Being in the right place at the right time is something of a habit for Roberto Firmino, although its not often the place or time that you would have expected. Through his unexpected and unpredictable action on the field and in his career path, he has made himself a menace to opposing defenses, a wonderful follow on Instagram, and one of the best players in the Premier League. However, it was that same figure that found himself powerless to help as Brazil slumped to a 2-0 half time deficit against Belgium in the World Cup Quarterfinals. By the time he found the field, it was too late to resuscitate the result. Ultimately he found himself on the bench because there is one group that until now has still been unconvinced of “Bobby’s” brilliance.
Roberto Firmino Barbosa de Oliveira was born in the coastal Brazilian town of Maceió, which is situated just down the coast from the easternmost tip of the country. The city is the capital of the Brazilian State of Alagoas, which currently stands as the third poorest state in Brazil, with a per capita income of just R$9,333 ($2, 392/£1809). The population of the city struggled with many of the issues that we see in impoverished communities across the world. A rise in crack cocaine use in Maceió in the late 2000’s saw drug abuse and violence reach new heights in the city. Roberto’s parents were able to protect him from many of the issues plaguing this coastal city, which had been named “Brazil’s Most Violent City” in 2012. Rather than falling into trouble, Roberto sought his sanctuary as many children do, at their local football club.
Clube de Regatas Brasil was founded in 1912, much like Liverpool Football Club, after a falling out between members of another Maceió club. CRB, the Cardinals of the Beach, like Firmino’s current club, wear red and white and took a chance on a local midfielder who was so shy, he literally let his coach in the youth side call him “Alberto” for 2 weeks before correcting him. It’s quite hard to imagine the flamboyant forward with the karate kick celebrations as a polite, quiet kid but the reality is that football was Firmino’s escape from an otherwise tough life on the outside. If going by Alberto meant that he got to keep playing football, well then it was worth it. This hard work has come to define Firmino’s style of play, constantly running, tackling, pressing, assisting, and scoring for the good of the team. This hard work also caught the eye of the man that would give Bobby his break, the team dentist.
Marcellus Portella was working as the dentist at CRB when he saw the young Firmino in training for the club. By his own account, he was struck immediately by Firmino’s talent and took him under his wing. I know what you’re all thinking, but this was not the dentist that gave Bobby the brilliant smile we know him for now. That distinction lies with Robbie Hughes, a dentist who specializes in cosmetic procedures from Garston. However, this dentist would get Firmino noticed in other ways, for his ability. After three years at CRB, Portella, who had taken up the job of representing Firmino, started shopping the teenager around to clubs in Brazil and abroad. There were trials across Brazil and one in particular that could have changed the trajectory of Firmino’s career altogether. He was offered a chance to impress at vaunted Brazilian club São Paulo Futebol Clube.
Football in Brazil is omnipresent, and you can find it almost any corner of the huge nation, but the center of gravity, especially as it concerns the Brasileirão and the Seleção, is in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. These cities have the wealthiest and most famous clubs in Brazil and often attract the biggest youth talents in the country. Flamengo, Botafogo, Corininthians, Fluminense, Santos, and many more have produced some of the greatest players in Brazil’s history. There are of course exceptions to this, with Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre being the two, albeit smaller, cities that act as footballing hubs in Brazil. However, a spell at São Paulo can be life changing for a footballer. It puts them in the spotlight in the Brasileirão, gets them attention in Europe, and can completely change public opinion of a player. Firmino, despite his skill, was unable to make an impact on the SPFC staff. However, after a journey a little farther south, Bobby scored 2 overhead kicks in his first hour of a trial in the city of Florianópolis and landed himself a spot on the roster of Figueirense.
Figueirense Futebol Clube are not one of the biggest clubs in Brazil. The club is not a player-production machine, but in this case, they gave a chance to a player and a platform for further success. This club fits the mold of the club’s that Firmino has impressed at. It is not a glamorous side, it is not situated in the capital, or even the largest city around, but it’s fans appreciate players who give their all for the badge. During Firmino’s stay there, Figueira, The Fig Tree (which is simultaneously the neighborhood the club plays in, the club’s incredible nickname and source of their equally fantastic badge) were in Serie B and felt on the verge of a return to the top tier of Brazilian football. The fans at their ground, the Orlando Scarpelli, were about to see something special although the brilliance was some way down the road. Firmino made a couple of appearances in the 2009 season but it was 2010 when he broke through. He played 36 times for the Santa Catarina club and scored 8 times, primarily deployed as an attacking midfielder. His 2nd division club climbed the ladder to the top rung but Firmino knew that his ascent would not stop here, even if the other clubs in Brazil were not so confident.
A couple of European clubs came calling after Firmino, with Marseille leading the way. Yes, that is Marseille, not Hoffenheim, the German club that he obviously ended up at. That would be quite the jump for Roberto, from a newly-promoted team in a less favored football city to one of the biggest clubs in France. This was another opportunity where his journey could have taken a far different path than it eventually did. His journey to the Mediterranean port was cut prematurely short however, when there was an issue at customs in Madrid as he was traversing from the airport to a road trip to the South of France. He tried to convince Spanish officials that he was merely a footballer passing through but he was not allowed to stay in the country and was forced to fly back to Brazil. He returned to Florianópolis devastated. He believed his dream of playing European football was dead on arrival. Luckily for us all, the village team from Baden-Württemberg gave Bobby a chance to shine on a larger stage. It was at Hoffenheim that, under managers such as Ralf Rangnick, Firmino realized that while his flair could impress in spurts, it was his hustle that would make a team, and indeed himself, more than the sum of its parts. It was here in Germany that Firmino forged his true qualities. It was far away from the bright lights of São Paulo, Rio, Madrid, or even Marseille. It was in a village in western Germany with a club that had risen far above what many people thought possible. It was almost too fitting that the club that helped give birth to the Firmino we know today was of much the same mold. The club and player that did not stop rising despite what many thought.
Firmino left for Liverpool in the summer of 2015 having scored 49 goals and assisted a further 36 in 153 appearances for Hoffenheim. What followed at the English club is well documented as the awkwardness under Brendan Rodgers in his initial months, much like that early in his career, gave way to what has been his brightest period in football under another manager who has seemingly risen above his station, Jürgen Klopp. His return of 27 goals and 17 assists in all competitions was extraordinary and his selection to represent Brazil at the World Cup in Russia was a no-brainer. After what he had achieved and the player that he had grown into, it seemed like he had given Tite quite a selection dilemma.
Roberto Firmino’s World Cup campaign, which looked to be the next step on this unorthodox rise from the beaches of Maceió to the forward line of the Seleção, did not have the happy ending that many thought it deserved. Indeed, he only featured for 81 minutes in Tite’s side, and while he scored a goal and there were many arguments and figures tossed around online; ultimately, the Brazilian manager persisted with the São Paulo-born, Gabriel Jesus. He had played by the rules. He played at a big Brazilian club (Palmeiras), then got his big move to Europe and returned to the national team. Firmino had not. He had to travel all over Brazil before a 2nd division team took him in. He was literally deported from Spain before his move to Hoffenheim. He was called a failure 2 months in to his time at Liverpool but none of that stopped him reaching these heights. Perhaps its time that Brazilians that Bobby Firmino does not play by the rules. There are other players like him in Brazil and abroad right now who will be in the right place at the right time and they need to embrace them.