'The Closest to Neymar We've Seen': Why the Rodrygo Hype Is Justified

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist INovember 20, 2019

Real Madrid's Brazilian forward Rodrygo celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Champions League Group A football match between Real Madrid and Galatasaray at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, on November 6, 2019. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP) (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP via Getty Images)

Most eyes were on Philippe Coutinho, Alisson Becker, Gabriel Jesus, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic as Brazil and Croatia faced each other at Anfield in a World Cup warm-up match in June 2018. 

However, a few metres from the pitch, away from prying eyes, the final details of a €45 million transfer deal were being tied up for one of the hottest prospects in world football. 

In one of the boxes at Liverpool's home ground, a meeting between Real Madrid's recruitment director Juni Calafat and representatives for Santos wonderkid Rodrygo Goes was taking place.

At that point, it was just a case of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts to make the transfer official after a whirlwind round of negotiations. 

On the eve of the game, an agreement had already been reached after Calafat called Santos president Jose Carlos Peres and asked if they could get together in a cafe next to the hotel where the Brazil national team was staying. 

Still waiting for a convincing offer for Rodrygo, Peres saw no reason to decline the approach.

Suddenly, as Calafat pulled his tablet out and made a video call to president Florentino Perez, it became clear that Madrid were serious about getting their man.

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"Our talk didn't last more than 30 minutes. They had come to Liverpool to close a deal and were not willing to leave the table without one. We discussed everything at one of those big chain cafes, it was a very dark place inside," Peres recalls to Bleacher Report.

"Back then, we had ongoing negotiations with PSG, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, but none of them were at an advanced stage. Florentino then said Madrid would like to check if they could make a bid, too. We had not signed anything with anyone, so we moved forward with it.

"That meeting happened on a Saturday, we then watched Brazil's 2-0 win over Croatia on Sunday and were already finalising the paperwork on Monday. It was really this fast."

Brazilian forward Rodrygo Silva de Goes (L) poses with Real Madrid's president Florentino Perez holding the player's new jersey during the official presentation of Silva as new player of the Spanish club at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on June

It was ironic that the whole deal materialised in Liverpool, because if things had gone differently, the teenage prodigy could have ended up playing his club football at Anfield. 

Before Real Madrid, or any other club, came asking about Rodrygo, the European champions had tried to lure the teenager away from Santos before he had even signed his first professional contract.

Such was the hype around Rodrygo that he became the youngest-ever Brazilian player to be snapped by Nike, aged just 11, beating the previous record of 13 (unsurprisingly, that record had belonged to Neymar). 

As Rodrygo was struggling to agree terms with Santos over his first pro deal, the Anfield club sent officials over to Brazil to try to secure his services before eventually missing out.

"When Liverpool made an offer, I told Modesto [Roma, Santos' former president]: 'Pay whatever he's asking [to keep him here],'" former international Elano Blumer, who was working at the time as Santos' assistant coach, told Folha de S. Paulo.

Roma ultimately listened to his advice and reached a deal that included, among other things, a new house for Rodrygo's family. 

Liverpool's loss was Real Madrid's gain.

Earlier this month, when the Spanish giants thrashed Galatasaray 6-0 at Santiago Bernabeu, Rodrygo became the youngest player ever to net a perfect hat-trick (right-foot, left-foot, header) in the UEFA Champions League, continuing his incredible rise.

Rodrygo after his hat-trick vs. Galatasaray.
Rodrygo after his hat-trick vs. Galatasaray.Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Overall, in his first six first-team appearances, the 18-year-old scored five goals and provided one assist.

The first of his goals came just 93 seconds into his Madrid debut in September's 2-0 win over Osasuna.

Only his fellow compatriot Ronaldo had managed to find the net quicker in his first game for Los Blancos: he needed 64 seconds back in 2002.

Rodrygo's impressive form this season has seen him win the confidence of boss Zinedine Zidane, earning him starting slots ahead of the likes of Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Isco, Luka Jovic and Vinicius Junior.

It has also earned him his first call-up to Brazil's senior side. He made his full international debut last week, replacing Chelsea's Willian in the second half of their 1-0 friendly defeat against Argentina in Saudi Arabia. 

Whenever Brazil's coach Tite talks about him, the excitement is obvious. "Rodrygo is for real," he usually repeats. 

In a way, Madrid's polite and soft-spoken gem is no stranger to the limelight despite his tender years. At 17 years and two months, he had already become the youngest Brazilian scorer in the Libertadores Cup in 2018.

The buzz around Rodrygo doesn't come as a surprise for those like Jose Alexandre Fiuza, best known as Barata, who has known him since the age of 10.

"He has always been tipped for great things. We have the impression that of all the players we have worked with, he's the closest to Neymar we've seen," Barata, Santos' futsal supervisor, tells B/R.

"He can play on both sides of the pitch, changes direction extremely fast, drags the ball forward at great speed. Sometimes, he seems to have it glued to his foot. He and Neymar are very similar in that way, although they obviously have one or two things that distinguish them.

"I would say Neymar is more comfortable with either boot, you can't really guess if he is right or left-footed. Rodrygo will get there."

In Brazil, people like to use the famous phrase that "lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place." Throughout history, though, Santos have repeatedly been able to prove that old adage wrong.

