Firmino in Germany: Why Hoffenheim Was the Making of Liverpool's Brazilian Star

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IFebruary 21, 2020

B/R Football

As soon as Roberto Firmino heard that he would be fulfilling his European dream and joining German club Hoffenheim in late 2010, his immediate thought was to get a tattoo.

Firmino wanted something that expressed his gratitude to his family, who supported his tough journey to the top. The Liverpool forward started his career at second-tier side Figueirense in the South Region of Brazil—over 3,000 kilometers from his hometown of Maceio. He had to spend an entire year without seeing his mom as he tried to make it as a footballer. 

Germany was a life-changing opportunity that came after he had been rejected by Brazil's big clubs and was even deported from Spain on his way to a trial with Marseille in France. 

Firmino wanted his new tattoo to celebrate his family but also to be understandable to everyone at his new working environment, so he decided to get it in German.

The young forward didn't know a single word of the language, though, and relied on Google Translate to help him out. Eventually, he came up with something and decided to pay around €50 to have it inked on his right underarm before he boarded the flight.

The chosen phrase to be inked was: "Familie unaufhorliche Liebe," which Firmino thought translated to: "family's never-ending love."

However, once he set foot in Germany, he quickly learned that it made no sense whatsoever.

"It was not good German—nobody would say it like that, but it actually had a mistake on it too: It should have been 'unaufhörliche,' with the umlaut above the 'o.' It was just wrong," Martin Gruener, a reporter who covered Hoffenheim for Kicker magazine, explains to Bleacher Report.

Firmino rushed to get it fixed at a local parlour at the earliest opportunity, and so, amid much confusion, he began his Bundesliga story. 

It all went uphill from there.

Hoffenheim's Brazilian midfielder Roberto Firmino celebrates during the German trophy football match Borussia Dortmund vs TSG Hoffenheim in the Signal Iduna Park stadium in Dortmund, western Germany on April 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ

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PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

A true bargain at just €4 million, he would eventually sign for Liverpool four-and-a-half years later as a totally different player. In his own words, he was now "half-Brazilian and half-German" whenever he was on the pitch.

His mentality had changed to the point that his former bosses and team-mates would go on to describe him as "more German than many Germans."

"It's the best thing that could have happened to him," Bilu, one of his closest friends, tells B/R.

A former defensive midfielder, Bilu was responsible for arranging a trial for Firmino at Figueirense and ultimately featured alongside him there. He was the best man at his wedding and is also the godfather to his daughters.

"Looking back now, I would say that playing in Germany made the difference to his career. It's the flagship of his success. We see a bunch of talents that don't make it because of their mentality. Firmino could have been one of them, but he didn't let it happen," he adds.

Along with his impressive skills, Firmino's hardworking mindset was key in convincing Liverpool to send a delegation over to a hotel in Santiago, Chile, to seal his €41 million transfer to Anfield during the 2015 Copa America.

It has proved to be a transfer coup for the Reds.

A shy and affable character, Firmino developed an instant bond with Liverpool's German manager, Jurgen Klopp, whom he had faced multiple times in the Bundesliga. 

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 21: Roberto Firmino of Liverpool pose with the FIFA Club World Cup Medal following their victory inthe FIFA Club World Cup final match between CR Flamengo and Liverpool FC at Khalifa International Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Doh
Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images

Firmino quickly established himself as a fan favourite at Anfield. He's been instrumental in Liverpool's remarkable run of form this season that looks destined to end in the club's first league title in 30 years. 

"He is [unique]," Klopp said in a recent press conference. "How he makes things happen is special, absolutely. I do not know another player like him."

In August, Firmino became the first Brazilian to score 50 Premier League goals. That he is now a member of world football's elite is a testament to his relentless work ethic. 

It was Ernst Tanner, Hoffenheim's erstwhile former sporting director, who decided to bet on Firmino and bring him to the Bundesliga when he was just a 19-year-old skinny boy plying his trade in Brazil's second division, far away from the South American country's intense media spotlight.

The logistics made it an incredibly difficult deal to pull off, and yet Tanner pushed the move forward after travelling to the southern coastal city of Florianopolis to watch Firmino in 2010.

Uwe Anspach/Associated Press

Tanner has an impressive track record of identifying relative unknowns who turn into big-money superstars. At Hoffenheim he also signed Gylfi Sigurdsson, while at Red Bull Salzburg he brought in Sadio Mane and Naby Keita—two players who are now team-mates of Firmino's at Liverpool.  

He looks back at the pursuit of Firmino with particular pride. 

"I went over to Brazil twice that year, but it wasn't easy to get the right impression on Firmino during a game because he didn't actually play regularly [for Figueirense]," Tanner, who now works for the Philadelphia Union in MLS, tells B/R.

"With the World Cup being held that season, they had a break in the summer, and you know how tight the national calendar is over there, which roughly means that they play Saturday, then Wednesday and then Saturday again. 

"In between, they need to travel, so it was very hard even to follow him in training, but we managed to get into the stadium facilities as tourists to watch him working.

"There was one specific session where I said, 'OK, this was the right type of player.' He's bringing along the right mentality, he's eager to learn, he works hard—what we saw in training was far better than in game. That was the reason why we took that decision. We had also sent a scout over, but his report was negative on him."

