David Luiz has only been a Chelsea player for two months but the way in which people respond to him at the club's training ground you would be forgiven for thinking that he has been there forever.
He spots the reserve-team player Jack Cork working on his fitness in the sand track and shouts, "Hey, you're on Copacabana." The reception staff come out from behind their desk to shake hands and talk to him. Luiz's English is rudimentary but that does not stop him communicating.
At 23, and costing £21m, he arrived in January from Benfica as very much the B-side to the marquee signing of Fernando Torres. Yet it is Luiz who has made the immediate impact. He was the Premier League Player of the Month for February and he has scored twice already. Like the new kid at school who becomes one of the most popular in class overnight, he is a club favourite in the making – and he has only played six games in a blue shirt so far.
Luiz is not just the shaggy hairstyle and a boisterous attitude towards defending – although he admits with a smile that both those things are a major part of what he is about. He is a very religious man as well, not embarrassed to pepper his conversation with references to God and his faith. When I ask him late on to name his hobbies he says he reads the Bible. But like most young Brazilian guys his age, he also likes watching the Elite Squad action movies, about police operations against drug barons in the favelas.
Like a lot of Brazilian footballers, Luiz has come up the hard way. He grew up in Diadema, a town near to Sao Paulo and left home at the age of 14 when his local club Sao Paulo rejected him for being too small. He went to Esporte Clube Vitoria in the city of Salvador – a 14-hour bus ride from his family home. He did not see his parents or his sister for two years. So when he talks about sacrifices, you know this is a man speaking from experience. With the sun shining on the luxurious grounds of Chelsea's training complex in Cobham in Surrey yesterday, Luiz's natural enthusiasm for life felt in keeping with the surroundings. He is cup-tied for the Champions League but he will be back in the team to play Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge today and he seems to be loving life. "I am very happy," he says. "Happy to be in the best league in the world and playing well.
"I think the dedication I show on the pitch has always meant that I have that connection with the fans. I work hard when I am out there and that means I get through to the fans I feel that connection with them.
"Coming to England has been very good for me. It is a very developed country and London is the kind of city that anybody would want to live in. Chelsea have done a lot for me and made it easy just to focus on the football even though I have arrived halfway through the season and I am still looking for a place to live. The most important thing is to help Chelsea in the competition I can play in.
"It is frustrating not being able to play in the Champions League because every player loves to be involved but I feel involved during the week when I train with my colleagues. I try to motivate them and I give them support."
He talks about the responsibility of being a player but there is always that sense of fun. Before the last two Champions League games at Stamford Bridge – Copenhagen in the previous round and Manchester United on Wednesday – Luiz could be found two hours before the match signing autographs just by the tunnel entrance. Kids in particular seem to love him, especially the hairstyle - part early-Bob Dylan, part Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons.
"My hair wasn't like that in Brazil," he says. "It was when I arrived in Portugal to play for Benfica [in January 2007] when it was cold that I just let it grow long. Gradually I realised that people liked it. I also realised that I had created a kind of image for myself. But it wasn't intentional, it happened naturally and now there are a lot of people who don't want me to cut it off."
It also fits with another part of the Luiz personality. He is a full-time footballer and a part-time surfer. He learned how to surf in the resort of Itacare, a mecca for the sport, on the Bahia coastline when he was at EC Vitoria. Apart from the occasional holiday he does not get much of a chance to do it these days because he feels a responsibility not to risk injury but – as he puts it – "when you fall, the water doesn't hurt you". It sounds like a pretty idyllic life. He broke into the side at EC Vitoria as an 18-year-old and was at Benfica two years later, initially on loan. He went straight into the first team and, despite a tricky first game in the Uefa Cup against Paris St-Germain, he immediately established himself. Having gone from the third tier of Brazilian football with EC Vitoria, to the most famous side in Portugal and then on to Chelsea, he would appear to breeze through some of the biggest challenges.
Luiz talks a lot about opportunity. His parents gave him his. His father Ladislau was a promising player in the junior teams at Atletico Mineiro but had to quit because he needed to earn money to look after Luiz's grandmother. "My father Ladislau, not a beautiful name, eh?" he says. "He said to me that he had to give up on his dream so that we could live as a family. He was a very good player, better than me. Brazil is a country that breathes football. Everyone has someone in their family who wants to be a footballer, or someone who never made it, or even a baby still in his mother's tummy who everyone wants to be a footballer. If he is born a boy then you know for sure that he will love football. If she is born a girl then for sure she will like it too.
"That is the type of country that we are and we are very proud. We are poor but growing economically and trying to give opportunities to those who can't play football. Both my parents are teachers and they emphasised that education was really important and those are the most important values that you can have. Because football is a dream and sometimes it doesn't become a reality.
"I left home when I was 14 to go to Salvador and I didn't see my family until I was 16, but my parents always taught me that there is a right way and a wrong way and that I have to make a choice between the two. I have always been happy with the decisions that I make. I also believe everything happens for a reason. I believe in God. When the offer came from Chelsea I felt it was right. I had lots of offers from a lot of clubs but I never felt the same way about them as I did about Chelsea."
Luiz is excited that his family are coming to visit him next week. He intends eventually to live in west London rather than Surrey and he wants to take them sightseeing around a city that he admits even he has not had the chance yet to explore. It is a source of great pride to him that his older sister Isabel, 27, who is a physiotherapist living in Brazil, has been able to pursue her lifelong ambition of being a doctor because his wages mean that he can now pay her university fees.
His references to God and the Bible might sound unusual coming from a highly-paid Premier League footballer but they are said without affectation. It is just his natural way of speaking and he makes a distinction between Brazil and Europe mainly in the attitude towards life. "Because of the way life is in Brazil not a lot of people can afford to have the best food or a house to live in," he says, "so their faith comes from the hope that tomorrow could be a better day."
It will be interesting to see how Luiz develops in English football. There is a charming innocence about him and a sheer enthusiasm for life that seems unquenchable. But this can be a cynical game at times and despite his barnstorming start in the Premier League he will surely, like all young players, go through highs and lows. What he is at pains to say is that, without being complacent, he has already achieved much and he feels very fortunate for that.
"There are a lot of quality players in Brazil, the problem is that although they have a lot of talent not everyone gets the opportunity," he says. "There are a lot of Brazilian players all over the world – even in Alaska. I thank God that I came from the third division in Brazil straight into the Benfica team. I'm very fortunate because I never even played at the top level in Brazil. Yet there are a lot of players in the first division in Brazil who wish they were playing in Europe."
So what does he make of the view held by some that there are a few, if not all, Premier League footballers who are overpaid, boorish and generally out-of-control?
"Being a footballer is not just about how you do on the pitch," he says. "You have to look at other issues outside of the game. The size of the club you play for, the magnitude of the games. You have to conduct yourself as a professional. As a footballer I have an opportunity to be heard by a lot of people.
"I know that a lot of kids want to follow the example of David Luiz, because of the club I play for, even because of my hair. I do feel that if there is one thing that is important it is your family. A lot of young people have stopped looking at their family in the way that they should. They look at their family like they are friends. They fall out with them, they don't speak to them.
"People should take it more seriously. I follow the Bible and I understand that we are all humans and we are all sinners. I am David Luiz. I am not perfect, I make mistakes as well but I try to be on the right path and do the right thing.
"Whether you are from Brazil or England, it is a question of how much you want to sacrifice," he adds. "Say you want to have the perfect body but you are too lazy to work out. You want to stop smoking but it is hard to throw the cigarette away. You want to stop drinking but it is hard not to buy a bottle. It is about the sacrifice."
Funnily enough, Luiz admits he is not that well known in Brazil because he never played at the top level there. His five caps for the national team are changing that, as well as his profile at Chelsea. But as he messes around pulling faces at the photographer you have to believe that this is one young man with the personality to be a big star.
My Other Life
"I love music and I listen to all sorts. But as I am trying to learn English quickly I try to listen to English music and follow the words. So at the moment I am listening to a lot of Joan Baez and James Morrison."
David Luiz was speaking in support of Chelsea Soccer Schools which are providing football camps for boys and girls in London, Surrey, Essex, Hants and Sussex over Easter. Chelsea Soccer Schools are supporting the work of the Chelsea Foundation, using football to provide health, education and social inclusion. For more info visit www.chelseafc.com/foundationReuse content