An hour of punching numbers into the phone soon turns into a morning, then quickly the day.
It’s in regards to Philippe Coutinho—the person rather than the player, as we already knew so much about the latter. That he’s the nine-figure man after his £105 million move to Barcelona that could rise to far more via add-on clauses; that his is the third-most expensive transfer in history; that such a sum was deemed worthy as he’s seen as the successor to Andres Iniesta; that the 26-year old is playing a pivotal role in Brazil’s attempts to win a first World Cup since 2002; that his nation are physical and blunt, while he brings a grace and incision as a puppet-master; that despite his reputation coming in, yet more eyes have found themselves on him due to his play.
While the questions remain much the same, though, the problem is the answers don’t change a whole lot. One by one those who knew him well from his stint at Liverpool, as much as that was possible, somehow put the action of a baffled shrug into words. And they should know better than most, for it was at Anfield where he spent the majority of his career after leaving his homeland at just 18.
The quiet boy at first, the quiet man after. When Van Gogh wasn’t painting he cut off his ear, but for such a genius at his own art, there’s this…
“He’s really shy, and it’s not meant in a bad way. He’s like a child. You’d send him to get some keys cut and he might go to pieces.”
“People talk of players being one way on the pitch, but another off of it, and that tends not to be true. Especially for attacking players. But him, he was different. Anyone can see he was a lion when playing, but after he was a mouse.”
“He’s been with his wife since forever, and she is absolutely the chief. I’d say if it wasn’t for her he’d have been happy just to still be playing ball at whatever club he was at back in Brazil.”
“A very narrow range of interests. Simple and old-fashioned. Football, family, a bit of Jesus and a bit of technology. Her family and his family would’ve been over a lot, and if they’d go to London it wouldn’t be to see a show, it’d be to go to the zoo. Then they’d sit at home playing board games.”
This was always the worry when writing about Coutinho; rightly or wrongly, a rock lifestyle sells better than a religious existence. Besides, look at the wild rides some of those who have left Brazil to cash in on their gift have been on. Look at where they set the bar for mad stories.
Consider Adriano, who ended up in court on charges of drug trafficking at one point, though these were rejected by a judge.
Consider Diego Costa, who stopped cars to sign autographs and took his dog on a jet ski ride with him, all the while encapsulating both the care and charisma of Kenny Powers.
Consider Anderson, who, at Manchester United, once showed up to the regular party he, Elano, Jo, Fabio Aurelio and Geovanni would throw, with a diamond clock strapped to his wrist. He proclaimed, “Sixty thousand”, before they noticed the same on the other arm. “You’ve another one?” was the collective gasp. “Yeah,” said Anderson, “he gave me a great price if I bought two.”
Or better, look at Neymar. He and Coutinho have long been talked about side-by-side in Brazil as the future, despite the difference in style between the forceful energy of Neymar and the control and staccato rhythm of a playmaker like Coutinho. You can even see a snippet of the contrast in on-field personality in Russia. While Neymar is forever chased by headlines, the Barcelona player has been belting in a goal against Switzerland, scoring the crucial late opener in a 2-0 win over Costa Rica and conjuring up outrageous passes against Serbia, all with a quiet professionalism that lets his football do the talking. Next up comes Mexico in the round of 16 on Monday.
When you speak to people about Coutinho they all mention their admiration for the guy who stayed close to his family, stayed in love with his girl and crucially stayed true to himself. They all utter the same word when thinking back about him as a person.
It leaves that lurking problem, though, around what to say about the guy who says so little.
What makes him in any way interesting?
It’s April, and Rio de Janeiro is cooling down, as much as that is possible.
The taxi driver is double-jobbing, slithering without slowing between the constant queues of traffic, all the while showing off the app on his phone that tells him where the latest gun battles have erupted. When needed, he’s quick on the draw when it comes to slamming up the car windows depending on what street you whiz down.
This is not the postcard picture, but it is the real Rio that many never see. On one side is Cidade de Policia, the headquarters of an under-siege force, with turreted walls pockmarked by bullets. Up a narrow side street is Jacarezinho, a shantytown that the driver says you’ll be turned away from if you take a wrong turn in daylight, but you wouldn’t be so lucky at night. Finally you come to Clube dos Subtenentes e Sargentos, an oasis in the midst, the futsal club where Coutinho first came as a six-year-old.
