Robinho: Born in Brazil... made for Manchester
He made his name with Santos, found fame and fortune with Real Madrid, then astonished the footballing world by joining Manchester City. But, Robinho says, he could not be happier and is relishing his first Mancunian derby tomorrow.
Saturday 29 November 2008
It was an edifying story which said everything about the way that the world's most expensive footballer – once described as the next Pele, by Pele – was trying to adapt to life in unlikely surroundings: Robinho, with his £160,000-a-week salary, hailing a bus to make a two-mile trip across Manchester to the Trafford shopping centre.
Well, it turns out after all that the tale was apocryphal at best. Maybe his £32m arrival has spawned a new line in celebrity doubles; maybe City fans are just wandering around town with stars in their eyes. But no, he reveals, it wasn't him on that bottom deck. "I'm not saying it's diminishing for anyone to use the bus. I used the bus when I was younger. But I haven't done that in Manchester."
And as he says so, during his first in-depth interview since bringing his services to Manchester City, he is laughing – a big, joyful belly laugh which makes you think he might fall off his seat and makes you see what the unbridled affection he has found in the city has done for him.
It's there in the new Robinho T-shirts which feature his name in the Ribena font ("32 mil, no added preservatives") and is evidently as far removed from the way things turned out for him at his last club, Real Madrid, as he could possibly have imagined. "The Spanish supporters are a lot different," is how he puts it through an interpreter. "The Spanish go to the ground and treat it like going to the theatre. The English supporters go to the ground to support the team, to scream and shout and do whatever they can for their team. I wouldn't say that [the support is] a massive surprise, but I didn't expect it to happen so quickly."
Madrid to Manchester, Iberia to the Irwell, seemed a most inappropriate move for the boy from Sao Vicente and though he is diplomatic about the Madrileños and their city – "the city of Madrid is a beautiful city and my family loved living there," he says, "I don't like making comparisons because Madrid is Madrid and I am here today" – there is little doubt that he has rediscovered himself amid the rain, the chips and the local Pau Brasil restaurant which he frequents. "I have to look for my happiness and that is being out on the pitch, playing well and scoring goals. That makes me happy. Nowadays I'm doing that and I feel very, very happy here."
We don't have to take his words for it. The City manager, Mark Hughes, who knows from his challenging move to Terry Venables' Barcelona in the summer of 1986 what it takes to shift between the same two nations, reveals the same when asked whether he has had a foreign player under his charge who has adapted quicker. "I don't think so, to be honest," he says. "He is trying to integrate himself into the whole life around Manchester. He jumps in with two feet and immerses himself in everything that goes around."
Even Sir Alex Ferguson, who will get a closer look at the player tomorrow, seems impressed and he, for one, has not been disposed to celebrating City's new-found riches. "You say, 'Well, £32m, is it worth it?'" Ferguson said yesterday. "But you have to say 'yes', because he is producing something others can't do."
For an understanding of why, we must reach back into Robinho's time at the Bernabeu, a club which moved heaven and earth to buy out his Santos contract in 2005. There was success in glimpses: the scintillating debut in Cadiz which invited the newspaper Marca to proclaim: "And God created Robinho"; the Bernabeu Champions League encounter with Olympiakos last October when Robinho invented the new dribble which he christened vai pra lá que eu vou pra cá (you go this way, I go that). But while he endeavoured to make his life fit his work – even his pet Labrador was called Pedalada (stepover) – there was always an inherent anxiety at the lack of trust in his talent and the sense that he was a cog in a wheel.
Nine months back, after Fabio Capello, a coach he never came to terms with, had been replaced by Bernd Schuster, one he did, he was still feeling fettered. "Everybody knows I feel more comfortable playing for Brazil," he said then. "I feel people trust me more than here."
There has been a small corner of Brazil for him at City, though – some trust, freedom to roam the football field in the ways he chooses and, despite the salary and the price tag, he feels liberated. "Things didn't end up well for me [at Real] because the directors didn't behave properly," the 26-year-old says now.
"We know they have a lot of excellent players. But then look at the way they treated me. They treated me like I was an average player. They made it very uncomfortable for me." Indications that he might be the make-weight in a deal to make Cristiano Ronaldo one of the galacticos were the final hammer blow. "In football you know anything can happen and that everything can change from minute to minute," he says. "But I know my potential as a footballer. I know what I'm worth and I don't feel I should be talked about as currency for someone else. I don't like that. In the end I felt undervalued. Once a player finds out that he is seen as the bait in a part-exchange, then how else can they feel? It's not the way to treat people."
At City, an individual with a hankering to be loved has discovered he is precisely that. "I feel very happy because I feel I'm well treated here by the players and the supporters and the only way I can repay that is by trying to score in every game – which is what I'm trying to do."
