Sideshow takes Centre Stage
David Luiz discusses how Brazil will handle the pressure of being World Cup hosts
I was standing in a hallway at Soccer City in Johannesburg. Brazil had just finished training ahead of their March friendly with South Africa and I had agreed to watch a colleague’s camera equipment while he ran off to try to confirm that a player was going to turn up for the five-minute interview he’d been trying to arrange for the last 48 hours. The player in question was originally scheduled to do it the day before; then that morning; then after training. So they got all set up, but it appeared he had changed his mind again — he bolted straight past them.
Alone in the corridor, I leaned against the wall and looked up to see a familiar face wandering past. I had met David Luiz on the flight over from England. The only confident English-speaker of the five players who travelled from just outside London, he took it upon himself to meet and greet everyone they encountered. He organised a separate bag in which everyone could place any liquids over 100ml, joked with the flight crew, teased little Bernard — tucking him into bed and reading him a bedtime story, which left Willian and Oscar rolling in the aisles in fits of laughter — and took time to get to know the few of us who tagged along.
As Bernard drifted off, the Chelsea defender turned around and knelt on his chair for a chat. We spoke for almost two hours. About friends, family, home life, Brazil, London, faith, professional and personal aspirations for the future and, of course, football. It was a rare opportunity to get to know a contemporary, top-level footballer on a personal level. No cameras, no dictaphones.
I didn’t manage to arrange any formal interview through the CBF over the 36 hours that followed, but had enjoyed a few brief chats with Luiz. Whether in the hotel gym, the lobby as fans screamed for autographs and photos, or in the tight confines of the Hyatt Regency’s elevators, he always stopped to greet me and ask how I was getting on. And not just me, he seemed to know everyone with even the most tenuous link to A Seleção.
So I as loitered in that corridor, the team bus half-full and waiting for the last to emerge from the changing rooms, I nodded politely as he disappeared behind one of those banner stands that seem to be erected throughout every corridor of every modern stadium.
“Hey, man,” I heard, as that familiar Sideshow Bob coiffure bounced out from behind the sign. “How are you?” he asked, slapping my shoulder and shaking my hand. “Hey, did you speak to the press officer about the interview yet? No? You’re coming on the plane home, right? Cool. No problem. Get the okay and if we don’t get time before, then we’ll do it on the way home.”
So that’s what we did. By then 15 of the European-based players were celebrating a comprehensive 5-0 victory over Bafana Bafana. Neymar and Dani Alves were the self-appointed DJs; they also set the tone for the dancing — something I found out much to my embarrassment when, on the way back from the bathroom, Dani Alves insisted we dance-off to Kanye West’s Power. Rafinha and Marcelo then faced off in a two-hour impromptu sing-along — a sort of mix of Brazilian pagode and a rap battle. Rafinha wiped the floor with him and anyone else who dared step into the cypher and try to ‘catch wreck’.
Luiz Felipe Scolari appears to have done it again. Hanging around the squad, you instantly feel the strength of their bond. Of the ‘Scolari family 2.0’. And you can’t help but get the feeling that they are on the verge of something very special. Everyone I’ve asked agrees that the Confederations Cup changed everything. Since the opening game of that tournament, Brazil have gone from a side that won three in nine to one that has triumphed in 13 of their last 14, transforming themselves from national disappointments to outright favourites for the World Cup.
The day before the game I joined a colleague for an interview with Hulk, who said the current Brazil side is like a family he never wants to leave. I had heard others express similar sentiments in recent months — for me, that plane journey served as the defining image of this Brazil’s side’s narrative ahead of the biggest moment of their sporting lives.
So joyous was the atmosphere, I didn’t want to tear David Luiz away. But about four hours in, as he enquired if I was enjoying myself, I asked if I could have those five minutes at some stage. He suggested we do it right away. We found a quiet room at the front of the plane and sat back on the couches for an on-the-record chat. He was erudite, gregarious and more than willing to discuss some of the things we had chatted about privately. I found it particularly pleasing when he agreed to retell the story about a mother he met while shopping in Lisbon — one that captured the David Luiz I’d come to know over those few days.
There appears to be an amazing atmosphere in the Brazil squad. Hulk has said that the current squad is like a family he never wants to leave. Just how close are you?
This is the best atmosphere I’ve experienced in my professional life. It’s really, really special to be here and to be part of this team. I think we have become a family and we are so happy when we are together. I wish we had more days together, too, because I never want to leave. I think that’s the secret to our success. Everyone shows each other respect and stays disciplined, I think when everyone is happy you can have good results.
How does Felipão achieve that? How does he manage to bring everyone so close together?
I think it’s down to his experience. He knows how to lead a national team. He knows how to win the World Cup. He’s a very straight person. He’s negative when he needs to be and very positive when necessary. He’s direct and transparent. That’s good for us because if you can’t have conversations like that then you can’t really understand what needs to be done. Everyone knows him, everyone knows how he wants to work and the respect that he demands in the squad. He’s a fantastic coach, a fantastic trainer and a fantastic person. He’s a fantastic father to everyone. I think with the help of Carlos Alberto Parreira and all the staff it becomes much easier for us. Everyone wants to be happy and he always says to us before the games that he wants us to be happy on the pitch. He wants us to work hard, to be tactically prepared and mentally ready, but he wants everyone to be happy. I think that’s part of Brazilian culture and he never forgets that.
You’re particularly close to Bernard, aren’t you?
He’s like my little brother. When he first came into the Brazil squad I said to him that I would help him and protect him. It’s part of my job as the second captain of the team. He’s a fantastic player and a great person with a good heart. Our friendship is very good, we really enjoy being together. I’ve tried to teach him lots of things about football.
You were telling me recently about a friend who works for you, though you insisted on putting him through a university degree first. Can you tell me more about that relationship?
Yes, it’s not about the work, but more about the friendship. I want to see Rodrigo have success in his life as well. It’s good for me to have a confident guy with us, to have friends. I think it’s good when you can help people. When I left home [in São Paulo to join Vitória in Salvador] at 14 years old I said, “Mum, I want to help you and one day I want to help many other people in the world.” I have Rodrigo working with me now who is a childhood friend. He helps me in many ways, organising my life because sometimes I don’t have the time. I am so happy to do that because I want him to be happy. I said to him, “If you’re happy do this then great, but if you are not then tell me and you can try to something else.” I don’t just want to have success, I want to be happy and I want my friends and family to be happy too.
Your family and friends are very important to you, aren’t they?
Yes, I think that when you are with someone, even just for one hour of one day, it’s great if you can try to help that person in some way. Just be honest, tell the truth and I think you can always help someone.
What’s your biggest achievement?
The best reward I’ve had in my life was when a woman stopped me while I was shopping in Lisbon during my time with Benfica. She said, “Thank you.” I asked her what for and she said, “A week ago you gave an interview where you spoke about your principles, your love for your family and the respect we must show people. You said it’s important to show your parents your love every day. And yesterday, for the first time, my son told me he loved me. I have to thank you for that.” That was the best reward of my life because it showed me that my career is not just about what happens on the pitch. It’s not only about nice goals and good games, but it’s also about how you can make an impact in people’s lives. So I try every day to show my personality, my heart and to help everyone. Of course I always give my best on the field, but I think that modern footballers have a big opportunity to make a difference in peoples’ lives.
Everybody on this tour seems to know you. From the security guy right up to the match agent. You seem to talk to everyone.
I cannot get to the top on my own. Everyone is important to me. Everyone has played a part in my success and I try to show that because I think when you can show people that they are important to you it makes them happy. That’s my personality and my culture. My mother always told me I need to respect everyone. If it’s the president or just some guy working at the game, you need to respect them the same way because you need them both. I like that, it makes me feel alive. I like to see people happy, I like to show them that I like them too. I have the best job in the world so whenever I have time, I think I should show someone that I am also there for them.
The Confederations Cup was a huge turning point. What changed at that tournament?
I think it was the time when we showed everyone the old Brazil. When I was young I always saw Brazil winning games on television with fantastic players and a fantastic team. We had a huge opportunity to play in front of our people in a nice competition like the Confederations Cup. Everyone came together: the team, the entire population. That was our power. I remember I spoke to the Spanish guys playing for Chelsea and they said that when they saw the people singing the national anthem like they did at the final, they all said, “It’s impossible to win today.” So now we have a huge opportunity coming. We are really looking forward to playing the World Cup. We are so anxious and excited and we know what we need to do. We have to work hard with humility and keep our feet on the ground.
There will be a lot of pressure on you.
The pressure is good. It’s good to feel that because it can show us exactly how important it will be for our country when we win the World Cup.
And you will win the World Cup?