From 'Arrogant' to Indispensable: Casemiro's Long, Hard Rise to the Top

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IApril 3, 2018

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 06:  Carlos Casemiro of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid at Parc des Princes on March 6, 2018 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
B/R

A hotel resort in Los Cardales, a small village about an hour's drive from Buenos Aires, was home to the Brazilian national team during the Copa America held in Argentina in July 2011.

The road that connects the countryside to the Argentinian capital offered a view of one of the football pitches used by the five-time world champions for their practices, and fans took advantage of it.

As is tradition in Brazil, Neymar, Dani Alves and their colleagues were allowed by then-coach Mano Menezes to play pickup games and joke with each other in the training sessions on the eve of matches.

Every time a player had any sign of arrogance on the pitch, he was immediately called "Casemiro."

Those watching proceedings probably had no clue why the Brazil players were shouting the name of the Sao Paulo midfielder. After all, he had not been called up for the Copa America. Instead, he was 1,400 miles away from Los Cardales, unaware his reputation was so poor within the national team camp.

A product of the famous Cotia academy of Sao Paulo, Casemiro was 19 years old and had yet to make his international debut. However, his behavior in his first months as a professional footballer had earned him a reputation for being cocksure that had spread through to the Brazil squad.

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He was not Casemiro anymore; he had been dubbed Casemarra (coupling his name with the Portuguese word "marra," which means arrogant) by his teammates and fans.

Not even winning the South American Championship and the FIFA U-20 World Cup that season improved his situation.

"One minute silence, Casemiro is dead," Sao Paulo's ultras chanted against him back then, but today he couldn't be more alive.

Casemiro does the dirty work for attacking players like Ronaldo
Casemiro does the dirty work for attacking players like RonaldoGABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

When Real Madrid face Juventus in the Champions League on Tuesday, Casemiro will again kit out in the Spanish club's No. 14 shirt and fight for his third Champions League title in a row.

He doesn't have to worry about being called Casemarra anymore. He's now Casemito (combining his name with the Portuguese word "mito," which means myth), as his current teammates call him.

The shy, reserved kid who found it difficult to make friends has become one of the best midfielders in the world. His name can still be heard in Brazil's training sessions, but now everyone respects him.

Long before becoming a Champions League star, Casemiro was on scouts' radars in Europe. He had travelled with Sao Paulo's under-15 side to play the Nike Cup at Old Trafford in Manchester for two consecutive years.

Featuring alongside former Chelsea playmaker Oscar, he couldn't prevent his team from being beaten by Mexican outfit Chivas Guadalajara as Sao Paulo limped home in sixth place in 2006.

The Brazilians came back the following year and did much better, reaching the finals against Barcelona. Casemiro was one of the prodigies of a hugely talented group that also included Tottenham's Lucas Moura and reported Zenit target Rodrigo Caio. The trio met Sergi Roberto and his Barca colleagues in the decisive game. But the Catalans won 1-0.

Despite being introverted, Casemiro would reveal after the Barcelona game a side of him that few knew existed.

"We had won against Schalke 04 in the semi-finals and decided to order pizza for the kids to celebrate getting to the final. We ended up losing it and I noticed he looked mad, really mad, on our flight back to Brazil," says former Sao Paulo youth coach Bruno Petri, who is now a member of Casemiro's entourage, to B/R.

"I immediately called him aside: 'Why are you upset, Casemiro? We are runners-up. There's no reason for this.' And he replied, 'I'm disappointed because I think we should not have bought pizza before the final.' I still remember this as something that illustrates his personality, how concerned he was with the team at such an early age."

Casemiro had gone through a lot in his life and could not afford to fail—his family depended on him.

He was three when his father abandoned his mother, Magda, and never came back home. Prematurely, he was forced to become the man of the house and take care of two younger siblings while his mom was away working long hours as a housekeeper to provide for them.

As a child, Casemiro loved a milk-based drink called Yakult, originally from Japan and very popular in Brazil.

Casemiro at the 2011 Under-20 South American championship
Casemiro at the 2011 Under-20 South American championshipCRIS BOURONCLE/Getty Images

A street vendor would walk around selling packages of 80-gram bottles every afternoon, but Magda had no money to buy them. "Whenever I saw the woman in the neighbourhood, I called [Casemiro] inside the house. Otherwise, he would insist on me buying them for him," she says with a laugh.

