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They say some kids are born to be footballers. I literally was. I should have arrived into this world on 25 December 2000, but you know what they say, right? Kids born late in the year have a smaller chance of making it. So my dad stepped in. When I was almost due, he told my mum, “HOLD THAT KID!”
She was like, “What are you talking about????”
He was like, “Just keep him in there for a few more days.”
Hahahahaha. Actually, I’ve got the big man right here.
Eric, Rodrygo’s dad
Man, I remember it so well. On the 25th I told my wife, Denise, “For the love of God, don’t let him be born now.” I was 16, at the start of my own career, and I knew that if he was born in December, he’d be the youngest in his age group and the kids born in January would be almost a year older. For a young player trying to stand out, that is a disaster. Denise often asked me, “But why?”
I was like, “Don’t worry, just do whatever you can to hold him up.” I wasn’t even gonna take her to the hospital!!
Caraca … 26th, 27th, 28th … Every day felt like a week. On the 31st we did the countdown. “Four, three, two, one … HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
I looked at the clock.
00:00, 1 January 2001.
The next few days I was stroking her belly saying, “It’s going to be a boy.” Our brothers and sisters had seven kids — all girls.
“He’s gonna be a footballer.…”
Man, I believed it.
My dad always said that words have power. I had all these dreams as a kid — brother, I loved to dream — so I kept telling myself the same things.
I’m going to play for Brazil.
I was running around with a fake Selecão shirt and the Neymar mohawk.
I’m going to play for Real Madrid.
When I was 10, my birthday party theme was “Rodrygo Real Madrid.”
I’m going to win the Champions League.
The peak of club football.
I’m going to play in the World Cup.
The peak of football, period.
When I was a toddler, my mum would take me to a bazaar where my aunt worked, and every time I’d grab a ball. Poor Auntie, she had to pay for it. When I was two, I’d play from 8 a.m to 10 p.m. Toys? No need. God gave me a gift, there is no other explanation. So Dad made my life twice as hard!!
I’d watch him play and go, Wow! Impressive. At three he was already shooting with his weaker foot….
Listen, this guy is the worst referee ever. We used to play at this futsal court in São Caetano with other kids. One goal. No teams. My dad would be the goalie and ref, kick the ball out and we all had to try to score.
I’d dribble past a kid. He’d chop me down. I’d look at my dad.
I would score a goal.
Man, even my mum got mad at him!! She was like, “He fouled him, why didn’t you call it?”
My dad was like, “Relax, I know what I’m doing.”
Mum suffered a lot. I used to play with older kids on a side street near our house in Osasco, São Paulo. They were all going to an academy, but I was too young. One day when I was six, the academy coach stopped by in his car to watch us play — I think that was the day he was registering kids for a tournament. I must have played well, because he was like, “Hey, Rodrygo, let’s go!”
I jumped into his car and we left. I was just thinking about the tournament, you know? But two of my cousins were nearby, and they had seen little Rodrygo disappear in an unknown car. They thought I’d been kidnapped.
They went to our house. “Mum! Muuuuum! They took Rodrygo!!” Everyone went crazy! I was just going there to get my photo taken and sign up for the cup, but when I came back my mum was angry.
“What were you doing?? Are you crazy?? Where were you?”
I was like, “No, Mum, I was with the coach.”
She had a lot to say. And some words for him, too, hahahaha. I was grounded. Man, I was just a kid! I went in blind. If there’s a tournament???? I’m gonna go, man.
And that is how I started playing at the academy :-D
Rodrygo and I were always very close. When I moved to play for a team in Rio Claro, he came to live with me for a while, but on weekends he would travel more than two hours back down to Osasco to play for the academy. The first game, nobody knew who he was. I was in the stands filming. He was on the bench, looking up at me like, Am I not gonna play? But the other kids were older, you know? Anyway, his team were 0–2 down. Finally he came on, and the game changed.