Rafael Marques, who works as a journalist for O Globo, laughs inside about this Rocha neighborhood in the northern part of the city. Asked if it had gotten worse since Coutinho was a boy, he has a learned response. “That’s the great thing about here, there was never room for it to get worse.”
Downstairs on the court, a group of kids from nearby favelas are kicking a ball on the same wooden boards where Coutinho first danced. One little girl runs over to ask if you’d ever been on a plane and runs away screaming when the answer is yes. It’s a brief break for them, but what they’ll return to after here bears no thinking about and absolutely bears thinking about all at once.
“Trouble?” ponders club president Gilberto Guara. “Dangerous? That depends. You’ve the same neighborhood but it’s divided very sharply. On one side you can play on the streets, on the other you really can’t. But that didn’t change since Coutinho was young. Time moves slowly here. A lot of this area used to be sugar cane factories, but when they closed down, the squatters moved in. But that wasn’t Philippinho [little Philippe]. That wasn’t his life.”
“A guy from the middle class,” adds Marques. “He wasn’t poor. It’s not his story as much as people want it to be, for it might seem a better story.” Instead he directs you to a house on the hill, or more precisely an apartment block, a five-minute stroll away. Gated, you can’t get in. There was the comfortable upbringing Coutinho had, shielded from the reality of what was all around him.
“He was really shy,” continues Guara. “He was a different person playing, because he’d open up. But he was so hard to interact with, always on his own. He used to go to the pitch, play, and at the whistle he’d run to his parents. He wouldn’t talk to teammates. No way. He wouldn’t say a word.”
The walls of Guara’s office are adorned with photos of club teams over the years, and he points to those who made it professionally. You might not recognise the names, but such is the width of the pyramid and the competition to make a living from this game in Brazil that it’s a serious and unlikely accomplishment. Yet as much potential as they always showed, Coutinho was always different. “A wizard,” is how Guara succinctly describes him. “A tiny child yet one minute the ball is here, then it disappears there.”
Fernando Macedo remembers that conjuring too, witchcraft as if stolen from a bigger boy who oozed ego and confidence. A coach and scout involved with several clubs in the area for over 30 years—”since I had hair,” he beams as his measure of exact time—he’s also the sort of guy who’s the glue of a community and the conduit for giving children a chance in life. But for all who came and went across his own life, he’d never seen any like Coutinho. “He was on the court by himself, this tiny kid, and he was doing solos and setting up volleys he was scoring into an empty net.”
Mesmerised, the next thing Fernando heard was an adult voice. “What are you looking at my son like that for?” It was Ze Carlos, Coutinho’s father, who worked as an architect.
“I looked at him, still in shock at what he could do with the ball at that age,” Fernando recalls. “I told his father I wanted to sign him up for the club. He was saying we could arrange it, but I couldn’t take a chance he’d slip the net, and I made his father bring him and his documents straight back from their apartment. The funny thing was his father didn’t want him to be a footballer; he wanted him to be an engineer as that was more of a guarantee. Here, you can rarely say this, but football was a guaranteed career for Philippe. He was born the total footballer, especially with the control. He wasn’t even that quick. But his intelligence and skill—he’d see what others wouldn’t and, even at that age, he could then do what he wanted with the ball.”
The six-year-old Coutinho would play with older boys at this club for about a year before moving to Mangueiras—a hillside favela more famous for its samba school that takes part in Carnival each year—to play with his own age group. And there were other futsal courts dotted in between. Fernando takes me to his Magnatas club and, while humble, in parts of the world such as this, these are the true cathedrals of the sport. “I’m like a social worker,” he laughs. Indeed it was him who brought Coutinho down the road to Vasco da Gama training for his big break.
“Where else would I go? They are my passion, even my boxers have their logo,” Fernando explains. “But he didn’t want to go, he was shy, holding his mother. So the coach asked him to help out a little, just throw him back the ball. Tiny things, but once he got touching the ball that was it. He came out of his shell, forgot where he was, and started playing naturally. But it took so much pushing to get him there.”
A drip at age eight, soon came the beautiful roar of a breaking wave. Marcus Alexandre was coaching futsal at Vasco de Gama long before Coutinho was born. In 1999, he was leading the under-15s, but word was getting around about a much younger talent. Marcus’ professionalism meant he’d go look at the juvenile teams in his spare time anyway, but the buzz around Coutinho was different. Marcus was curious, then excited. “The whole club was excited,” he recounts. “We could see he was different, a bit better than the others. But I still didn’t realise he’d make it as far as he did or be as good as he is, as so much can still go wrong here.”
