Happiness is a simple thing.
It’s the taste of the popcorn my aunt used to sell from a cart on the side of the road: “pipoca”, I ate so much that it became my nickname. It’s the colour of the dust that rose when we played football in Vila Cruzeiro on a pitch where I played every day of my childhood.
Shorts and bare feet. That was always my favourite kit. I don’t need to explain why: it’s the life of a child growing up in a slum.
I was ten years old, and on one seemingly normal afternoon I suddenly heard the hiss of bullets whistling in the street. One of them lodged in my dad’s head, Almir. Hit by chance, by accident.
If you live in a favela, you don’t really see much of a future, but I’ve always tried to aim a little higher thanks to football.
I was already playing for Flamengo’s futsal team, but that was the time when I should’ve been becoming a proper young man. I remember there were so many very long and difficult days, with my mum Rosilda in hospital and me at home with grandma Wanda. I would try to make myself useful: every now and then I’d stand on the street corner and shine shoes for money. My days were school, training and afternoons spent waiting. The day my dad Almir came home from hospital was one of the happiest of my whole life.
You know my powerful left foot? Well, I’ve trained and nurtured it since I was a kid. I used to always smash doors and things in the house, it drove my mum crazy. That’s one of the reasons why she decided to take me to Flamengo, to sign me up for a football school. Although we had to pay for it, and my dad knew we didn’t have the money and we couldn’t afford it. However, mama Rosilda wouldn’t deny me that dream: she told my dad that our aunt could help us pay for it. That was a lie for the greater good, and she started an extra job selling candy on the street.
When you’re born and grow up in a favela, it’s hard to imagine a different, brilliant future.
It’s also hard to dream. My mum, dad and my grandparents, however, always showed me the positive side of things. They made the difference in my life: they allowed me to focus on football.
Can you believe that I was playing as a full-back? On the left, of course. It was tough for me, but I knew I could never give up, even though there was a time when my Flamengo adventure seemed over before it had even started. By then I was playing up front and in February 2000 I went with the first team to the Rio-Sao Paulo Tournament. I made my debut against Botafogo, then a few days later Sao Paulo played Flamengo. We were 1-0 down and they threw me onto the pitch: I scored a goal and provided three assists, and we won 5-2.
I loved playing football, but above all I wanted to repay my parents. I had a clear aim: to buy a house for my family.
Football gave me self-esteem, goals in life, determination and a balance. Football is synonymous with hope and humanity, it allowed me to live a life that I couldn’t have done in any other profession.
The call from Europe, from Italy, soon came. I was neither nervous nor worried: I got on the plane to Milan full of happiness and enthusiasm. My greatest journey began, the one I had hoped of and dreamed about.
And yes, the beginning was a dream. It remains that way today, between hundreds of games and moments, there’s one memory that I cherish the most. I had just arrived a few days earlier and I joined the team for Madrid away. On 14 August 2001 I arrived at the Bernabeu. I was wearing Inter’s shirt, Real were in front of me. It was the stuff of dreams. I didn’t need more. I went onto the pitch and didn’t think about anything, I played as if I were on that dusty pitch in Vila Cruzeiro. I dribbled, nutmegged people, I could do everything. I won a free kick and from the bench they were saying I should take it. Remember that left foot I used to train on the street and at home, the one that drove my mum crazy? I introduced it to the world with that free kick. They said it was going at 170 kilometres an hour!
Football, goals, excitement. However, bad news knows how to hurt like a bullet. It can come suddenly and change your life. August 2004, Bari. I was on the bus with my teammates, and my cell phone rang: “Papa Almir is dead.” I thought it was a nightmare. I hoped it was. I can’t describe my despair right then. I’ve never felt such awful, unbearable pain in my life. I rushed back to Milan looking for a flight. All I felt was suffocating anguish and a longing for Rio de Janeiro. Off I went, to Rome, then Brazil.
Only I know how much I suffered. My dad’s death left an irreparable void in my life.
It’s strange how, for a Brazilian like me, it was a city in Switzerland that brought some light back to those dark days. I returned to Europe and took to the pitch for Basel vs. Inter. Imagine my state of mind. I won one duel, then the second, I burst past two men who tried to bring me down, then I passed the ‘keeper and fired one into the net with my right foot. I put all the energy I had into dedicating that goal to papa Almir.
I still remember my teammates’ embraces. Inter were very close to me in one of the most difficult periods of my life. Moratti was like a father to me. Not only him, but also Zanetti and others close to me. I’m extremely grateful to everyone, because I’ll carry those memories with me forever.
The Emperor. At first, I didn’t think they were that fond of me when they called me that. And it was nice to gradually discover the Inter fans’ affection for me. I’ve always felt at home in Milan: my love for Inter is never-ending. I immediately became a true Nerazzurri: my last-minute winner to make it 3-2 in the Derby is testament to that, isn’t it?
I remember it all: dribbling past half the team for that goal against Udinese, the greatest wins, the defeats, the triumphs, that thunderbolt against Roma in the Coppa Italia Final, everything. Do you know who I scored my last goal against in the Inter shirt? Against AC Milan in the Derby, of course!
Inter is a great part of me, it’s intertwined with my life, brightening the most beautiful moments and accompanying me through the saddest and most difficult ones.
Even today, when I think of Milan, San Siro, and the Nerazzurri shirt I feel like singing that song which I’ll never forget and that every time, without fail, made me feel happy, feel at home, feel like one of you, one of us: