David Luiz Exclusive: 'You Can't Always Win, but You Can Always Be a Champion'

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2015

Christian Gavelle, official PSG photographer

David Luiz, the angel with a dirty face.

There are many times, even during just the half-day in which Paris Saint-Germain entertain the media in Manhattan, at which the caricatured version of Luiz we’re all used to comes to the fore. Keeping his surfers' shades on throughout getting photos done to model the team's new away kit. Dropping a reluctant Blaise Matuidi in the soup in front of an invited audience at a presentation on the Niketown roof.

"Blaise really wants a question, don't you?" he says, forcing the communal microphone on his reluctant team-mate, a mischievous grin struggling to stay off his face.

It’s hard to keep your mind away from his famous and enduring Twitter biography, which reads simply "Enjoy the life!" It was a philosophy constructed in early 2011 in his nascent English of the time, when he’d just arrived at Chelsea knowing little of the language, and it has stuck around as an endearing catchphrase.

Neither is it difficult to imagine this crowd-pleasing Luiz working out as a huge personality a few years down the line in MLS, a competition he says, as we take a seat in a small but elegant meeting room, is "growing so fast."

At least ostensibly, it’s an unusual context to confront the less acknowledged side of Luiz, the moments that give flesh to the full extent of the dizzying ups and downs he’s gone through during his six-and-a-half years in Europe. For all the smiles, peace and love, he has not been afraid to get his hands dirty to succeed.

Luiz in New York City.
Luiz in New York City.Christian Gavelle, official PSG photographer

Luiz himself underlines this most demonstratively when he stands to leave at the end of our interview, when he half-turns to indicate the severity of the hamstring complaint that almost robbed him of his most glorious moment, the 2012 Champions League final win with Chelsea.

"Check out the difference," he motions, pulling back the legs of his shorts one at a time and pirouetting on tiptoe to reveal two very differing thighs, at which he points his index finger. Nothing is especially remarkable about the left one, but the right has what’s almost a parting dividing it in the middle, running vertically some 18 inches long.

It takes you aback, especially given the imposing physical power with which he plays the game. There’s plenty about Luiz that defies orthodox belief.

He refers to playing and getting through the final in 2012 as "without doubt a victory of faith." One of the first things he did on the Allianz Arena pitch after Chelsea clinched victory in Munich was put a white vest with the handwritten message "Deus e fiel" (God is faithful) over his kit.

Luiz’s religious conviction is well-documented, and a lot about him suggests his willingness to put his hands in the faith of a greater power—or, perhaps, the feeling that having done that for so long, he prizes his own instinct above all else.

When he first arrived in Europe, faith—certainly in his own talent—was pretty much all he had. He arrived at Benfica a couple of days before the end of the transfer window in January 2007 on an initial loan for Esporte Clube Vitoria, based in Salvador. There were no guarantees, but that was no problem.

Luiz celebrates Champions League glory with Chelsea.
Luiz celebrates Champions League glory with Chelsea.ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

"It was tremendous," he smiled. "I was already living a dream, playing for a big club in Europe. I had a six-month contract at the start—nothing long term, so I knew I had to prove what I was worth. My first game was against Paris Saint-Germain actually in Paris, in the UEFA Cup" he grinned. "Fortunately, I managed to raise my level really quickly."

The contrast with his compatriot and team-mate Marquinhos, seven years his junior, is marked. The 21-year-old, who told Bleacher Report Luiz’s arrival at PSG "made all the difference for us," is a more discreet presence, and having two fellow Brazilians in Luiz and captain Thiago Silva clearly helped after he arrived in 2013.

"We speak the same language," Marquinhos told me. "And we get on well, which are both really important things. They are champions with lots of experience in the Champions League and the biggest games." In his two years since arriving in the French capital, Marquinhos has polished his French to a very good standard.

Being tongue-tied was never something that bothered Luiz. "Our team doesn’t speak French," he shrugged. "We speak Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. Thiago, Maxwell, [Salvatore] Sirigu, [Marco] Verratti, [Thiago] Motta. OK, Matuidi speaks French."