They won 8–2. Rodrygo scored seven. Absurd! I could already see that he was turning professional. That was when I really started to support his dream.
This is what you have to understand. When I was a kid, I had nobody there to guide me, so I wanted to give Rodrygo the help I never got. When I played, I took him to the dressing room and the team bus. He was like our mascot. At the games, he knew the security guards. One time I played for Mirassol versus Santos and Neymar. Rodrygo was prepping me, “Dad, don’t rush into the tackle or he’s gonna fly straight past you.” When I was interviewed, Rodrygo was there. When it was time for him to turn pro, he already knew what they were going to ask.
That was the easy part. The hard part came way before that.… The coach at the academy in Osasco also worked at São Paulo, and when I was eight I joined them. I became a federado. But São Paulo didn’t let their players play competitive matches until they turned 15. The best kids at Corinthians and Santos were already playing in the Paulista state championship. I was like, I want that.
Even I was thinking, Hang on, wait until he’s 15? One day he played futsal against Santos in Santos, and he destroyed them. One of the Santos coaches said, “You wanna bring this kid to Santos?”
I was like, “Look, it’s tricky. He lives in Osasco with his mum.” It’s nearly two hours by car.
The coach was like, “Just bring him for one session.”
He was nine and the other kids were 11, but he dribbled past everybody. The coach told me he had the Santos Style. Due to Neymar, Robinho and Ganso, Santos were the big hype. Rodrygo was like, “Dad, I want to play here! I want to, I want to!!”
He was 10 when he began training at Santos three times a week. He was going to school in Osasco. He was still training with São Paulo. It was crazy.
I had to be at Santos at 7 a.m.. So my mum, you know what she did? At 4 a.m. she would dress me while I was asleep. She would put on the socks, the shorts and the shirt. She’d pack my school uniform. Then she’d carry me into the car, put me down in the back seat and leave a pillow under my head. Her brother would drive me to Santos, and I’d wake up and eat in the car. After training I’d go back to Osasco for school. And then I’d play futsal at São Paulo. I’m not gonna lie: It was f***ing hard.
You know what my brother in law told me? Never once did he hear Rodrygo complain.
I think my dream kept me going. I liked it. If I couldn’t go to training, I’d get angry. Once you touch the ball, you forget how hard it was to get there. Anyway, there were kids who passed the trials at Santos, but they didn’t have a car to get to training or money to travel — and they couldn’t stay. I had food. I had my family. Maybe I didn’t have everything, but I had enough to keep my dream alive.
Denise held the family together. People would tell her stuff like, “So you’re giving up your marriage for the dream of a 10-year-old?” Even our own family said, “You guys are living in a fantasy world. You’re basing your decisions on a dream.”
But she always believed. If there’s a reason why Rodrygo is here today, it’s first because of God, and second because of the sacrifices she made.
Often she had to carry the heaviest weight, and nobody was there to see it.
Mum, I love you.
She kept this up for the whole of 2011. In January 2012 we rented an apartment in Santos for Denise to live in when she was with Rodrygo. I was 27, so I had to keep playing to provide for the family. Rodrygo and I had always been so close, but for the next five years … man, we didn’t see each other a lot. He would stay with me during the summer break, and when he was about to go back he didn’t want to. Not even for football.
We both cried a lot. I would wave goodbye when he was on the bus, and I could see that he was pissed off. Sometimes he didn’t wave back.
It went on for too long. I had this dream that we would always stay together. At that age, there are important things happening in your life, but my dad was always far away. And yeah, I understood. He had to provide. My parents always told me it was gonna be worth it. But whenever we said goodbye, I was like, Damn, I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want my life to be like this.
People told me I was crazy to leave my son in another city. I would tell them, “Yeah, but I have a Rodrygo at home.” You understand? I played for some of the best teams — I knew what a special talent he had.
But hey, don’t take it from me. Let me give the word to a guy who was there at Santos. Luciano, over to you….
