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Felipe: the Atlético Madrid player who owes his career to a highlights DVD

The Guardian - Tue Feb 23 09:42

Atlético Madrid have dealt with their fair share of heartbreak in recent years, especially when losing two Champions League finals to their city rivals, but Diego Simeone has rebuilt his team with a core of players who are free from the emotional baggage of those disappointments.

Luis Suárez arrived from Barcelona in the summer and has already scored 16 goals in La Liga. The defence has been equally impressive, only conceding 16 goals in 23 league games. The Brazilian centre-back Felipe has played his part in keeping the team tight at the back. He has come a long way considering that, while Suárez was scoring goals for Ajax in the Champions League, Felipe was making a DVD of his best moves to send to a second tier club in Brazil.

“Atlético are always fighting to win titles,” says Felipe. “We knew we would be strong this year and we have improved on the things we did wrong last season – which is why we are enjoying a great moment in La Liga. The Champions League is a bit different, because every club is strong enough to win the title, and one mistake here can hurt us.”

Felipe is wary of the threat Chelsea pose. After stuttering towards the end of Frank Lampard’s time in charge, they now look solid under Thomas Tuchel, who has not lost any of his seven games in charge. Does the change of managers make Chelsea a tougher proposition? “I guess that doesn’t make Chelsea any easier to face,” says Felipe. “They are strong, one of the best in England and we have to look out against them.”

While Chelsea players have become accustomed to managers coming and going, Atlético are a picture of stability. There have been nine different managers in the Chelsea dugout since Simeone took over at Atlético. Even though Simeone is now into his 10th year at the club, Felipe believes he is still their greatest asset. “When Simeone asks for something, he does so with clarity and that is one of the reasons that we trust him even more,” he says.

“He has been at the club for many years and has been through the good, the bad and the ugly with Atléti. He believes in his work so much and it’s paying off. New players quickly get used to this kind of environment, so we always try to be on point. We focus on the team, on our guys wanting to play every game, and the only other team that we worry about is the one we are facing next. Every player at Atlético wants to play every match. We don’t know if we’ll win the Spanish title, but we need to keep the mentality we have to make it possible.”

Things were not always this straightforward for Felipe. When he celebrated his 18th birthday, he started to think he might not realise his dream of becoming a footballer. He had just started a job for his girlfriend’s mother, delivering mushrooms to restaurants and cafés, and he was still playing São Paulo’s amateur leagues. The life of a Champions League footballer felt distant while he was still competing on astroturf pitches.

“I used to receive about 50 or 60 reais for each game,” he says. “When you turn 18 and things have not worked out, you start to doubt that they will ever change. Despite that, I played in the fourth division of the Campeonato Paulista for União Mogi and a friend of mine, Bruno, gave me the idea to make a DVD of my best highlights. I need to thank my friend and his father, Itair, for helping me achieve what I have now.”

Bruno was a forward at Felipe’s club and knew first-hand how talented he was, so encouraged him to make a 10-minute highlights video. Bruno’s father knew someone with a connection in the game, so he set up a meeting. “I met this man, gave him my DVD and he said: ‘Go home and wait for me to ring you.’ It took two months for him to call again. I kept practising on my own, doing my exercises and keeping fit.”

To Felipe’s delight, the video made its way to a club in Brazil’s second tier. “My DVD went to Bragantino and the coach Marcelo Veiga liked me. That was my big opportunity to make my dream come true and I embraced it.” Felipe signed for Bragantino in 2011 and, after making 33 appearances, he earned a move to Corinthians later that year.

It was a big step up and he had to wait for his opportunities at first, but he did make it into the squad that travelled to Japan for the Club World Cup in December 2012. Corinthians won the competition, beating Chelsea 1-0 in the final. It was the first trophy of his career and remains the last time a club from outside Europe has won the Club World Cup.

After some time on the periphery of the team, Felipe’s career was given a huge boost when current Brazil manager Tite returned to Corinthians in 2015. Felipe impressed the manager in pre-season and Tite rewarded him with a starting place. He grabbed his chance, developed into one of the leaders of the team and went on to win the Brasileirão title that season.

Felipe holds the Brasileirao trophy while his Corinthians teammate Luciano gives it a kiss.
Felipe holds the Brasileirao trophy while his Corinthians teammate Luciano gives it a kiss. Photograph: Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images

Porto were suitably impressed and signed him in 2016. He settled quickly, with the shared language helping him bond with his teammates and coaches – although the communication was not always perfect. “There was a game against Sporting where I got subbed on during the second half and got a yellow card the minute I entered the pitch,” he says with a laugh. “The kit man had made a mistake by giving me Tiquinho Soares’ shirt. We were very close – Tiquinho used to sit beside me – and it probably stemmed from that. But the rest of the guys made fun of me for a long time after. They said that I was in love with Tiquinho for not wanting to let go of his shirt.”

Felipe said goodbye to Tiquinho and his Porto teammates in May 2019, when Simeone took him to Madrid in a €20m deal. That fee looks like a bargain now. Having worried on his 18th birthday that he might not make it as a footballer, he is now playing for the best team in Spain against an English club he once faced in Japan. Football was once a fading dream for Felipe. Not anymore.

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