Fernando never had any doubt, though, and laughs that Alexandre once tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Who is the good one?” In fact it was during his first game for Vasco that Fernando also turned to Coutinho’s father and said the boy would play for the national team. Ze Carlos warned such thinking was premature and that his son would still most likely be an engineer.
A few years later, Fernando would watch on television as Coutinho played for the Brazilian under-15s at the South American Championship. A tear of joy fell down his face. Many more would follow it, right through to today.
There were a couple of sentences muttered by Gilberto Guara back at the Clube dos Subtenentes e Sargentos, amid the fun and football and all those tiny slivers of normality we can take for granted. “There’s loads of talent around this part of the city,” he said, “so many good players, it’s a famous neighborhood for that. Many made it. But many more didn’t, as no matter how good you are and how normal it can seem here, much can quickly go wrong without the right support and people.”
A few nights later, a couple of Coutinho’s ex-teammates are across town and happy to talk. They give the location, but getting there may be more dangerous than actually being there. I asked a couple of locals who know the scene, and they strongly advised against it. It’s a reminder that for as much as Coutinho and his family lived a relatively good life, there were roadblocks and obstacles lurking nearby that are unheard of in the first world.
Washington and Vitor Cardoso, known as Vitao, are worth waiting for, though. Later in the week, they give a glimpse of the real Coutinho who opened up with friends. The trio came together at Vasco at the very start and, with them both from other areas, they’d spend evenings and weekends in Coutinho’s apartment. They say his parents became like their second family.
Thinking back, Vitao tells of how he and Coutinho tried to cheat at a school exam one day because neither had bothered to open a book. They were 13, but a row erupted over how best to go about it, punches flew, they were separated come the test, and both eventually flunked it. For two days they didn’t talk, awkwardly grabbing glances when they passed each other on the bus, at training, and in the class. Finally, they both just burst out laughing as if reading each others’ minds.
“He keeps saying he won that fight, but come on, look at him,” smiles Vitao. “What do you think? But we’d fight a lot in games too. I played at the back and I’d get really pissed off if he made a mistake or missed a chance. I was selfish and he’d get so angry if I didn’t pass it. Kids’ stuff. We were the only two fighting, and everyone would laugh at us for it, but it was arguing during a game and hugging after it. But Philippinho was always stressed during games. I mean really stressed.”
Washington chuckles at his own recollections of their past. An attacker, he had a telepathic relationship with his friend, and he says he can still tell what Coutinho will do next when watching him play these days. However, back then, it was away from the game that Coutinho was finding it tough.
“Aine, his wife now, used to live a street down, and he was always crazy about her but she didn’t give him any attention. One day they went out and started a relationship, but they used to break up all the time, and Vitao was in the middle trying to help them to get back together. Always. Now you can see the real love they have. They started dating when he was 15 and are still together. She is a year younger than him and to go to travel with him was difficult. But they got married and she moved with him. Since the beginning he always said to Aine’s father he wanted to marry her.”
Hers is a name repeated in this story no matter who you talk to. Behind every good man and all that. The helping hand. The guiding light. The iron fist under his velvet glove. There’s a sliding scale of opinions in relation to her influence, but they all come back to her importance.
One friend of theirs from Liverpool says he’d be the sort to come home complaining about an agent or club or manager saying something. Aine’s response would be to tell him to go right back and sort it, or the nuclear option was her going. They add there’s no point trying to contact her, and attempts go dead. “It’s not about trying to hide anything, they’re just private.”
Coutinho has always preferred to do his talking on the pitch. Marcus, his under-15s coach at Vasco, testifies as much. As an example he brings up the derby game against Botafogo when Vasco were 2-0 down. After Marcus asked the team why they didn’t just give up and hand over the trophy, Coutinho responded with actions rather than words, quickly turning it around after the break. So meticulous and committed was Coutinho that his two brothers, Leandro and Cristiano, would always film his training and games so he could go home and learn from his mistakes.
On his own time and of his own will. Coutinho knew the best way to predict his future was to create it.
