Roberto Firmino: From shy defensive midfielder to Liverpool's true superstar


Thirty minutes. That's all it took for Roberto Firmino to make an impression at Figueirense, the club at which he made his breakthrough in Brazil. 

Everything was set up for an afternoon of trials and tests, the coaches settling in for a long day of talent-spotting. But Firmino, a bright-eyed 16-year-old from the north who wouldn't say boo to a goose, was clearly in a rush. He started the session by scoring an overhead kick. Within half an hour, he had repeated the trick.

"A kid who scores two overhead kicks in his first training session? That's unreal," recalled youth coach Hemerson Maria later. "It only took half an hour to see the boy was good. I quickly made sure we had all his paperwork. I told my colleague: 'We've got a phenomenon here.'"

Maria clearly has a good eye; nine years later, Firmino is well on the way to living up to that promise. Now into his seventh full season in Europe, the forward has progressed from talented hopeful to superstar-in-waiting, his energy and inventiveness – witness his silky two-touch assist for Mohamed Salah against Watford at the weekend – lighting up the Premier League on an increasingly regular basis.

Jürgen Klopp clearly loves him: only Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner played more minutes for Liverpool in the Premier League last season. And now, with Philippe Coutinho busy browsing flights from Liverpool to Barcelona, Firmino looks set to inherit the mantle of star Brazilian attraction at Anfield. 

 

On Tuesday night, he will lead the line against Hoffenheim, the club who gave him his first platform in Europe. It will doubtless be a special evening for Firmino, but the stakes dictate that emotions must be kept in check. Champions League football beckons for the first time in his career.

It is all a far cry from his modest start in Brazil: Firmino's father did not have a stable job and made ends meet by selling drinks from a trolley in the streets of Maceió. Young Roberto also spent much of his time outside: his nickname as a kid was rachinha – 'kick-about' – and he would frequently ditch his homework to sneak out after dinner for one last game, mimicking his idol, Ronaldinho. His mother, Cícera, once admitted she would often catch her son sleeping with his ball. 

His first club was local outfit CRB – although at that stage he was a different type of player to the one we know today. "When he played for me, he was a holding midfielder," Guilherme Farias told GloboEsporte. "He only became more attacking when he moved on. He wins the ball just as well as he uses it." The position may have changed but the defensive ability remains: few forwards press and harry defenders with Firmino's tenacity.

When a trial with São Paulo came to nothing, Firmino pitched up in Florianópolis – some 3000km from home. "My mother cried every day," he admitted in an interview with the Telegraph, but those two overhead kicks ensured Figueirense would not be letting him slip through their fingers.

With his tattoos, cartoon haircuts and a set of teeth that could light up a dark street, Firmino does not look like the shy, retiring type. Yet he is not naturally gregarious, as staff at Figueirense quickly realised.

"He was always a really introverted kid," explained Hemerson Maria in an interview with ESPN Brasil. "I normally remember the names of all the boys I'm training, but he caused me some problems. I spent a week calling him 'Alberto' and he didn't say anything! I would say 'Alberto, do this' and he'd do it!

"The fitness coach eventually corrected me. I called him aside and said: 'Hang on, so your name is not Alberto?' He said: 'No, mister. It's Roberto.' Then he stayed silent, looking all embarrassed. He's a good kid, but very shy."

Firmino himself admits as much: "I'm not used to doing press conferences and I don't like giving interviews," he said shortly after joining Liverpool. "But being shy has never held me back. On the pitch I transform. I become a different person." Maria would surely agree, judging by his assessment of his former charge during his time in the Bundesliga. "That one is a genius. A genius," he swooned. 


Firmino made his first-team debut for Figueirense in 2009, having impressed in the Copinha youth tournament. By 2010, he was a key player: he appeared in all 38 games as the Máquina do Estreito won promotion to Série A, scoring eight goals. At which point Hoffenheim came calling and the teenager was spirited away for €4million. 

The rest is history as far as club football goes, yet when Dunga first called Firmino up to the national team, in 2014, there was some sniffiness about him. The fact that he had never played top-flight in his homeland meant that he had no real constituency; fans tend to mistrust the unknown. But a stunning goal against Austria in his second match helped and now, form and fitness permitting, he is likely to be heading to the World Cup next summer, having convinced Seleção coach Tite of his quality. His star is on the rise for Brazil as well as for Liverpool.

For Hemerson Maria, it has all played out just as predicted. "I always knew he was going to be different," he said while Firmino was at Hoffenheim. "When he's at a top team in Europe, surrounded by quality players, he's going to explode. You can already see that Neymar likes to play with him for the Seleção. 

"Game recognise game, as they say."