He stopped to smile at the earlier target of his prank, then continues. "[Javier] Pastore, [Edinson] Cavani...Ibra (Zlatan Ibrahimovic) always in English. Communication is always important, but it’s a separate type of language in football. We all know," he said, conspiratorially with a little nod.

It recalled a line from George Bernard Shaw’s Maxims for Revolutionists: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Luiz will always find a way—sometimes in the most spectacular fashion.

He looked like doing that for most of the World Cup when he, almost as much as Neymar, was the standard-bearer for a flawed team that nevertheless looked as if it might surf its own tidal wave of emotion all the way to ultimate victory. Then came Belo Horizonte on July 8, 2014, when eventual winners Germany crushed the Selecao 7-1 in one of the most extraordinary games of the competition’s 85-year history.

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - JULY 08: David Luiz of Brazil looks dejected during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between Brazil and Germany at Estadio Mineirao on July 08, 2014 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Im
Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

It’s not the first time he’s talked about it since, of course, but he gave the impression the events have settled in his mind, mutating from shock and a type of grief into an eternal puzzle he might never solve.

"It was a World Cup with a tremendous quarter-final for us and then one..."

He paused.

"One just without any explanation, where things didn’t happen in the way we hoped—where things went really, really badly. Where we lost four goals in 10 minutes and everything changed."

There is little you can do apart from talk it through again, try to put it into some sort of perspective, try to rationalise. "If you’re one of the four best teams in the world, it’s not a bad [end] result," Luiz suggested. "But it’s that one bad game against Germany that’s the enduring image. It was a result the players didn’t deserve, that the group didn’t deserve. But I reflected, tried to learn from it, and we have to turn it into something positive, to prepare us for new challenges."

Luiz has come to accept the misery of that semi-final is likely to become every bit as enshrined in the darkest days of Brazilian football as the Maracana loss to Uruguay that saw the 1950 World Cup slipped away.

"It’s normal. That’s football," he said, shifting in his seat. "It was the last game, and it was a really bad result. It was a huge disappointment for everyone. We all wanted to be world champions in Brazil. And Brazil put on an excellent World Cup. Really strong on the pitch, everyone from all over the world really enjoyed it. It was safe, there was lots of happiness, and it gave rise to huge optimism.

"But for people to talk about it a lot is fair enough. It was a result that wouldn’t normally happen, and it still lives with me."

It reminded me of speaking to Michel Bastos, the winger who played as a makeshift left-back for Brazil at the 2010 World Cup, a month or so after the Selecao's shocking quarter-final exit of Dunga’s team to the Netherlands in Port Elizabeth. Bastos spoke of getting back into the dressing room, sitting there in a group of some 30 men, all in floods of tears. It’s always struck me as an amazing image, in a sport where machismo and front is still so prevalent.

“It was the same—exactly that,” Luiz nodded, picking up before the question has even ended. "We were all so disappointed, so sad. We wanted to make our people happy. Unfortunately, we fell well below that because we lost, simply. It was a place where nobody could stop crying. Now, you just have to think about something else."

Doesn’t he feel cheated that all the good stuff before is forgotten? The penalty shootout win over Chile, his blockbusting free-kick to seal the game against Colombia? Few admit it now, but Luiz would have been in the shake-up for the Golden Ball, given to the player of the tournament, before the events of Belo Horizonte.

“Yes," he shrugged, raising his eyebrows with—for once—the slightest hint of resignation to fate. "To the quarter-finals, it was all good—great games, and my individual performances were good too. But after that game...it’s natural that people forget all the rest. That happens."

Another thing that was quickly forgotten in the brickbats that came Luiz's way after the semi-final was that he had already shown himself worthy of the world stage in another way, stepping away from his celebrating team-mates in Fortaleza—almost Freddie Flintoff style—to comfort James Rodriguez, another of the tournament’s stars, at the end of the quarter-final.

Brazil's defender David Luiz (R) gestures as he consoles Colombia's midfielder James Rodriguez at the end of the quarter-final football match between Brazil and Colombia at the Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza during the 2014 FIFA World Cup on July 4, 2014.
EITAN ABRAMOVICH/Getty Images

"With James Rodriguez, it was just totally spontaneous," he remembered. "Everyone was seeing the World Cup that he was having. At the moment where everyone was swapping shirts, I saw him crying, and I understood how hard Colombia had worked to be there. He’d played a great World Cup with a great generation of Colombian players, and I felt sad [for him] at that moment. What I’ve learned in life is that you can’t always win, especially in sport, but you can be a true champion for everything you did to get there."

