing co­conuts on a lo­cal beach.

One of his teach­ers at ju­nior school, Adri­ana Leite, re­mem­bers a con­ver­sa­tion she had with the then 10-year-old. “One day he told me that the power had been cut off in his house,” she told Brazil­ian daily O Globo. “I asked him about the things in the re­frig­er­a­tor.

“He replied that apart from wa­ter, there was noth­ing in there. I’ve never for­got­ten this episode. It had a great im­pact on me. When I see pic­tures of him now, I have trou­ble as­so­ci­at­ing them with the slim boy I used to know in my class­room.”

Ob­sessed with the game from the ear­li­est of ages, he joined lo­cal am­a­teur side In­de­pen­dente and got his first big break at 14 when taken on board by re­gional pow­er­house CRB (Clube de Re­gatas Brasil) af­ter a suc­cess­ful trial.

“From the first mo­ment I set eyes on him, I could see the po­ten­tial he had,” CRB youth-team coach Guil­herme told O Globo. “I straight away sent some­one to get his pa­per­work in or­der.

“As a player for our ju­nior teams he used to wear the de­fen­sive mid­field num­ber five shirt. He was a very hum­ble kid. A good lad.

“Some­times he didn’t have enough money to get to train­ing and we’d help him out. I also re­call him of­ten ar­riv­ing at the ground on the back of his fa­ther’s bike. He’s come a long way since then.”

Dur­ing his three sea­sons with CRB, where he of­ten lined up along­side fu­ture Real So­ciedad and Brazil striker Wil­lian Jose, he was be­friended by the club den­tist, Martel­lus Portella, who was to be­come his ad­vi­sor and agent.

“The first time I saw him play for the CRB youth team I im­me­di­ately re­alised what a ta­lented boy he was,” Portella said to the Sao Paulo news­pa­per O Es­tado. “He had phe­nom­e­nal in­tel­li­gence, he drib­bled well and had great vi­sion.

“The thing was, no one seemed to pay too much at­ten­tion to him. When I made the pre­dic­tion that he would one day play for Brazil, I was told I was crazy. The oth­ers were the crazy ones.”

In nor­mal cir­cum­stances Firmino would have turned pro at CRB, who were in the Brazil­ian sec­ond divi­sion. How­ever, a gap­ing hole in the club’s fi­nances saw Firmino and Portella look­ing else­where.

It was Atletico Mineiro mid­fielder Bilu, who was also a na­tive of Ma­ceio, who came to the res­cue, ar­rang­ing for the 17-year-old to try out with three-time South Amer­i­can cham­pi­ons Sao Paulo.

When that came to noth­ing, Bilu’s next call was to Figueirense in the south­ern state of Santa Cata­rina. “In his first train­ing ses­sion with us, he scored two great over­head-kick goals in the open­ing 30 min­utes,” re­calls un­der-17 coach He­mer­son Maria. “It was so im­pres­sive. We’d planned to give him an ex­ten­sive work­out but that was all the time we needed to re­alise what a good player the kid was. Bad luck for Sao Paulo.”

Figueirense switched him to an at­tack­ing mid­field role, and Maria says: “He didn’t have a high level of ed­u­ca­tion but had re­mark­able game in­tel­li­gence.

“He was the com­plete player. A good de­ci­sion-maker, tech­ni­cal, and per­form­ing with a lot of per­son­al­ity. He was a spe­cial one and I had no hes­i­ta­tion in mak­ing him my num­ber 10. He was very driven too. In his first sea­son here, he didn’t once go back to his home town. He said he didn’t want to go back un­til he’d made it in life. Once he’d be­come a pro­fes­sional and started to earn a larger salary he’d go back to Ma­ceio for na­tional hol­i­days.”

Char­ac­ter-wise, the teenage Firmino was the clas­sic Jekyll-and-Hyde type. As­sertive and con­fi­dent on the field of play, he was in­tro­verted off it. Maria has a par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant tale to tell when he says: “Since I had a lot of new young­sters in my team, I used to get some of the

names of the boys mixed up. For the first cou­ple of weeks of us work­ing to­gether I called him Al­berto and he didn’t cor­rect me. Fi­nally, one of the fit­ness coaches, in­formed me that his name was Roberto.