Luciano Santos, Rodrygo’s youth coach at Santos
He was absurd. In futsal I think he was better than Neymar. Nutmegs, feints, flick-overs … it was obscene. Our team won three U11 Paulista championships in a row. When Rodrygo stepped up to the older age groups, the club directors told me to go with him. During the seven years we spent together, I saw him more than my own children.
Everybody talked about the generations of the past: Pelé, Neymar, Robinho, Ganso … now they were saying I was the new raio, the latest thunderbolt that had struck down at Santos. Every year my parents and I would write down our targets, and then it would go even better. That team broke a lot of records.
At the start Rodrygo struggled with his temper. When you have his talent, you get kicked a lot. Even parents and coaches would swear at him. Sometimes he got sent off, other times he exploded in a good way. I remember we were playing a U12 game against Cotia and their coach started talking trash.
“You’re no good, you’re a show-off.” Whatever.
I was like, Poor guy, he’s messing with the wrong kid.
Rodrygo got the ball inside his own half and danced past one, two, three players … whoever got in his way, he dribbled. He scored. Then he ran all the way over to the Cotia bench and found the coach.
He was like, “WHAT did you say? WHAT did you call me?? Who’s laughing now???”
Afterwards I asked Rodrygo, “Why did you tell the coach that? That’s not cool.”
Rodrygo was like, “He was having a go at me!!”
I said, “Kid, if you score goals like that every time someone shouts at you, I will start having a go at you as well. Do you want that?”
Hahaha. He just laughed and said, “No need, Coach. No need.”
I was a little crazy. In Osasco my mum put up a list of rules on the inside of the front door like they were the Ten Commandments. Don’t curse. Treat everyone well. Say hello to everyone you meet. Every day I’d look at that list. If I broke a rule, she would get angry. Now I feel bad if I don’t say hello to someone, but as a young player … yeah, I lost it. I even got angry at one of our coaches.
One time I was in the canteen and the fitness coach of the U15s came in. (Bolinha, if you’re reading this, a hug!) There was liver on the menu. This is a thing in Brazil, but to me? Liver??
I looked at it. I’m not having this.
So I loaded up on rice, beans and corn. A kid’s plate. Bolinha came in — actually he wasn’t even my coach yet, cause I was with the U13s … but he looked at my plate and went, “Are you f***ing kidding me?”
I was all like, “Oiiiiiii, what’s wrong with this?”
He was like, “If you eat that, the U15 kids are literally gonna run you over.”
Maaaaaan. I was furious!! It got stuck in my head. I took that personally.
When I got to the U15s, bro … I killed it. I ran circles around those kids. I went over to Bolinha. “Hey, you remember what you told me in the canteen?”
Hahaha. Of course, We just laughed. I understood what he wanted to say. You gotta eat right. You gotta be prepared. You never know what might be coming your way. This was just before I got my first call-up to the Brazil U15s….
Nobody tells you that you’ve got the call. The Brazilian federation just publishes a list with the names and we’re supposed to check it ourselves. But Santos told me twice that I’d be on “The List.” Twice.
And both times they were wrong!!
Man, I was crushed. Devastated. The first time I’d been on the short list, but for the final 23 I was cut. The next time, Brazil had even booked my flights and my hotel. The List came out … no Rodrygo!
I got so anxious. We called the federation. Turned out it was a glitch. Since I’m a forward, I’d been last on The List, and they’d forgotten to include my name. A few days later I was walking into the Granja Comary to pick up my gear: shorts, jacket, shirt. Thrilling. Symbolic. We all put it on and took selfies. My Instagram feed was full of Brazil photos. I remember sending a picture to my parents.
The long drives, the 4 a.m. mornings … that day it was all worth it.
When I turned 16, things went even faster. I turned pro. My dad retired and started working with me. This was in 2017. One day in November, near the end of the season with Santos, my phone rang. It was Elano, the first-team coach.
He was like, “Hey warrior, all good? I want you to train with us this week.”