At Vila Belmiro, the first phenomenon occurred with Pele in the 1950s; then with Pita in the 70s; later with Robinho in 2002; a new bolt then came with Neymar in 2009; and the most recent one has been Rodrygo in 2017.

Rodrygo playing for Santos.
Rodrygo playing for Santos.Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Spotted while playing in the streets at a young age, he represents the essence of Brazilian football, having practised and refined his skills far away from football schools and artificial pitches.

Rodrygo would go on to start his career at rivals Sao Paulo before eventually deciding to move to Santos. He was seduced by close friends and also by the Neymar-mania that took the whole country by storm before the 2010 World Cup. Hoping to emulate his idol, he initially joined the club's futsal teams with Barata.

As he made the transition from small spaces on the futsal court to bigger ones on the pitch, it became clear that he was destined for stardom.

The diminutive attacker was so highly rated internally that when Santos celebrated their centenary anniversary in 2012, he was invited to join Pele, Neymar and other legends at the ceremony.

Rising quickly through the ranks of the club, he jumped straight from the under-17 age group to the senior team, without featuring in Brazil's most celebrated youth tournament, the Copa Sao Paulo. There always seemed to be something special about the skinny teen.

"I truly believe that he will become the world's best player in a short time," Luciano Santos, one of Rodrygo's first coaches and, in his own words, his main mentor, tells B/R.

"When Real Madrid announced his signing back in 2018, I received a lot of calls from reporters in Spain wondering what to expect of him. Since the very first moment, I had no doubt that he would secure a place in the senior team right away. Besides his talent, he's also a boy that demands so much from himself.

"In other words, he has always been his biggest critic.

"He knows when he doesn't play well. He has always been this competitive, wanted to be the best and the man of the match. It was something we had to work on a little bit in the beginning, especially with his temper, but he has improved a lot—he never gave us a hard time."

Such maturity is widely known by those who have worked with Rodrygo.

Brazil's boss Tite had been considering bringing him into the squad for a long time. Before finally making that decision, he spoke to several people, including colleague Jair Ventura, who had worked with Rodrygo at Santos. Tite got the type of answers he was looking for. 

"Tite, he plays like a veteran. He's very mature on his decisions," Ventura told him.

And it is not just on the field that the teenager, who has been described as "a 25-year-old," has impressed. His off-the-pitch behaviour has also been exemplary. He has managed to distance himself from controversies, instead staying focused and humble in his daily routine.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 19: Rodrygo Goes of Brazil (R) plays against Jung Wooyoung of South Korea (L) during the match between Brazil and Korea Republic on November 19, 2019 at Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirat
Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

"Rodrygo is an example for a bunch of young kids who would like to be in his place. I noticed that when he scored the first goal [against Galatasaray] he ran to hug [Karim] Benzema, who had assisted him. Then, after the hat-trick, instead of looking at the camera, he grabbed the ball and kissed it," Tite said in a November press conference.

Much of the credit for this usually goes to his parents, with his father Eric Goes being often mentioned in interviews.

A second-tier player for most of his life, Eric played as a right-back and dreamed about sharing the field with his son. 

Among other things, he was once given the task of marking Neymar in 2012 while playing for Mirassol, but he couldn't prevent a 3-1 loss to Santos that day. Rodrygo's meteoric progress, however, ended up leaving Eric with no choice but to retire in 2016 to focus on developing his son's career instead.

He's said to be a positive influence on Rodrygo, keeping his feet on the ground.

One of the things frequently highlighted by Madrid officials to underline Rodrygo's attitude is how comfortable he looked speaking Spanish when he was unveiled last June, just a year after the deal with Santos was struck. It's something that partly explains why he has already left Vinicius Junior behind in Zidane's plans.

Rodrygo is now taking private English classes, too.

"His success doesn't surprise me at all. He carries the most important thing with him: he's still the same Rodrygo," Barata explains.

"We worked together, but he's also a very good friend of my son—I've got to know him beyond the club, and he has never been one of those teenagers who enjoy spending nights out, he has a very quiet life, hardly ever gets overexcited about anything. His family was pivotal in this, not letting him get carried away by fame.

"What's usually the problem with kids his age? Most of the players are spoiled since very early, being dubbed the 'new Neymar' and all that. They are led to think they can do whatever they want. Rodrygo has never been like this."

Luciano adds: "I understand when people hear us speak they get a bit sceptical. They may think, 'Isn't there any negative thing you can mention?' I truly understand that, but, in Rodrygo's case, this is who he is: a very talented kid who has always listened to his parents and never behaved like a prima donna.

"He left Brazil very young. Unlike Neymar and Robinho, he didn't win any trophies with Santos, there were some doubts about him, but I'm sure that his best is yet to come. His technical level is outrageous."

While the future could not be any brighter for Rodrygo and Madrid, Santos are preparing a new crop of youngsters to conquer the world in the years to come.

"Write down these five names: Tailson, Anderson Ceara, Marcos Leonardo, Sandry and Kaio Jorge. They're all very promising. Thank God, there are still so many lightnings coming out from our academy. Let them keep falling at Vila Belmiro," Peres chuckles.

In Rodrygo, the new crop also all have the perfect role model to try to emulate. However, while lightning may strike at Santos again, it's unlikely to be as electric as this.


Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves


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