The last bit is some claim, just like his 30-goal target which most players would be reluctant to set for themselves when the leaves are still on the ground. But the fact of the matter is that Robbie – as the football club have christened him – just doesn't tend to miss. Hughes repeatedly says he has seen no better operator the world over in confined penalty box spaces.
But the quality in Robinho which surprises most is not the quintessential Brazilian majesty. It is his inclination to lead.
There might be occasions, like the first half against Arsenal last weekend, where he features less, but there are others when he takes up the fight, gesticulating – even with the ball at his feet – where he wants others to be. His performance in the home defeat to Spurs three weeks ago particularly impressed Hughes and it was why he handed him the captaincy at Hull. Hughes won't, out of deference to Richard Dunne, discuss how soon Robinho will have the armband for good.
Shaun Wright-Phillips might have told Robinho that it would not have been like this had he signed for the Chelsea all-stars. You might call it serendipity that has brought him to east Manchester, not west London. The choice was also in part about money, he says for the first time, confirming most people's initial assessment of his improbable choice of club. "When Brazilian footballers leave Brazil it is to improve their lives. The reason I came to Manchester City was not only for the money. If it was for that, I would have gone to play elsewhere. I had offers from Saudi Arabia and Japan and I could have earned more money by saying yes to them. But on the last day of the transfer window, Manchester City made an offer for me. It was an offer that was very good for myself and for my family, so I accepted."
Family includes his wife Vivian and 11-month-old son Robson Junior (the reason why you see him sucking his thumb so often when he scores) and also his mother, Marina.
The bond with his mother is an extraordinary one, unshakable since the events of 2004 when Robinho, a star of rising financial worth in the Santos team, was told she had been kidnapped by gunmen while at a barbecue in the city.
She was bundled into the boot of her own car and held ransom for six weeks, during which her kidnappers sent him a video ransom demand, showing them cutting hair from her head. There were rumours that she had been killed before Robinho paid the £43,000 to free her.
"It was a very, very difficult period for me and I wouldn't wish it on anyone," he says. "When your mother has been kidnapped every day is a bad day. The [kidnappers] were arrested but in Brazil the law is there is no law. So I don't know what has happened to them and whether or not they are in jail. Maybe they paid their own ransom to make sure they stayed free. It made me realise how important my family is and what really matters in life. It has made me care more about my family. My wife, my son, my mother, my father – these are the people who matter most to me in my life."
They all now live in the Northenden district of south Manchester, where games of football in the garden with his son are a part of life. "We sometimes go to the cinema or the theatre, normal things," he says. "I spend most of the time at home."
Tomorrow's derby game is an early moment of truth for City and their big ambitions, which have led Ferguson to question, in no uncertain terms, the idea of blue eclipsing red in Manchester.
Robinho believes the idea of City being the biggest club in their manor is not so unthinkable.
"In football, nothing is impossible," he says. "Anything can happen. Manchester City might be classed as a small club today but in two or three years' time, who knows?" He is curious about what it might be like to score tomorrow – "I imagine it would be similar to scoring for Brazil against Argentina. But I need to score the goal first to know what it feels like" – and hungry for more Champions League football, though he admits that it will be the Uefa Cup, at best, again next season. "Next year we will try our best to reach the Champions League," he says.
Time enough, in the meantime, to develop as much fluency in English as he did in Spanish, though he's not that far advanced with the lessons yet. "More or less," he proffers, with a grin, to the question, "How are they going?"
He might also get to grips with the buses and even with Coronation Street. Is it true he's been watching it to help his English? "No," he says with more uproarious laughter and a smile as wide as the Irwell, at the madness of it all.
Website blunder that meant Chelsea missed out
Robinho has said Chelsea's premature decision to put an image of him in a Chelsea shirt on their website was to blame for their failure to land his signature and that his departure for Manchester City instead was their "own fault".
The 26-year-old's blunt assessment of Chelsea dents hopes the London club still harbour that he might yet wish to sign for them."It was Chelsea's own fault," he said. "I didn't want to stay at Real Madrid any longer and Chelsea knew that. At the beginning they were the only club who had made an offer for me. Manchester City, at that time, had not made an offer. Everything would probably have been OK but they put that picture on the website and Madrid were very upset about that. Chelsea are [also] in the Champions League and, with me, would have been even stronger."
Chelsea's manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, has not discussed his decision with him, Robinho added. "He is a close personal friend and one of the top managers, but we have never spoken about that."
How to make an impression
Sept 13 v Chelsea
The 25-yard debut free- kick against Chelsea took the faintest deflection off John Obi Mikel but the elevation was exquisite. He then gave us the first taste of his thumb-in-mouth baby celebration in recognition of his 11-month-old son, Robson Jnr
October 26 v Stoke
The first goal of a sublime hat-trick, the lay-off was from Ched Evans, the finish crisp and elegant from just inside the box
Nov 22 v Arsenal
The divine one. With Shaun Wright-Phillips the supplier, two touches, before the most impudent of flicks lifted the ball clean over Manuel Almunia
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