How Richarlison escaped the drugs gangs of Nova Venécia to make a career in the Premier League
“Não é a minha praia.”
It is the Brazilian equivalent of “It’s not my cup of tea” – translated literally as “Not my beach” – and it comes to mind on the journey to Richarlison’s house on the northern edge of Liverpool.
A signpost advertises the fact that Anthony Gormley’s Another Place – his company of cast-iron sculptures facing out to sea – lies a short walk away on Crosby Beach. It is not a beach as your average Brazilian would know it – not a place for bronzed bodies and loose-limbed ball games – but then Richarlison is not your average Brazilian. Moreover, he is not your average Brazilian footballer. This is a player who ticks few of the stereotypical boxes, one who grew up in the state of Espírito Santo, in the small, inland town of Nova Venécia – a place talent-spotters have been guilty of overlooking in the past – and who did not play a Brazilian top-flight match until five days after his 19th birthday, marking him out as a latecomer in a country where the brightest talents have a tradition of making their international debuts while in their teens (read Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaká and Neymar). Yet within two years and four months of that debut, he was a full Brazil international and commanding a transfer fee worth upwards of £40m, with his move from Watford to Everton.
It has been a steep climb and the perfect guide to it to his agent and father figure, Renato Velasco, a man who predicts bullishly that it will only continue. “He has this capacity to play in three positions,” he says, speaking to me in the games room of the rented house that he and Richarlison currently call home. “He finishes well, he can pass – I think Richarlison is going to be one of the biggest players in the world. He is 21 and he can still grow. He is fast. He has a lot of potential.”
The future, as Renato sees it, is bright. Yet the road that Richarlison has travelled to get this far is already a tale in itself – a rise which has raised eyebrows even in Brazil, the land of rags-to-riches transformations.
“My dad’s dream was my professional career, but I don’t think he could imagine I would make it to Premier League and the Brazil team.”
Richarlison grew up in one of Nova Venécia’s scruffier neighbourhoods, Rúbia, and remembers drug dealers burying illicit stashes in his family’s garden; on one occasion, as he told reporters not long after arriving in the UK, a dealer, suspecting he was seeking to invade his territory, pointed a gun at his face.
According to Pedro Andrelino, a boyhood friend who is part of Richarlison's inner circle in Liverpool, there was mischief to go with the menace. “We used to go swimming in the river, steal fruit from people’s gardens and obviously play football,” he remembers. “Richarlison was the most focused and mature of us. He never liked to lose any games – he’s a bad loser.”
Richarlison dreamed of playing for Borussia Dortmund, because of the Yellow Wall of supporters he would see on his television screen. As a schoolboy, he heard rumours of interest from major clubs – Vasco da Gama, Flamengo, Cruzeiro – but those trails vanished and, for a time, it seemed he might suffer the same fate as his father, Antônio Andrade, and uncle, Elton, both talented footballers whose big break never came.
Renato explains. “They played in local leagues and they stood out. They didn’t get their chance, though, as they came from the interior of Espírito Santo. They've supported him a lot – they never had an opportunity but saw he had something special. It’s in his genes.”
“Until the América academy, I’d just played in front of 100 people or less.”
Richarlison was 16 when Renato began guiding him. A 3,600km round trip to Florianopolis for trials with that city’s two clubs, Avaí and Figueirense, had come to naught, and he was playing for Real Noroeste, a club in Águia Branca, a town an hour’s drive from Nova Venécia. Even if he was “not quite physically ready”, Renato saw his rich potential. “When he was 16, he took part in a competition in the interior of Espírito Santo – it was an under-20 competition and he was already prominent then.”
It was in Belo Horizonte that his opportunity arrived – eventually. He travelled there for a trial at Atlético Mineiro, taking with him a pair of borrowed boots – one blue, one pink – from his friend Pedro Andrelino. Atlético chose not to sign him, and so Velasco contacted a scout at América, another club in the city. “I spoke to Geraldo, the same scout who’d spotted Fred [the former Lyon and Brazil forward] and Gilberto Silva. I said to Geraldo, ‘Take a look at this lad for me and tell me what you think,’ and after three days Geraldo called me and told me he was better than average. While he was there, there was a competition and they got to the final and whom did they play? Atlético Mineiro. And he scored the winning goal. I then got offered money to take him to Atlético but I’d given my word to América.”
América has been a launchpad for not only Gilberto Silva and Fred; Tostão, one of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup heroes, emerged there in the 1960s. Richarlison made a swift impression. As Renato recounts, there were “six matches and four goals” for the juniors, prompting a call from Givanildo, coach of the first team. On 4 July 2015, he made his debut as a substitute against Mogi Mirim in a Serie B home fixture. He took the field after 76 minutes. Within 10 minutes he had his first senior goal, in a 3-1 victory. He ended that first campaign with nine league goals – and a move to top-flight Fluminense.
Richarlison made his debut for Fluminense in May 2016 and his final appearance in July 2017, three weeks before his Premier League debut with Watford. His first goal for the Rio de Janeiro club was impressively timed: the winning strike in a ‘Fla-Flu’ derby at Flamengo. Little over two months later, he made his first trip to England with Brazil’s under-20s and with the number nine on his back he scored the opening goal – one touch to tame the ball then a close-range finish – in a 1-1 draw with England at St George’s Park.
