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How Brazil learned to love Firmino, Liverpool's mischief-maker supreme

Chris Bascombe
Roberto Firmino is admired by Liverpool players and fans alike  - Liverpool FC

It is the build-up to the 2018 World Cup and Brazil’s most influential football correspondents are debating who should lead the forward line in Russia.  There is consensus Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus will be No 9, but concern about the shortage of back-up options. The conversation turns to Roberto Firmino, the focal point of the emerging force of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Milton Leite - one of the most respected commentators on Brazil’s SporTV channel, is adamant.

“Firmino shouldn’t even be a national team player,” he says Leite. “There are three or four better that we could put in the national team. I think Jo is more of a player than Firmino.”

For clarity, yes, that is the Jo who flopped at Manchester City and Everton. The remarks were castigated by South American journalists with greater knowledge of European football, but there was support among more parochial correspondents.

Those who helped guide Firmino’s career believe this a consequence of a snobbishness in the more established Brazilian media where only those who have taken the more traditional route to Europe via their country’s most renowned clubs and cities are worthy of lavish praise.

“Roberto Firmino is not so recognized in Brazil because he was formed in a medium club in Brazil,” explains Erasmo Damiani, a former director of Figueirense where Firmino made his professional debut. “He was not an athlete of Flamengo, Palmeiras, Corinthians, Santos, Vasco da Gama so was not formed in Rio de Janeiro and Sao  Paulo, as an example.  In these states the media is very strong.”

He has also grown in stature in his home country of Brazil Credit: AFP

Firmino’s friends say he could not care less about the misgivings of those who failed to recognise his pivotal role in the transformation of Liverpool. Wherever he has been he has grown in status after being initially underrated, or in some cases rejected.  Damiani says Firmino was not recruited by his club at under-17 level because they believed they had found a future megastar but because they saw “a quiet, determined athlete who read the game easily and could evolve as a reserve.”

His first European venture was at Marseilles, who later admitted their folly in overlooking the young Firmino when they offered him on trial in 2009.

“He was there for 15 days, not staying because they opted for another athlete,” said Damiani. “PSV also showed interest, but did not arrive with a fixed proposal.”

Bundesliga side Hoffenheim took him two years later, with Firmino first catching Klopp’s attention when facing Borussia Dortmund. When Klopp took the Liverpool job in October 2015 he was never so enthusiastic than when talking about the club’s recent Brazilian recruit. “I saw that Liverpool had signed him and thought, ‘How could they do this?’” he said.

Those who had seen Firmino toil on the left wing during the dying embers of Brendan Rodgers’ reign wondered if the new coach was talking about the same player.

In fact, the deal that hastened Rodgers’ demise was his insistence on pursuing Christian Benteke for £32.5 million because he wanted a target man. Privately, Liverpool’s recruitment team were arguing ferociously he already had a No 9 in Firmino, who had signed a month earlier for £29 million. There was a genuine concern Firmino was being misused and misunderstood.

Sunday's visit to Stamford Bridge takes Firmino back to the venue where everything changed. This is the fixture four years ago when Klopp selected him ahead of Benteke in an advanced striking role. Liverpool won 3-1 and it was Firmino’s knitting of midfield and attack while terrorising Chelsea’s central defenders that gave the first hint of what was coming.

Liverpool and Firmino take on Chelsea on Sunday Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Since then, Liverpool team mates have formed a queue to state Firmino is the finest footballer they have played alongside, appreciative of the skill, selflessness and work rate. 

He is, however, more extroverted than the shyness of his youth suggests. He is the club’s mischief maker, ever willing to mock the whiteness of his teeth. His playful look to camera in the Turf Moor tunnel as he followed feuding pals Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah back to the dressing room has been as much a highlight of the season as his backheel assist against Newcastle last weekend.

There are signs of a change in mood in his home country. Firmino was a regular starter in last summer’s Copa America, while Liverpool’s Champions League win means those dismissive critiques in Brazil have not aged well.

“Today Brazil recognises Roberto Firmino more,” says Damiani. “Klopp praises Roberto and that reverberates a lot here. Sports commentators now look at him differently.”