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Fabinho's Unusual Route to Becoming One of World's Best Defensive Midfielders

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist ISeptember 26, 2019

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 22: Fabinho of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Stamford Bridge on September 22, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)
James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

The comment took Fabinho's entourage by surprise. 

While discussing the Brazil international's contract extension with Monaco around mid-2016, they were approached by manager Leonardo Jardim for a brief conversation during a visit to the club's headquarters.

"He came to me and smilingly said, 'Fabinho is going to be the best defensive midfielder we'll find in Europe,'" Lucio Araujo, one of the player's agents, recalls Jardim predicting.

Lucio, who is also the brother of former Barcelona, Chelsea and FC Porto legend Deco, might have been representing Fabinho, but he wasn't initially buying into the idea. 

Neither was Fabinho himself. Despite having already featured under Jardim as an anchor a few times the previous season, he was comfortable in his regular position as a right-back. 

Switching to a holding midfield position did not sound like a dream come true. In fact, it sounded like the opposite. Having just enjoyed some regular call-ups to the Brazil squad, he was worried the move could disrupt his chances with the national team, and he let his agents know how he felt. 

"Would it be possible to add a clause stating that I have to play as right-back?" he asked Lucio, filled with worry. 

At that point, however, it was too late. Jardim had already made up his mind and decided to bring in Lille's Djibril Sidibe to fill the right-back role at Monaco ahead of the new season. Fabinho, meanwhile, was left with no other choice but to trust his coach.

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Lucio backed his client to succeed but admitted he had some concerns they had lost a financial and professional opportunity. 

"The market for right-backs is a scant one," Lucio explains to Bleacher Report.

"Back then, we believed Fabinho could become a world-class full-back and have, in a short time, some of Europe's big guns after him. When Jorge [Mendes, one of his representatives] spoke to other clubs about him, he usually referred to him as the 'new Maicon,' a fast and tall player with a long stride and incredible power.

"However, as intelligent as he has always been, we had no doubt Fabinho would thrive in any other position, too."

It didn't take long for Fabinho to confirm their impressions when Liverpool came asking for him in a February 2018 meeting with Deco in Porto.

The Reds were in northern Portugal for their UEFA Champions League first-leg clash against FC Porto and made significant progress that week in the talks that would eventually lead to Fabinho's arrival at Anfield in a £43.7 million move last summer.

Fast forward a year and the 25-year-old has earned Jurgen Klopp's trust and established himself as a vital cog in the Liverpool engine room. He's added the kind of much-needed steel to the midfield for which fans had been crying out since Javier Mascherano's departure to Barcelona in 2010.

Fabinho has been described by Klopp's assistant manager, Pep Lijnders, as "a lighthouse" in the "organised chaos" that guided Liverpool to their sixth European Cup title last season.

At this stage, it's safe to say Jardim's words have proved to be prophetic.

Forget the "new Maicon" comparison; Fabinho has developed into one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe.

Despite being forced to wait 152 days for his first Premier League start, Fabinho relied on the support of Brazilian team-mates Roberto Firmino and Alisson Becker to overcome some early obstacles and shine at the heart of Liverpool's midfield from January onwards.

"I didn't think it was a difficult start [for him], but maybe the fans did sometimes. Since then it's been perfect," Klopp said in a press conference prior to the match against Newcastle in mid-September. "When you think a player like him is not starting regularly for Brazil, then what a midfield they must have."

Fabinho is not used to receiving such praise. While he has established himself as a hero on Merseyside, he could probably walk the streets back home in Brazil and not even be recognized.

That's because he's taken a peculiar route to the top.

The No. 3 spent most of his youth football years at Paulinia, a small outlet from the interior of Sao Paulo state that had a bus travelling every day to drive him and other boys from home to training at the nearby city of Campinas.

"We could only take in players from our area. We didn't have any accommodation inside the club," Elio Sizenando, one of Fabinho's first coaches and, in his own words, his main mentor, tells B/R.

"He's the best example of how patience can be rewarding in sports and other aspects of life. When he was younger, he was usually very distracted on the pitch. He had trouble concentrating, seemed to be somewhere else. We even joked that he counted birds during games.

"In the U17 age group, specifically in the first year, he struggled a lot to secure playing time and remained on the sidelines for most of the season, not even featuring in the matchday squad sometimes. We could have given up on him, but we didn't."

It wasn't until the age of 17, after hitting a growth spurt, that Fabinho began to make headlines. His major breakthrough came in the group stage of 2011 Copa Sao Paulo, Brazil's most celebrated U20 tournament. He stood out in a particular game—a surprising 2-2 draw against Rio de Janeiro's Botafogo—by causing trouble on the right flank and winning two penalties.

With offers on the table from multiple outfits, he was lured to Fluminense by Lucio, who took control of his career.

A year and a half later, with Chelsea flop Wallace ahead of him in the pecking order, Fabinho had to pack his bags once again. 

After returning from a tournament in South Africa with the Brazil U20 side, he learned he had been transferred to Portuguese minnows Rio Ave for around €500.000. Hoping to avoid criticism from fans, Fluminense stated they had sold their U20 right-back because he was only "third choice" and would reinvest the money in their academy.

Fluminense's loss was European football's gain. In arguably one of the most intriguing transfers ever, Fabinho found himself on loan at Real Madrid after just three weeks with Rio Ave. 

He had arrived in Portugal, posed for a picture with Rio Ave president Antonio Silva Campos and played for 45 minutes in a pre-season friendly against the professional footballers' union team. Then, suddenly, after a get-together with his new teammates, he disappeared from the club.

"We had a lot of Brazilians at Rio Ave at that moment, so he organized a barbecue in the apartment he had rented and invited me and the rest of the band—amongst them were Filipe Augusto, Diego Lopes and Ederson [now Manchester City's goalkeeper]," Marcelo, a former colleague who now plays for Chicago Fire in MLS, tells B/R.

"We had a nice time, but then, after that, we worked for three days at the club with no news about him. At first, we were told he was sorting out some visa issues. However, it would later emerge that he was moving to Real Madrid. No one could believe it. A Rio Ave player heading to Real Madrid? It couldn't be true. But, in the end, that barbecue turned out to be his farewell."

Marcelo still remains in touch with Fabinho, who, he insists, "hasn't changed much off the pitch."

"He was very reserved, humble, didn't speak much. He played a single game with me, we won it and that was about it. He trained as a right-back, therefore you couldn't really tell he would go this far. I never imagined he would become such a superb defensive midfielder," he adds.

"He and Casemiro are the best ones nowadays."

Real Madrid might have made their move for Fabinho after he played just 45 minutes for Rio Ave. But in truth, the Spanish giants had been tracking him since that Copa Sao Paulo in 2011 through their scout Luis Campos, who attended the competition in Brazil and returned home impressed with Fabinho's performances for Paulinia.

Campos, the transfer guru responsible for Lille's recent recruitment success, wrote down his name and followed his progression closely, eventually travelling to South Africa to watch him in action for Brazil's U20 team.

"Unlike what others might think, a deal like this doesn't happen overnight," Lucio explains.

"We had already spoken to Campos a few times—that is why I didn't rule that transfer out. A while after that, he called me saying [Jose] Mourinho needed a right-back. I checked our notes but couldn't find a player with their level. Then, I mentioned that we might have an alternative, even though he wasn't ready for that leap.

"At that time, with [Dani] Carvajal on his way to Bayer Leverkusen, they needed a replacement for him at Real Madrid Castilla. Mourinho decided to speak to Nuno Espirito Santo [Rio Ave's then-coach, now at Wolves], too, and was convinced about the move after that."

With Mourinho's approval, a six-hour road trip from Rio Ave's Vila do Conde base to Madrid was the only thing standing between Fabinho and his new club.

"One night, Jorge [Mendes] called me repeating, 'I need to speak to Deco, I need to speak to Deco…' He hadn't been able to reach him for some reason. And he added: "Also, I'm in Vila do Conde, grab your things because I'm picking Fabinho and you in a few minutes. Don't tell him anything yet, but in principle, he's going to Castilla,'" Lucio recalls.

"How could I explain that to Fabinho? Three weeks earlier, he was training with Fluminense's academy in Xerem. Then, he had signed for Rio Ave and was now about to move to one of the greatest clubs in the world. When I told him to get some clothes, his reaction was, 'Was anything wrong with my medical?'

"At the time, Jorge didn't have a private jet, so we went by car, arriving at Madrid at the crack of dawn, around 5 a.m. Fabinho was very tired and slept most of the way. We stayed in a hotel and woke up at 9 a.m. with Mourinho knocking on our door. Fabinho couldn't believe it."

In his first training session in Madrid, the Brazilian teenager who has a soft-spoken voice and laid-back and calm demeanour worked alongside big names such as Kaka, Iker Casillas and Karim Benzema, raising some eyebrows in the Spanish media.

No one had anticipated Real Madrid signing such an unknown player.  

Fabinho would spend most of the season with the Castilla squad but was often called up by Mourinho to train with the senior side, and he made his one and only La Liga appearance in a 6-2 win over Malaga in May 2013, assisting the final goal for Angel Di Maria. 

At the end of the campaign, despite Madrid's last-minute attempt to retain his services, he returned to Rio Ave and was immediately loaned out to Monaco.

He became an influential figure in a team that featured the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Benjamin Mendy. With a cheerful dressing room and so much talent blossoming at the same time, they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and won the Ligue 1 trophy in the 2016-17 season.

After that success, it was no surprise when Liverpool decided to move forward and sign Fabinho in the summer of 2018.

The boy who seemed to be counting birds during games is now more focused than ever and continues to prove Jardim was ultimately right about him all along. 

He has gone a long way as a defensive midfielder.

             

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves.

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