“My debut with Watford was against Liverpool. I almost scored at the end of the game.”
Richarlison’s rented house has the requisite trappings – a Jacuzzi, a swimming pool and a games room – but it hardly feels like a home. One of the few personal touches is his Watford Young Player of the Year trophy from 2017-18. It was a campaign that began with a 3-3 home draw with Liverpool, before he struck his first Premier League goal seven days later in a victory at Bournemouth.
As Renato explained, he could easily have been playing in the Eredivisie but for the intervention of Marco Silva, then manager at Vicarage Road. “He had agreed terms with Ajax but Watford came in.” And he hit the ground running. “Most Brazilians come via Italy, Spain and Portugal, but not him,” Renato added.
Aside from the belief shown in him by Silva (which brought him, in turn, to Goodison Park), it helped to have his compatriot Heurelho Gomes, the experienced goalkeeper, on hand to help out at Watford.
Though he did not score a league goal for Watford after November, he still ended the season with 38 appearances – no small feat for a player who had had no break the previous summer. “He was one of the only ones who played every game in the Premier League,” says Renato. “The coach changed [with Javi Gracia’s arrival in place of Silva], but he played in every game. He has good resistance. He’s a top-level athlete.”
If he showed powers of endurance, there was a reminder of his inexperience – immaturity, even – when he was seen crying after being substituted during Watford’s 4-1 victory over Chelsea in February last year. “I was crying because I wanted to play and help my teammates,” he told ESPN Brasil afterwards. There was a similarly emotional response in the wake of Watford’s 6-0 home loss to Manchester City earlier in the campaign, after which he refused to attend a planned team lunch – “We’ve just lost 6-0, why do I want to go to a barbecue?” he asked – until a club official called him to insist otherwise.
Renato argues his attitude is driven by a will to win. “I have 28 players and I can’t watch all their games and when I ask them how it was they’ll say, ‘I was great’. Only a couple are critical like Richarlison. He’s different. One of my sons, Carlos, is very critical and sometimes Richarlison will ask, ‘What does Carlos say about me?’ His dad is a harsh critic too as he knows the game. He gives some finishing tips.”
“Whenever I can, I’m watching a football match.”
A few hours in Richarlison’s house provide a glimpse of the bubble he inhabits: a daily cycle of training, home, sleep, then an evening of playing video games or watching football. All the food is prepared by Renato’s wife, Geovana. “He likes rice with beans, he likes the basic things, he adapts easily. His life’s pretty simple. He is 100% football. He lives it: it’s breakfast, football; lunch, football; dinner, football. People told me he was muito fácil [very easy]. I’ve been in football 20 years, and have worked with young and promising talents. He’s a responsible lad, a young lad who’s focused on what he wants.”
It is evident that Renato has high hopes for the 21-year-old, hopes fuelled by his early impact in a Brazil shirt. Four days after his Brazil debut against the United States on September 7 last year, Richarlison struck twice on his first starting appearance for his country in a 5-0 win over El Salvador. Two months later, on November 20, he stepped into the shoes of the injured Neymar for Brazil’s friendly with Cameroon in Milton Keynes – and headed the only goal. Earlier during that international meet-up, Neymar’s son, Davi Lucca, had even interrupted his father’s press conference to say he wanted to see Richarlison’s pigeon-dance celebration.
“People who understand football,” said Renato, “know he’s a striker Brazil haven’t had for years – a centre-forward, No.9, he can play on the right, can play on the left, he can play all those positions. You don’t see this in football. He’s got two good feet, he can drive the ball forward with his left foot and shoot with his right, and vice versa. He can head a ball.”
Of his best position, Richarlison himself says, “I don’t have any preference. At América I played as a No 9 and at Fluminense as a winger.”
This, it is worth noting, was before his confidence-sapping struggles to impose himself as a centre-forward during Everton’s midwinter slump – not helped, some Goodison regulars would argue, by a habit of going to ground easily. Whatever physical challenges the Premier League brings – and, for the record, he considers Manchester City’s John Stones as his toughest opponent (“He was always right on top of me”) – he is reluctant to add extra muscle to his slim frame. “He doesn’t like weights,” explains Renato. “He doesn’t want to lose his speed. He says people go to Europe and become these big monsters and then lose their speed and he worries about that.”
Whatever the future brings on the field between now and the season's finish, Richarlison hopes to end it back in the place where it all began, Nova Venécia, where he plans to repeat the charity fundraising match he staged on May 26 last year. The venue was the Estádio Zenor Pedrosa Rocha where he once represented his home city in the Copa A Gazetinha youth tournament. “Every time he goes back, he organises a game,” said Renato, explaining that each spectator brought a kilo of food in lieu of an entrance fee.
Richarlison added: “People there need food and clothes, so I try to help as much as I can. We could help lots of families last time, hopefully it’ll be even better next May.” Just for the record, it was an occasion for his own family to savour too: he scored two goals himself that evening, and also teed up his father to find the net. A ‘craque’ – top player – is how Renato describes his dad. The son’s not bad either.