Born in Sao Jose dos Campos, a city a couple of hours from Sao Paulo, Casemiro would get into football through a cousin. For at least a few hours a week, he was able to escape the drama at home.

"When I retired, I launched a football school for boys and girls," coach Nilton Moreira explains. "[Casemiro's cousin] Monica used to play as a goalkeeper, and one day she told me about him, saying he was very good and asking if she could bring him in. We were looking for another goalkeeper to add to the group and I thought to myself, 'Why not?'

"He started training with the girls as a back-up goalkeeper, but he was so gifted I gave him a shot with the boys right away. He started as a striker in a tournament and impressed everyone."

Moreira is now one of the closest people to Casemiro's family—he's been to Madrid with his former protege, and his son attended the clash with PSG in February. Since starting his academy, he's helped 56 kids become professional footballers, including Brazil international Ricardo Goulart, Sao Paulo's hot prospect Lucas Fernandes and former PSG playmaker Everton Santos.

Casemiro required more attention from Moreira than most, though, and Magda has no doubt how big a role the coach played in her son's life.

"I'll always be thankful he met Moreira," she says. "He spent most of his time with him and never tried the other side [of crime, drugs and bad company]. If it wasn't for football, he could have gotten involved with that."

EIBAR, SPAIN - MARCH 10:  Casemiro of Real Madrid controls the ball during the La Liga match between SD Eibar and Real Madrid at Ipurua Municipal Stadium on March 10, 2018 in Eibar, Spain .  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Moreira knew he was more than just a coach to Casemiro. "His mother has always been a go-getter person but didn't have time to attend his training sessions, so she trusted me with her son," he said.

"She always said: 'I've put Carlinhos (Casemiro's first name is Carlos) in your hands. If he does anything wrong, let me know.' He never caused any headaches," Moreira says.

Actually, he did—but only to those who tried to steal the ball from him. One of them now plays alongside him in Brazil's national team. In the early 2000s, Neymar and Casemiro often faced each other in youth tournaments and even posed for a photo together in 2003.

They were more similar players then than they are now too. Little Casemiro was a goal machine.

Word about his potential started to spread, and Sao Paulo came knocking. The six-time Brazilian champions monitored him and made a decision to bring him to their outstanding facilities of Cotia, home of the club's youth sides, on his 14th birthday. It was the first time Casemiro was separated from his mother. There was no way back.

The beginning was far from easy—he was diagnosed with hepatitis A after a club medical and sidelined for three months.

"Geraldo Oliveira [a now-deceased Sao Paulo director] didn't tell the other kids about it to avoid raising concerns," Magda recalls.

"Carlinhos didn't understand what was going on. He couldn't even touch the ball and share meals with the rest of the group."

Casemiro feared Sao Paulo would dismiss him and cried several times while watching his teammates train. Sao Paulo U-15 coach Bruno Petri calmed him down.

Petri would give him a ride to the Tiete bus station every Friday—Casemiro used to spend the weekends with his family in Sao Jose dos Campos. Once they had to make a stop at the Avenida Paulista, the busiest avenue in Sao Paulo and home to the big financial companies and plush hotels.

It was not the most comfortable place for a countryside kid like Casemiro, who refused to even walk onto the metro's ventilation grate in the sidewalk.

"He was so afraid, he told me, that he would fall into it and die. I had to come back and make him walk onto it with me," Petri says.

It may not sound like the most exciting story, but Casemiro refers to this as the moment he learned to have courage in life. He had no other choice.

Always devoted to his family, he bought a new house for his mom and almost all the Yakult bottles available at a supermarket after signing his first professional contract at 16.

Casemiro during his Sao Paulo days
Casemiro during his Sao Paulo daysAFP/Getty Images

One year later, Casemiro was already popular with the fans, especially after an episode with one of the most influential Brazilian agents in Europe, Giuliano Bertolucci.

Bertolucci, who was representing Casemiro at the time, offered him R$1.5 million (approx €368,000) to take a case over unpaid benefits to court and try to engineer a walk-out on Sao Paulo.

A similar tactic from Bertolucci had seen Oscar leave Sao Paulo for Internacional, but Casemiro refused the proposal, parted ways with Bertolucci and renewed his contract.

"He has always been an amazing kid. If you had five minutes with him, you could see he only meant well in everything he does. He would never have turned his back on Sao Paulo," former assistant coach Milton Cruz says.

Now a holding midfielder, Casemiro was already a Brazilian U-20 international when he made his senior debut for Sao Paulo in July 2010, aged 18. Just a month later, it was Lucas Moura's turn to make his first-team bow.

The duo did not fight for a place in the team, but the comparisons between them harmed Casemiro's reputation inside the club. He ended up getting carried away by it, mentioning offers from Spurs, Roma and Sevilla and complaining in an interview that Moura had received a raise on his salary when he hadn't.

"I'm not moaning about how Sao Paulo treated Lucas, but I also need to evaluate my situation here," he said in a press conference.

The Sao Paulo board was furious. Yet he did not change his mind about making his grievances public. "I don't regret doing it. What did he [Lucas] do that I didn't [do to deserve it]? Which trophies did he win that I didn't?" he asked in an interview with ESPN Brazil. He did not feel appreciated the same way Lucas was.

Back then, Sao Paulo were struggling on the field, which made it difficult for Cotia's graduates like Casemiro to shine.

Getty
GettyCasemiro had ups and downs at Sao Paulo

Now regarded as condescending and arrogant by his own teammates, Casemiro had few friends in the first team, and his voice could barely be heard in the training sessions.

"I worked with Casemiro on two different occasions," coach Ney Franco says. "The first time we met was at the Brazilian U-20 national team. He was brilliant and we won the South American Championship and the World Cup in 2011. He wasn't my captain but always behaved as a leader. I recall saying in a speech in front of the group he would become one of the best in his position.

"And the other time was at Sao Paulo—he didn't produce the same level of performance and couldn't establish himself in the team. I used him as a substitute most of the time.

"He seemed more comfortable in the U-20 side, talked in the dressing room, was respected. Maybe because there were older footballers around, he was more reserved at Sao Paulo, introverted. But I'd never say 'cocky'—he was very shy in some moments, and it was mistaken for arrogance."

Many people say Sao Paulo didn't take care of him properly—among them a former director of the club, Marco Aurelio Cunha.

"Sao Paulo has perhaps the most productive academy in the country. Just watch David Neres and Luiz Araujo now at Ajax and Lille [respectively]. Casemiro is one of these examples," Cunha says.

"The main difference is that some will take more time to mature and you have to be patient. Otherwise, you'll lose a jewel like Casemiro. The fans demand stuff from an 18-year-old that they don't demand from their 26-year-old son; they ask some things that they don't ask their own sons. It's like they don't care about how old these kids are."

Bruno Petri believes the main issue was the transition from youth football to competitive first-team football.

"None of these teams has an employee to help this transition. Casemiro is from the countryside. He doesn't make friends very easily, and he didn't blend in with the rest of the players—I have no doubt it affected him. I like to compare him to Lucas [Moura], who is different. Lucas jokes with everybody and was immediately accepted by the others.

"Some people didn't want him to develop as a player, and he became Casemarra. He's not like this; he's very humble and feels embarrassed to speak to anyone he doesn't know."

Former Sao Paulo assistant Milton Cruz has no doubt he could have been sold for much more money. Real Madrid paid a reported fee of €6 million in July 2013 after an initial spell on loan of six months.

Casemiro is now a key player for both Brazil and Real Madrid
Casemiro is now a key player for both Brazil and Real MadridSoccrates Images/Getty Images

"It was a bad deal. Most of the amount was from add-ons like appearances, goals and titles. We're talking about Casemiro, not some ordinary footballer. No one realised this and might now regret it," Cruz says.

Sao Paulo's loss, Real Madrid's gain.

Casemiro spent his first year in Spain in Real Madrid's B team before being promoted to the first team for the 2013/14 season.

However, it was when he returned from a loan spell at Porto in 2015 that Casemiro became a key member of the Real Madrid side. Last season he scored in the Champions League final as Madrid defended their trophy, and he was instrumental in the campaign that saw Los Blancos claim their first Liga title in five years.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane says there's no other player like him. Brazilian coach Tite is convinced his peripheral vision goes far beyond the pitch and reaches the dressing room. Could Casemiro get more praise than this? He's working on it and taking English classes to improve his communication skills.

But his biggest fan has always been, and always will be, his mom Magda.

"When I see him arriving to these games so handsome and elegant wearing suits, I say to myself: 'Carlinhos deserves this; he came a long way. It definitely wasn't easy.'"

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