Up to that under-15 team, Coutinho was mixing futsal with football and playing up front, but thereafter it was just football and he started to push back into midfield. “I went to work with him only when he was 14 and only in coaching him I could truly see all he had,” says Marcus. “His technical capacity was huge, he thought differently from kids his age and was more evolved to the point he could do what he wanted. Then I could see he was going to be a superstar.
“He moved to 11-a-side but you see more and more in the game now what futsal brings to the grass. With small courts it’s easier to teach, it’s more concentrated, more intense, and you learn faster. It’s cultural here. It’s closer to street football, like pick-up games in basketball. And given this society now, street football isn’t always safe, so it’s where futsal comes in to replace it. Look at what it did for Philippe. But here, don’t think talent is enough. It depends so much on the father and mother, and also if the player is unlucky enough to end up with the wrong people around him.
“No matter if you have talent, that can drag you back,” he adds, echoing the earlier words of Guara. But Coutinho had no worries.
Now it was a matter of time.
* * *
The statistics, achievements and victories of Philippe Coutinho are scribbled on boards across the places he played. He won under-12, -13 and -14 state championships with Vasco, and by under-15 he was one of the standouts of his generation nationally, glistening brightest even in a pile of so many diamonds. But those boards are just ink that never bore witness to the true beauty.
Instead, watch the videos and you’ll get a greater understanding of why, at under-15, he was already the Brazilian playmaker. And why in December 2007, when he was still just 15, Real Madrid came calling. Shortly after Vasco sent Fifa a fax notifying them of possible harassment of a child, given his age. A whole chunk of history was changed.
“Since the beginning we all knew he will be big-time,” says Washington. “But people look at him and think it is just skill, but he worked really hard. He is not only a footballer but an athlete as well, he didn’t drink many soft drinks, never mind beer; he took care, he was always disciplined.”
Real were swatted away, but the offers kept on coming. Vitao had already started to hear rumours, and they were away at the under-17 Copa do Brasil when Coutinho suddenly had to go to Italy to sign a contract with Inter Milan. “He told me before the others. He was too good to stay, especially in the big moments of big games, as he’d do something special then. It was great of course, but part of you at that age is selfish and you are thinking about losing your friend, about all the things we did that wouldn’t be there anymore.” No more calling round, no more shopping malls in downtime, no more crosstown trips to the beaches, no more fights on the pitch.
Coutinho had just turned 16 when signing that deal, but given his age he wouldn’t be moving to Italy for a couple of years. That left him those months to play out at Vasco and to leave some small legacy. He didn’t disappoint. Talk to those at the club and fans outside their ornate and beautiful stadium, and many joyously recall March 2009, the old Maracana still with its 100,000 capacity slowly filling up, an under-20 derby between Vasco and Flamengo playing out. There were about 20,000 there to see him in that underage game with the kit draped off him, like a child in his father’s shirt. “He was flying,” recalls writer Andre Schmidt.
“He dribbled without fear. Three months later he would finally make his debut at senior level, but he was still very fragile against experienced defenders who were much stronger and heavier. His inexperience showed and he had few opportunities in his first year, with 12 appearances and no goals. But before he left at 18, that final year, he had a magical six months, becoming a key player. There was a defining derby for his legacy, against Botafogo, where he scored his first two goals in a famous 6-0 win. He scored five goals and had 10 assists in just 32 matches played in 2010 before finally bidding us farewell.”
Others didn’t have to say farewell, though, and hidden away behind his football, that’s perhaps the defining feature of him.
Both Washington and Vitao are still in contact and have spent a lot of time in Liverpool, and there’ll be visits to Barcelona too. Besides, there are always the invites for a barbecue each and every time their friend is back, as what good is the future if you forget your past? That, for a footballer handed endless riches, is refreshing. “He never mentions about his salary, money, stuff like that. He’s too reserved,” says Washington.
For all he’s conquered, he’s still largely the same person, living out his dream. So much so that Washington says of his move to Barcelona that they were the club he always wanted to play for. “Success never changed him,” concludes Vitao. “Everybody was worried about how Philippinho would be after being sold to Inter Milan, if he would become cocky and lose himself. But nothing happened to his ego, nothing changed. He’s still exactly the same quiet, down-to-earth guy.”
And it’s with that it dawns, as if what’s in front of you can often garner the least attention: Coutinho is hugely interesting, for the very reason that he appears not to be interesting at all.
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