In Brazil, if you have dreams of being a professional footballer, you’re usually in a big club’s youth academy by 12 or 13 years old. But for some reason, things weren’t working out for me. São Paulo FC gave me a trial, and they liked me, but then they told me that they couldn’t offer me a bed at the academy. The club was was too far away from my home, so if I took the bus there every day, I’d have to drop out of school, and my mother … hahahaha …
Well, my mother was definitely not going to accept that. She was all about school.
I owe everything to my mom during this period. Because a lot of kids in Brazil, when they’re from humble means, they have to start working in order to help the family. They can’t do football and school and work. So the dream dies for them at that point.
But my mother, she believed in me. For whatever reason, she believed. She told me to keep going, no matter what I had to do.
So at 13 years old, I started playing with grown men in the Várzea.
O.K. — everybody in São Paulo knows what I’m talking about right now (and they probably just started laughing). But for everybody else, I will explain….
The Várzea is kind of like street basketball in America, or like the semi-professional football leagues in Europe. The pitches are all dirt, and you’re playing against the marmanjo — the “hard men.” It’s known for being extremely physical. There was a lot of nasty stuff going down on the field.
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I’ll never forget one moment ….
We were playing a very important match against this big team. They'd always had one of the best teams in the Várzea, but they’d been out of the league for a few years for reasons that I don’t want to get into. There’s probably kids reading :-)
This was their first year back in the league, and they were playing us in a game to qualify for a big tournament. I remember all their players were looking at me before the match like, “Who is this little-kid? Is this serious?”
It was serious.
Four minutes into the match, I dribbled their best defender and scored a goal, and I remember them all looking at me like, O.K., kid. We’re going to make your life hell.
So they started beating me up every time I touched the ball. They got pretty crazy — like they were really coming after me to hurt me. This one short midfielder on their team was known to be a bully, and he kept saying, “I’m going to break your legs if you try to dribble me again.”
So I got the ball ... and I dribbled him again.
It was like the NBA. I broke his ankles. I made him fall...
Now they were looking at me like they were going to actually kill me.
But … what can I say? When I have the ball at my feet, I’m in different world. So I got the ball again, and I did a no-look dummy pass to my teammate for a goal.
The crowd was going crazy.
Read the full version of Gabriel's article on the Players' Tribune