It must have hurt Luiz, though, that people didn’t remember his journey, what he’d been through, and just chose to tear him out over that one—albeit pivotal—game. He is philosophical, at least on the surface.

"It happens," he said. "I think these things happen in life and you survive. And that’s football. You have to...what’s the word?" He paused again, gazing toward the enormous ceiling rose. "Eventually, the truth comes out in sport, and in life. When you win you’re praised and when you lose you’re criticized. That’s normal."

Immediately after this came the upheaval of his move from Chelsea to Paris Saint-Germain. Rather than the comfort of home, it was off to a new environment, where he’d have to learn the ropes and, with a £50 million transfer fee on his head, be expected to lead from the front.

"It was a period where I learned a lot," Luiz proffered with an intake of breath. "I wouldn’t say difficult. When you live through new experiences and new situations in your life, that’s when you grow. I knew I was going before the World Cup."

There had certainly been the impression that Luiz's relationship with Jose Mourinho was cordial, to say the least.

Christian Gavelle, offficial PSG photographer

It’s clear they were ships that passed in the night in terms of time, as well as in an ideological sense. "When I left, I was with Brazil, and I didn’t really have any contact with [Mourinho]," Luiz recounted of the days around his departure from Stamford Bridge being made official. "I was in Brazil on holiday first, then preparing for the World Cup. Everything was presented to me, I accepted, and he sent me a little message saying ‘good luck.’ Afterward, I went straight to Paris. I didn’t go back to London."

He insisted there was no sense of rejection at Chelsea not fighting to hold onto him. "Was it Chelsea who sold me, or was it Paris that bought me?" he asked. "It depends on your point of view. I’d had four happy years at Chelsea, and they offered me a new contract, but I preferred to go." His conclusion is emphatic. "It was my decision."

When Luiz spoke of England, it was with a fondness that is natural and unforced. You could almost think he’s oblivious to some of the criticism—even spilling over into ridicule—he received from fans and media alike at certain points during his time at Chelsea.

When speaking about Gary Neville, for example, who infamously suggested after one performance at Liverpool that the Brazilian resembled a player “being controlled by a 10-year-old on a PlayStation,” reported by the Mirror, he is far from vengeful. He got his initial light-hearted responses out of the way on Twitter at the time, and now he speaks in measured but firm tones.

"I think that respect is imperative," Luiz said. "I’m not saying that people have to like me or that nobody can criticize me. Do it with reason and balance, though, with responsibility. Not lacking respect. You can criticize someone, say they didn’t play well. That’s fine. When Gary Neville talked about me being like something out of a video game, that’s the sort of thing that lacks respect, especially because he was a player.

"But I reacted in a positive way because I know that he’s learning, and he’s growing into a new profession. I think he realised that he’d made a mistake, and he spoke well of me later on. These things happen."

There’s little sense of regret, though. Everything about Luiz’s demeanour suggested he’s not a regrets kind of person. He’s confident, totally at ease in an environment with lots of big characters, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and we could hear the fuss over the Swede in an adjoining room. He’s also happy playing a key part in PSG’s marketing push, getting the club’s name out there, building the brand.

Celebrating French cup success.
Celebrating French cup success.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

"We know what our responsibilities are with the investment that’s been made," he confirmed. "But all the conditions are here to help us do our work well. It’s part of being at a big club, having that responsibility to win titles. Now we’ve set that bar, it’s up to us to stay there."

It was a good first year for him in France, and he bristled with energy talking about it.

"Really good," he emphasised. "We played for five titles and won four, and we went out of the Champions League to the [eventual] winners. So it was almost 100 per cent. That’s four titles—well, three for me because I wasn’t there for the Trophee des Champions." He was very particular about this distinction, mentioning it twice during our conversation.

"It was a very profitable year, a year where I learned quite a lot. I grew a lot. I discovered Paris. I love the city, the club, the plan we have for the future, the atmosphere that we have here, which I feel really strongly. It’s great because of the people I work with at Paris Saint-Germain."