I froze. S***. “For real??”
Thank God, I was able to keep up with the pace. One day they put up a list in the dressing room with the squad for the next first-team game. My name was on it.
I sent a picture to my dad. He began to cry.
A few days later it was Santos vs. Atlético Mineiro at the Vila Belmiro. I was on the team bus driving through the masses of fans with flares, smoke filling the air — the famous corridor of fire. I spotted my dad and uncles in the middle of the madness, yelling out songs with the fans. My dad was very emotional. Inside, the Belmiro was rocking. They had Robinho. I was so anxious. I was almost happy to be on the bench. When the game was almost over, Elano looked at me. We were 3–1 up. I was like, Oh no, is he gonna put me on? I was scared as hell.
Then the fans started shouting my name. Looking back it was amazing, but at the time I was like, No! No! No! Don’t ask for that now!!
I got one minute. Don’t think I even touched the ball. But just to be there … it was a dream come true.
At the start of the next season, we were playing Nacional at home in the Copa Libertadores. I had just turned 17. I skipped school to play that game. Soon I got the ball on the left, ran past two players and put it past the goalie … golaço! One of the most beautiful goals I have ever scored. After the game I asked my teachers for forgiveness. It was for a good reason, you know?
That was a crazy time. He began playing every game, and we were getting offers from huge clubs in Europe. I remember Rodrygo used to have a Real Madrid poster on his wall. Every night he’d go to sleep looking at it. Once I had been with a group of friends praying, and one of them had said that Rodrygo would play for Madrid. A few years earlier, I had even bought him a Real Madrid shirt, just in case they ever signed him. Now we knew that Madrid were following him … but we hadn’t heard anything from them.
So we waited and waited. In the end we had almost closed a deal with another big European team. All Rodrygo had to do was sign.
Practically, there was no way out.
I had almost accepted that I would not play for Real Madrid. But for some reason, I still had 1% hope. We were about to play Vitória at the Vila Belmiro when Dad told me about this other deal. I was like, “What about Madrid?”
He was like, “Pô, nothing….”
So I said, “Let’s wait just a little bit more.”
I thought he was crazy. The offer we had on the table was incredible. I was telling him, “You have to take what you are given.”
I was like, “Just wait and see. I’m gonna score three goals this weekend, and Madrid will come.” My parents said they hoped so, but I could see it in their eyes that they didn’t believe.
The game kicked off.
22' Goal Rodrygo
26' Goal Rodrygo
31' Goal Rodrygo
Hat trick in nine minutes.
At halftime, I’m sure Madrid were looking for my dad’s number.
I got a call right after the match. “Is your son interested in playing for Real Madrid?”
When I got home I said, “I told you so!! Anything from Madrid?”
My dad was like, “Nooooo, nothing.”
I’m devastated, you know? The next day I have no training. I’m up playing video games when I see my dad heading out the door. He’s all suited up. I ask my mum where he’s going. “Oh, just to meet a friend.”
Late that night he finally comes home. I’m still playing video games in the living room. He walks past me. Says nothing. Goes into my room.
When he comes back, he hands me the Real Madrid shirt. On the back, it says RODRYGO.
He says, “Son, today your dream has become reality.”
I look at him.
I look at the shirt.
I just don’t understand.
Then Dad explains everything: That he got a call right after the game, that he had gone to São Paulo that day and signed the deal, and that he didn’t want to tell me anything before the transfer was secured.
We hug. It’s a miracle.
Only God could have made this happen.
It was fate. He was just 17 when the deal was signed, and a year later he joined the club. Imagine being 18 and finding yourself at one of the greatest teams in history. Four Champions Leagues in five years. Who has done that? You get there and Zidane is your manager … damn. It’s Zidane, you know?
Off the pitch it was easy. I was already studying Spanish, and I had the guys from Brazil: Vini Jr., Casemiro, Militão and Marcelo, who was like a dad to me. But we all know who the real padre is, right??
We keep joking with Luka that he’s old. Man, he’s the best I’ve played with. Casemiro once said that my dad was soon turning 36. Luka was like, “Really? Then you have to respect me, ’cause I could have been your father.”’
That was it. Luka began calling me hijo. Sometimes I call him padre. Like my actual dad, he can be a pain in the ass. He is on us, all the time. But that’s what it’s like at Madrid. You have to work. You never stop.
It’s like we say in Brazil: You have to kill a lion every day.
One of my friends says that one of the reasons Rodrygo has done so well is his innocence, that he doesn’t fully realise where he is. He doesn’t feel the pressure. He didn’t get that from me! A lot of people watch the games and say, “If that was me.…”
No, man. I played. I know what it’s like. If that was me, at 18, going into a packed Bernabéu? I would freeze. The ball would bounce off my shin. That’s why I could never play for Madrid. I’ll tell you a story.…
The day in 2019 when Rodrygo scored a hat trick against Galatasaray in the Champions League, I was in the stands, and I saw him get the match ball to take home. When we met I was jumping up and down and hugging him going, “SON, YOU SCORED A HAT TRICK!!”
He was like, “Yeah, Dad … it’s cool.”
I was like, “WHERE’S THE BALL??”
He was like, “Oh … it’s here … somewhere.”
We drove to a restaurant to celebrate. While we were eating I was like, “Hey, did you find the ball?” I was half expecting him to put it up on a chair.
He was like, “Ah, yeah … I left it in the trunk.”
I was like, “You’re kidding me, right?”
That night I slept with the match ball. He was the adult and I was the little kid. Sometimes I think he doesn’t realise what is going on in his life, you know?
The Brazil senior call-up was like that. It was October 2019 and Tite was going to name the squad, but I didn’t remember. I was at home sleeping on the top floor, and some friends were watching the press conference downstairs. My parents were out to pick up my little sister. Suddenly I heard a scream.
I was like, What was that? Oh, probably nothing.
I went back to sleep.
My phone started buzzing. Zzzzzz … Zzzzzz … Zzzzzz….
I looked at the screen. Dad.
Why is he calling me now?
I picked up, still kinda hazy.
He was like, “SON, CONGRATS!!!”
I was like, “Is it my birthday? What did I do?”
He was like, “You were called up!!!”
I was like, “To where? We don’t have a game tomorrow.”
Now he was almost losing his voice. “BRAZIL!!”
I was like, Ahaaaaa?
Caraca!Finally I remembered. I ran downstairs and saw that Tite was still talking on TV. I hugged my friends. When my parents came home we had a big celebration. Pô, can you believe it?
My first Brazil call-up, and I was sleeping.
When I turned up to the camp, it was kind of daunting to meet all my heroes. Even Casemiro, who I was seeing every day at Madrid … in the yellow shirt he looks different. The initiation was brutal. First you say your name and date of birth, then you sing a song in front of everybody. I got up, my voice shaking….
“Good evening, my name is Rodrygo.”
They were like, “Rodrygo who? Nobody knows who you are.”
Man … tough crowd.
When he made his debut, against Argentina and Messi, I cried. He was still only 18.
Maybe it was fate. I know that not everybody believes in it, but sometimes it’s the only way I can make sense of my life. How else can you explain that Champions League title?
The truth is, we had struggled without our fans and the Bernabéu. But when the pandemic was over, we were back on holy ground. It’s not just the white shirt and the hymn, it’s the buildup in the papers, the way the fans are cheering around our team bus in every single metre until we get to the stadium. We all know that Madrid and the Champions League go hand in hand. It’s a love story. It’s destiny.
We were supposed to play Benfica. When the draw was remade, I was like, S***, imagine if we get PSG. Guess what happened. They won 1–0 in Paris, and when Mbappé made it 2–0 on aggregate at the Bernabéu I was like, Damn. Thank God for Karim. When he scored his third, even we couldn’t believe it.
