‘Bobby’ Firmino is all fired up to emulate his Brazil heroes
Having enjoyed his best season yet in a Liverpool shirt, Roberto Firmino heads to Russia aiming to emulate his boyhood heroes and win Brazil’s sixth World Cup – and put any lingering doubters firmly in their place
Roberto Firmino is a happy man, and when he’s a happy man, boy do you know about it. The Liverpool forward has just had his best season yet in a Reds shirt, and now the Brazilian is excitedly anticipating his first World Cup. The enthusiasm shows not only in that trademark pearly-white smile, but also in the way Firmino strides into the studio to meet Fourfourtwo for a pre-tournament chit-chat and photoshoot, laughing and joking all the while. “I’ve seen this before but have never played it,” he says with a boyish grin as FFT’S snapper presents him with a Subbuteo table. Sure enough, his first flick results in a goal. “GOOOOOOOOOLLLL!” he screams, before collapsing into fits of laughter.
Finding the back of the net has been something the 26-year-old has done with great regularity in 2017-18. In fact, Firmino has scored more goals in his third season at Anfield – 27 in all competitions prior to the Champions League final – than he did in his first and second combined (23). Having previously been something of a support act to Sadio Mané and Philippe Coutinho in recent years, he’s now unquestionably among Liverpool’s most crucial players.
A certain Mohamed Salah may have swept up all of the awards, but Firmino’s contribution has not gone unnoticed, particularly by his club and manager, who responded with a new long-term contract for the man the fans lovingly refer to as ‘Bobby’.
But, amazingly, there are still a few people who are yet to be won over. Back home in Brazil, Firmino isn’t held in quite such high regard. Having left his homeland in 2010 without ever playing in the domestic top tier, there remains scepticism in the media and on the terraces that he may not really be ‘all that’.
“Our kids shouldn’t leave the country too early, otherwise they’ll face the same stuff that Firmino has to cope with whenever he comes back to play for the national team,” claimed former Torino and Porto forward Walter Casagrande, one of Brazil’s most influential pundits, earlier this year. “He’s doing well for Liverpool, but doesn’t have a local background; someone to root for him.”
Casagrande was one of many Brazilians championing the cause of Nagoya Grampus striker Jo. The 31-year-old was the leading scorer in Brazil’s top flight during 2017, bagging 18 goals for Corinthians before moving to Japan in January. And yes, that’s the same Jo who scored six times in 48 Premier League matches for Manchester City and Everton between 2008 and 2011.
“Jo is a better footballer than Firmino,” said Casagrande. “He can offer more to the team than Firmino does.”
So what better way for Firmino to prove the doubters wrong than by firing Brazil to their sixth World Cup crown in Russia?
Do that, and Bobby will have even more to smile about...
Having hit top form during the latter stages of qualifying, Brazil are now among the favourites to win the World Cup. How does the team deal with that tag? Firstly, I don’t believe Brazil are the only contenders. There are many other teams who could win the competition, maybe as many as eight, including Spain and Germany. I think there will be some surprises, too. To be honest, at this World Cup, almost every team is a contender – it will be very tough. So we have to be as well prepared as possible and play our best football if we’re going to win the tournament. There will be pressure on us to do well, but every big team has to deal with that, not just Brazil. We just have to do our best to win the early games, and then take it step by step.
You have had an incredible season with Liverpool. How much would it mean to round it off with World Cup success? I read online a few months ago that I was a certainty for the World Cup squad, but I only really believed it when I got the call and it was official.
“I LIVED EVERY KICK In 2002. BRAZIL BECOMING CHAMPIONS FOR A FIFTH TIME WAS BEAUTIFUL – I EVEN CUT MY HAIR LIKE RONALDO BEFORE THE SEMI-FINALS”
I just hope that I can do with the national team what I’ve done with Liverpool this season. Winning the World Cup would be an incredible achievement, but before all of that we’ve got to work very hard to turn this dream into reality.
When you join up with the Brazil squad, you’re reunited with your friend, former Liverpool team-mate, and the man who helped you adapt to life in England, Philippe Coutinho. Are the two of you still close since he moved to Barcelona? Everybody knows that Coutinho is a great footballer – here in England they call him ‘The Magician’. He made his decision to join Barcelona, but every time we meet to play for the Selecao, we have a good chat and maintain that friendship. He is an exceptional guy, and one of the best friends football has given me.
As well as Coutinho and yourself, the current Selecao squad also includes Gabriel Jesus, Douglas Costa, Willian and Neymar. Is this the most attacking Brazil side since the 2002 World Cup-winning team of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho? That’s a tough question, but I believe Brazil is enjoying a good uprising since Tite took over as coach – everyone is playing good football. We had some great results during the qualification campaign, so I hope we’ll be able to keep that momentum at the World Cup. I think it’s important for the fans to see us playing attacking football. We are now back at our top level again, playing well and winning matches.
You left your homeland at just 19 having never played in Brazil’s top tier, meaning you were far from the star name you are today. Does that give you added incentive to prove yourself by having a good World Cup? Yes, I didn’t get the chance to play in the first division, only Serie B with Figueirense. Despite that, I was still able to do well enough to open doors for me in Europe, specifically at Hoffenheim in Germany. That was a huge step forward in my career and my life, but the club did everything they could to help me settle in there. I learnt a lot in Germany and will always be so grateful for the fact Hoffenheim were willing to take a chance on me.
Now you’re highly rated in Europe – many pundits would bracket you among the best players in the Premier League – but you don’t get quite the same recognition in Brazil. Why is that? I can’t really explain it. It could be because I didn’t play for very long in Brazil before I chose to move to Europe. I left my home when I was young, so I think that’s probably the main reason – they haven’t seen as much of me compared to other players. I may have a better status outside Brazil, but I don’t worry about it too much. What matters to me is that I’m doing my job at my club, where I’m very happy at the moment. Everything else will follow.
You’ve had a great season for Liverpool. What have you got to do to take your club form into the World Cup? I just need to keep working hard. I have to maintain my daily levels of dedication and try to improve as much as possible, so I am ready and able to always give my best when the tournament starts.
Brazil face Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia in the group stage. What do you make of your chances? It’s a difficult group. Every team will be prepared and well organised, but we have to do our best to find a way past them.
What’s your first World Cup memory? That would be 2002, when I followed the whole tournament in Japan and South Korea. I was only 10 years old but I lived every kick of that World Cup. I woke up in the night to watch the matches. It was one of the most memorable times of my childhood. Since then, I’ve dreamed of playing at the World Cup.
Where did you watch that tournament? I was in Maceio, surrounded by all of my family, which is why it’s such an incredible memory that still brings me great joy – Brazil becoming world champions for a fifth time was a beautiful thing. I even cut my hair like Ronaldo before the semi-finals. I was completely in the World Cup vibe and I loved every second of it. Might I get a special haircut for this World Cup? Maybe I’ll do something new, yeah. I don’t know what yet, but I always like to change up my look.
Who’s your World Cup hero? Ronaldinho (above). He has always been my inspiration because of his quality and the magic he brought to the pitch. I was a fan of Ronaldo as well, obviously. That 2002 team was amazing and fortunately they were crowned world champions. That’s something else Ronaldo did that I’d like to copy!
Liverpool and Brazil forward Roberto Firmino wears adidas Football Nemeziz 18+ for ultimate agility. Visit adidas.co.uk for more details
Above Firmino has had his most prolific season for LiverpoolLeft Bobby and Phil remain friends since the latter left to join Barcelona Far left England could prove quarter-final foes for the Selecao in Russia