'He was never a midfielder' - Inside Liverpool star Fabinho's forgotten Real Madrid loan spell

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Fabinho Liverpool Real Madrid GFXGetty/GOAL

Looking back, it was some 'B' team.

It had Alvaro Morata leading the line, with Jese Rodriguez buzzing around in support. Denis Cheryshev played off the left, with Lucas Vazquez flying down the opposite flank. 

In the middle the likes of Omar Mascarell, Borja Garcia and a youngster named Casemiro ran the show, while Nacho and Diego Llorente kept things tight at the back. 

Yep, Real Madrid Castilla’s class of 2012-13 were pretty special alright. Most of them have gone on to enjoy stellar careers across Europe. 

And this weekend, in the final of the Champions League, the Spaniards will run into perhaps the best graduate of them all.

Fabinho was just 18 when he first arrived in Madrid. He was a tall, skinny full-back who had been whisked away from Fluminense, his first club, before he had made a single first-team appearance.

Rio Ave, a modest club in the north of Portugal, had signed him. Nuno Espirito Santo, the former Wolves and Tottenham boss, was their manager, while Jan Oblak and Ederson, now two of the world’s best goalkeepers, were in the squad, along with Bebe, once of Manchester United.

The teenage Fabinho would train with them briefly, but would be moved on loan to Castilla almost immediately. It was all part of the grand plan of Jorge Mendes, the super-agent most commonly associated with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and, of course, Jose Mourinho.

Fabinho Real Madrid GFX
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Mourinho was manager of Real Madrid at the time, and Ronaldo was his star man. Fabinho, meanwhile, arrived in the 'B' team with little fanfare. Unknown and untested, one of Mendes’ many gambles. 

Alberto Toril was the coach of Castilla that season, and remembers Fabinho fondly.

“He was very shy, but you could immediately see his potential as a player,” he tells GOAL.

“When he arrived, he occupied a somewhat strange position for the type of footballer he was. He was 1.90m (6ft 2in), but he was a right-back, which is unusual, no?

“He played on occasion as a centre-back, but never as a midfielder. At the time, he just wasn’t seen as a midfield player, although we were not sure where his best position would be in the future.”

Fabinho would make 30 appearances for Castilla that season, and would be handed his senior Real debut by Mourinho late in the campaign. He played 14 minutes as a substitute against Malaga in May 2013, assisting Angel Di Maria for the final goal of a 6-2 win at Santiago Bernabeu. 

“Mourinho and his coaching staff had good regard for him,” Toril says. “They always asked about his evolution and were very attentive to his development. He was often involved in training with the first team.”

Toril, who would later go on to manage Elche in the Spanish second division and now coaches Real's Femenino team, remembers being especially struck by Fabinho’s understanding of the game, as well as his personality and technical qualities.

“He was eager to learn,” he says. “He was positionally very good and always made good decisions on the ball. You could see his confidence grow as the season went on. 

“His team-mates loved him. He fitted in well with great players like Morata, Nacho, Casemiro, Lucas Vazquez, Jese. They were very young players at that time, but very prepared.

“With Fabinho, we all saw that he had great conditions for the future. He played many games, and his behaviour was always of a good level. He was very consistent, attentive and generous. He played a lot of good games.”

Fabinho Real Madrid Castilla GFX
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Castilla finished eighth in the Segunda Division that season, just ahead of a Barcelona B side which included the likes of Rafinha, Gerard Deulofeu, Sergi Roberto and Alex Grimaldo. They were the division’s top scorers with 80 goals, despite losing as many games (17) as they won.

But while others from that side would get first-team chances – Casemiro, Nacho and Vazquez are all still at the club – Fabinho’s career would be made elsewhere.

He joined Monaco in the summer of 2013, as Mendes began to load the Ligue 1 club with his clients, which included Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Carvalho and, later, Bernardo Silva.

His development accelerated in France, though he was again seen predominantly as a full-back to begin with. It was only later, towards his mid-20s, that he emerged as a holding midfielder. He has since become one of the best in the business.

“His evolution has been extraordinary,” Toril says. “He was always in great condition but he was young and had to evolve.

“When he played for Castilla, Casemiro played in that position, so he had to go elsewhere to develop and evolve.

“He is a top-class player. He has a great physical capacity, and uses that so well on the field. He is so good in possession, he always makes good decisions with just a few touches of the ball. 

“Tactically, he is a very interesting player, always well positioned, very competitive and with a winning mentality. He was a pleasure to coach.”

Fabinho, of course, arrived at Liverpool in the immediate aftermath of their last Champions League final with Real Madrid, joining from Monaco for £40 million ($52m) within 48 hours of the Reds’ defeat in Kyiv in 2018.

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Since then, he has become a European, World and Premier League champion with Jurgen Klopp’s side, establishing himself as one of the world’s premier midfield players in the process.

He has shaken off a hamstring injury to feature in Paris this weekend, and is likely to be a key player as Liverpool look to win their seventh European Cup.

Not bad for a lanky right-back, eh?