At every stage we were in trouble. Even after beating Chelsea 3–1 away, we went 3–0 down in the second leg. I was on the bench. Carlo called me over and said, “Change the game.” Seconds later Luka spotted me, and you know the pass is gonna arrive … GOLAZO. Thanks, padre. Usually the keeper would expect me to hit the far corner, but I went the other way. Why? Well, I still don’t know.
Some said we were lucky to win, but Chelsea had chances to finish us off. If you’re gonna kill the snake, you have to go for the head.
The City tie was surreal. When Karim stepped up to take the penalty near the end of the first game, we were all nervous on the bench, because he had just missed two against Osasuna. You know what somebody said? “He’s gonna do the Panenka.” Apparently Karim had practised it in training. We didn’t believe it, but when he pulled it off … caraca!
I later told Karim, “Dude, you’re crazy.” He just laughed.
Geniuses are a bit mad.
When you have the Bernabéu, a 3–4 defeat away feels like a win. We only need to win by one goal at home? Vamos. But in the second half City led 1–0 and were 5–3 up on aggregate. Carlo called me over with the usual. “Change the game.”
When I made it 1–1, there were 40 seconds left of normal. We ran back to restart the game, and they showed the added time. SIX MINUTES!
The Bernabéu went crazy. Literally seconds later Dani was about to cross, and I had actually made my run into the box too early. But a defender pushed me out, so I moved in just behind him. Dani swung in the cross….
I jumped … you always jump….
Asensio went up as well. The ball skidded off his head, came to me and, somehow, I reacted in time.
It can’t be true….
Nobody knew what to do. We jumped around like little kids. The bench ran out on the pitch. The Bernabéu was losing it. A few minutes earlier on TV, the graphic had shown who had the highest chance of reaching the final.
That night I think God looked down on me and said, “Today is going to be your day.”
The tie was 6–6, but they had already lost. We could see it on their faces. We just had to go for the next goal, and we got it. Sometimes when you tell a nice story, you try to rationalise it. You talk about tactics, stuff like that.
This one nobody can explain. Not even us.
The final against Liverpool? Honestly, they played much better than us. But we knew that Madrid always win their finals. Our secret was our mentality: We weren’t going to swim that far and die at the beach.
Like our fans say, “Hasta el final.”
Until the end.
For us who have worked with Rodrygo, it hasn’t really hit home. Damn, that little boy did all of this? I struggle to find the words. To us every game he plays feels like the World Cup final. Am I surprised? Yes, because he’s just a kid. But with time I think he will make the extraordinary seem normal.
Every day I tell him, “To me, you’re the best player in the world.” If I don’t believe in him then who will? The rest is up to him. But I believe. I tell him every day, “You’re Brazilian, you never give up.”
It’s amazing what he has achieved. The only thing that can beat it is to see him win a World Cup in the amarelinha — the yellow shirt.
Man, we’ve been suffering for 20 years. I was crying when we lost in 2006. In 2010, I was in Osasco seeing people paint the streets green and yellow. Nobody was working. School? Forget it. It’s not that I skipped school. There was no school. Even the teachers had fled.
In 2014, I watched it with my dad in Minas Gerais. I prefer not to talk about it. I’m not even gonna say the result.
The loss to Belgium in 2018, I don’t ever want to have that feeling again. After the game I sent a message to my dad.
“Now we have to train, ’cause in the next one I’ll be there.”
I know … in Brazil nobody is guaranteed a place in the squad, right? Nobody. I hadn’t even made my senior debut.
But could you blame me? I was the kid with a dream and a fake Selecão shirt.
Words have power. Man, I’m living proof.
This World Cup, I’m here. And I see myself deciding games for Brazil.
I just hope that this dream I'm living goes on forever.
I don't ever want to get used to it.
I don't ever want to wake up.
This article was originally published on theplayertribune as Only Fate Can Explain this Story.