At his unveiling at Hoffenheim, Firmino was introduced as "a top talent" who would be given "enough time to settle."

Although he had been named breakout star of the season in Brazil's second tier, with eight goals in 36 games, his physical condition was a major concern from the very beginning and demanded attention from the club.

"You should have seen the data that we got on him when he was coming for the first time [to Hoffenheim]. In Germany, we usually do these endurance tests, blood ones, which are pretty accurate, you know, and he had the worst numbers I have ever seen in professional football," Tanner recalls.

"I would say to emphasise that he was even worse than my grandma. You can't imagine. They were so low that you couldn't even believe that he was ever able to play professional football."

Going from the island city of Florianopolis, a popular holiday spot for Brazilians, to snowy Hoffenheim didn't make it any easier either, but despite those circumstances, Firmino settled surprisingly well.

Apart from the struggles with the language, he adjusted much quicker than some of his compatriots had done in the past.

"At first, he brought one of my cousins, Junior, to live with him. I still remember him saying that he had a tough time in his first months. He had come from a beautiful city with a summer that lasts almost all year round to a small village where he had to face minus 20 C," Bilu recalls.

"It was no piece of cake, but eventually he overcame it."

Within three months, Firmino was already showcasing his talent in the Bundesliga. Ultimately, he finished that 2010-11 season with just three goals to his name. He was yet to reach the peak of his form, but Hoffenheim believed he had improved his fitness "about 50 to 60 percent" over that campaign.

The ever-smiling teenager still had a long way ahead of him, but he had done enough in those initial displays to garner some attention, and not just for the way he played.

Firmino's eccentric fashion sense was already making headlines, with a particular detail in his smile drawing attention from everyone around.

"At his start, he wore braces on his teeth, sometimes with pink stones, sometimes very glittering. It was like his own trademark in a time when he did not have as many tattoos as he does now," Gruener says.

After that initial season settling in, Firmino never looked back. Operating predominantly as a No. 10 and sometimes featuring out wide, he became a key cog in a Hoffenheim side that played attractive, attacking football and challenged some of the local big guns.

The village team's fruitful connection with Brazil following their promotion in 2008 also meant that Firmino was often surrounded by countrymen at the club, which made his transition to the Bundesliga all the smoother.

He often shared a room before away games with the experienced Chris Hening—a fellow Brazilian who, as well as having a Germanic-sounding name, spent much of his career in Germany. 

"Firmino was like a son to me," Hening tells B/R. "Hoffenheim were my last side, I was already 35 and close to retiring. The club also had a Brazilian employee, Cesar Thier [former goalkeeper and now part of the management team], an amazing guy who helps foreign players.

"Every Thursday, we had dinner and some fun at my house. Our band was basically Firmino, [Heurelho] Gomes [Watford keeper], Igor de Camargo [Brazil-born Belgium international], Cesar, Joselu [Spanish striker] and me.

"When I got to Hoffenheim, Firmino was already playing regularly—you could see he had the potential to be one of the very best in the game.

"I demanded a lot of him, telling him about the importance of being highly professional, eating well, having discipline. When you reach a certain level, every detail makes a difference. I had to go through that on my own, so I tried to help him with my experience."

Firmino's boisterous personality was not always so welcomed by Hening, though. 

"It was a nightmare to share a room with him," he jokes.  

"I was already in my 34, 35 years and wanted to sleep a bit more before matches, until nine in the morning. He woke up at seven, though, listening to Axe [a popular Brazilian music genre]. I had never seen him a bit down."

Firmino has managed to bring that Brazilian joy to his game but has mingled it with a determined German mindset to triumph abroad.

In 2013-14, he was voted Bundesliga's breakthrough player of the season, following a number of stunning performances that saw him finish with 16 goals and 12 assists. Unsurprisingly, his first-ever Brazil call-up came at the end of that year.

It was the icing on the cake for a striker who successfully blended two sets of characteristics from different countries to reach a level that Tanner had foreseen from the first moment.

"I was pretty sure that he would be a top Bundesliga player. We do these evaluations in our scouting reports, you know, and I think that out of 10, nine and 10 are international level. And I gave him, I don't know if it was an eight or nine, but I'm sure it was pretty high," Tanner says.

"Everyone [at Hoffenheim] was a bit curious about that at the time, but I rated him pretty high because I was so convinced about his abilities and even more so by his attitude. 

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - AUGUST 14: Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp embraces Roberto Firmino following the UEFA Super Cup match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Vodafone Park on August 14, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Imag
Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

"When I saw how the coach criticised him [in a training with Figueirense], he was like a schoolboy standing there and listening to his teacher. I still have that picture in my brain.

"I thought to myself after an hour that if that coach had done that to a German player, he would head straight to the locker room totally pissed off, but Firmino took the criticism well. He tried to improve, to do better. That was really impressive."

Today, there is little reason for anyone to criticise Firmino as he leads the line for the European and Club World Cup champions. 

Whether it's in English or even in German, Klopp does not have much to reprimand "Bobby," as he usually calls him, about these days. 

The only thing he is in danger of is running out of superlatives. 

         

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves

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