“To get to the bot­tom of it, I called out ‘Al­berto, come here’ and he came run­ning up to me. I asked him his name and he told me Roberto. A re­ally nice lad but so shy.”

It was in 2009 that it all started to come to­gether for Firmino as he ex­celled for Figueirense’s un­der-20s, starred in the Copa Sao Paulo ju­nior tour­na­ment and made his first-team de­but. The fol­low­ing year he made a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the club’s sec­ond

“He was only 17 and seemed a lit­tle lost in a dif­fer­ent coun­try... given what he’s achieved since, it has to go down as an er­ror on our part” Jean-Philippe Du­rand on Mar­seille’s de­ci­sion not to make an of­fer

divi­sion run­ners-up spot, which booked their ticket back to the top flight.

Voted the cham­pi­onship’s Rev­e­la­tion of the Year, he had truly ar­rived. He was primed and ready for that transat­lantic cross­ing to Hof­fen­heim.

Th­ese days Firmino’s mile-high sta­tus as one of the main men in the English top flight and Cham­pi­ons League must feel like a dag­ger be­tween the shoul­der blades for in­sid­ers at Mar­seille.

Tempted by ex­cel­lent scout­ing re­ports and a rock-bot­tom price tag of just € 1m, OM had not one but two failed at­tempts at land­ing the teenage Firmino.

An ini­tial at­tempt to take him to the south of France for a trial ended in farce and dis­may when im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers at Madrid air­port deemed his doc­u­men­ta­tion in­ad­e­quate. They can­celled his ticket for a con­nect­ing flight to Mar­seille and de­ported him.

The sec­ond time Mar­seille at least man­aged to mon­i­tor him on Proven­cal turf, be­fore even­tu­ally con­clud­ing that he was a lit­tle too timid for their lik­ing.

“We had him train­ing with our re­serves for a month and all the coaches who looked at him thought he had po­ten­tial,” for­mer OM per­son­nel chief Jean-Philippe Du­rand told a Canal Plus talk show ear­lier this year. “He even took part in some shoot­ing drills with the pro squad and was im­pres­sive. How­ever, he was only 17 and seemed a lit­tle lost in a dif­fer­ent coun­try. At the time, he didn’t quite fit our re­cruit­ment strat­egy.

“Given what he’s achieved since, it has to go down as an er­ror on our part.”

A mem­ber of Brazil’s side at this sum­mer’s World Cup in Rus­sia, Firmino first broke into the Sele­cao ranks in the au­tumn of 2014, mak­ing his de­but as a sub­sti­tute in a 4-0 friendly win over Turkey in Novem­ber. Six days later, he scored a late long-range win­ner against Aus­tria in Vi­enna.

By no means a fan favourite dur­ing his two stints in charge of the Sele­cao and fre­quently de­rided for his unin­spir­ing util­i­tar­ian brand of foot­ball, 1994 World Cup-win­ning skip­per Dunga did recog­nise a class act when he saw it and he was par­tic­u­larly fond of Firmino.

Dunga had liked the cut of the young­ster’s jib dur­ing his days at Figueirense and even tried to sign him when in charge of In­ter­na­cional in 2013. But that was wish­ful think­ing on Dunga’s part as Hof­fen­heim were de­ter­mined to hold onto their star at the time.

“Firmino is an out­stand­ing at­tack­ingthird player,” ex­plained Dunga on pick­ing him for the first time.

“I’ve been fol­low­ing him for a long time now. He’s tech­ni­cally very com­fort­able, quick, has good in­stincts, fin­ishes well and al­ways looks to make tracks for the op­po­si­tion goal.

“I think he could play for any big Eu­ro­pean club.”

Never was a truer word spo­ken.

Im­pressed... Ernst Tan­ner

World class...with Liver­pool boss Jur­gen Klopp

Ver­sa­tile...he played in sev­eral dif­fer­ent roles at Hof­fen­heim

Run­ner-up...af­ter los­ing the Cham­pi­ons League Fi­nal in May

Dan­ger...tak­ing on Switzer­land at this sum­mer’s World Cup

Win­ner...Liver­pool’s third goal in their 3-2 vic­tory over Paris Saint-Ger­main

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