What does he like about them most? "Direct, honest people with good hearts. Every day is very positive."

True to type, Luiz didn’t dwell on the individual details of that debut season too much. "You can say the numbers say I’ve had a good season," he said. “But firstly, they say I’ve adapted very quickly, which you expect—I’m 28, not a kid of 20. So I’m happy with my individual efforts in Paris."

What’s missing is far more on his mind. Passing Chelsea in the Champions League fostered the feeling that something big was about to happen, only for PSG's hopes to be dashed in the quarter-finals for the third time in a row, this time by the eventual winners. For all the current talk of Barcelona’s omnipotence, it’s worth remembering Luis Enrique’s side beat a greatly diminished PSG in the quarters before going on to do the same to a similarly handicapped Bayern Munich.

"It arrived at the worst possible moment in our season in the sense of having big players who couldn’t play and many other players coming back from injury, like me." Luiz lamented. "And Barcelona were arriving at the best moment of theirs. They weren’t great in the first few months of the season, but then that’s the most important thing in the Champions League—arriving at the big moments in your best form. That was the big difference in those two games, and especially the first one.

"People knew what a good team we had when we beat Chelsea with a man less [and] an incredible fluency and a tremendous spirit, but then we fell upon Barcelona, who were in a great moment when we weren’t at our strongest."

That goal against Chelsea.
That goal against Chelsea.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Still, there was the sense that a step forward was taken by turning over one of the continent’s true behemoths in the previous round. If there is extra satisfaction for that progress to have been at the expense of Luiz’s former club, he hides it well.

"All the way down the years, I’ve always made sure I’ve enjoyed the biggest games," he smiled, with his features becoming open and childlike again. "They’re incredible experiences. Playing them just gives you the thirst to play them again. I love being on the pitch for those games." Going back to Stamford Bridge, he admitted, was a little bit special.

"It was really cool. It’s a country, and a club, in which I was very happy. There were lots of experiences I’ll never forget. Winning the Champions League there, of course, and when the cycle finished...I went back there with all the happiness in the world, to meet up with some great friends. And to play a huge match. Oh, and scoring my goal."

Again, he stepped away from the idea of putting one over Mourinho; he said of their awkward-looking post-match tunnel conversation that they exchanged a quick "all the best," and that was it. Yet it reopened the curiosity of their divergent Champions League fortunes. If fate decreed—perhaps surprisingly—the Portuguese coach would not be at the helm for the first time Chelsea became champions of Europe, it had something different in mind for Luiz.

"I’ve told the story that I shouldn’t have been able to play quite a few times," he began, not hiding the fact it won’t stop him diving headfirst back into it. “It had been a big tear in my hamstring, and it still felt very tender. When I was training to see if I could play, I had to play in a totally different way to normal, just running over two or three metres."

Christian Gavelle, official PSG photographer

Apart from that, it was pretty much the whole tartan rug-and-chicken soup treatment. "I was just studying how to play Mario Gomez on video a lot—I spent about seven hours doing that," he recalled, eyebrows raised. "But nobody thought I’d be able to play."

He chuckled, still wrapped in the incredulity of it. "They certainly didn’t imagine I’d go for 90 minutes, let alone 120, followed by penalties."

Miracles, it turns out, do happen. "As it was, it was one of the most incredible games of my life. Not only because of the fact that it was the Champions League but because of the fact of what I was carrying when I played, having sat out the semi-final, and of people seeing me train the day before the game and crying with the pain."

The intense whirl of those days immediately preceding the game doesn’t seem to have dissipated with time. "I was constantly speaking with the coach [Roberto Di Matteo], with [Roman] Abramovich [and] with the physios. ... It was the one game in my life I just played with my head and my heart and without my legs."

The head, heart and legs have all proved sturdy enough to take whatever is thrown at them. Luiz said goodbye with a firm handshake and a sincere "may God bless you."

Then it’s out of the ornate antique door and back into the world of surfer’s waves, cheekily protruding tongues and huge grins. Yet it’s Luiz’s notable sense of determination that PSG hope will pull them further skyward that lingered in the air when he left.

 

All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.