Stepping out of the shadows of Brazil's legends
By Tom Maston & Bruno Andrade
In the football world, it is the fashion to label every extraordinarily talented young player as the newer version of an established star, rather than allowing them to build a reputation of their own.
Children are weighed down with the pressure of believing they must live up to being on a par with the greatest players the game has ever witnessed.
For Rodrygo growing up in Sao Paulo, it was no different.
Dubbed the “new Neymar” by Brazilian media at the age of 12 having one year previously become the youngest athlete to ever sign a sponsorship deal with Nike, he would have been forgiven for allowing the talk to get the better of his incredible footballing talent.
“I think it is hard to find any way in which it is a benefit, because I think I will always be left behind in comparison,” Rodrygo tells Goal in an exclusive interview after winning the 2020 NxGn award given to the player dubbed the best teenage footballer on the planet.
“We are talking about Neymar, who is an idol for everything he did and achieved. I'm just getting started, so making this comparison with him is kind of hard. Yes, it is good, because it is a sign that I am doing something good and I am demonstrating something on the field, but there will always be something a little bad in this comparison with an idol.
“I always said to avoid these comparisons. It is an unnecessary pressure that ends up being thrown at me. Thank God I was always able to say that I didn't want to be compared (with anyone), and then there was never much discussion. Sometimes there is, but it comes from outside, so it doesn't interfere much on the field.”
Rodrygo may play down whether he can reach the heights of the world’s most expensive player, but the early signs are that the Real Madrid winger is well on his way to becoming a superstar in his own right.
Signed from Santos in a deal worth €45 million (£39m/$52m) as a 17-year-old, the Brazilian teenager arrived in the Spanish capital at the start of the 2019-20 season, with the belief that he would spend much of the campaign representing the club’s Castilla side, who play in the third tier of Spanish football.
But with big-money summer signings Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic struggling for fitness and form respectively, by the end of September he was thrust into the first team by Zinedine Zidane.
Within 93 seconds of being introduced as a substitute for his debut against Osasuna he had found the net, jinking inside a defender before curling a right-footed shot into the bottom corner.
His celebration? A bow to each corner of Santiago Bernabeu. Madridistas had a new hero to worship.
Born in January 2001 and raised in the middle-class region of Osasco, Rodrygo had little choice but to enter the footballing fraternity.
His father, Eric, enjoyed a nomadic career in the lower leagues of Brazilian football, playing at all levels up to Serie B for nine different clubs.
Though just 16 at the time of Rodrygo’s birth, he was clear that he wanted his son to take after him in terms of a profession, even if he was not always hands-on as a parent due to his career.
“My father, because he was a player too, often needed to be at the clubs. He travelled a lot back and forth, which is natural in a player's life. That was the biggest difficulty for me,” Rodrygo recalls.
“I always cried because of that, because we were sometimes in different cities. It was my biggest difficulty, but at the same time, it helped me to mature a lot.
“My mum - she doesn't show up so much when the story of my life is told, but she is essential, maybe even more than my father. They are both in the running.
“My dad, because he is from the same field, because he played football, always knows about it. But my mother also understands a lot. She spoke to me a lot on a daily basis.
“Family means everything to me. It's my base. They are the ones who support everything, they run with me everywhere. They are everything to me.”
“I would spend the whole day out,” he continues when contemplating his childhood. “I went to school early and then stayed there all afternoon. When I studied in the afternoon, I would wake up early to play football until school time.
“I came home from school and played some more at night. I always played football, as well as hide and seek and all other outdoor games.”
While a keen skateboarder and surfer (he still attends surfing competitions as a spectator during his time off from training in Madrid), football was understandably the focus of Rodrygo’s youth.
Enrolled into Santos’ academy at the age of 10, he first played on the futsal team, much like the player whose footsteps his father hoped he would follow in, Robinho.
At the start of the 2010s, Robinho remained one of the most recognisable faces in world football, even if his headline-grabbing move to Manchester City had not gone the way either he or the newly cash-rich Premier League club had hoped.
Robinho, too, began his career at Santos, playing over 100 Serie A games for the Brazilian giants before leaving for Europe as a 21-year-old.
A decade later Neymar followed an almost identical path, as he too racked up a century of Santos league matches before swapping Brazil for Barcelona having just turned 21.
The wing duo are held up as the two pillars of modern Santos – players who have left an impact on the Peixe before departing for Spain’s two biggest clubs and winning in excess of 100 caps for their country.
Neither, however, can compete with the true king of Vila Belmiro – Pele.
A veteran of over 650 games for the club, Pele averaged just short of a goal-a-game before leaving for a swansong with the New York Cosmos in 1975.
For any child entering the Santos system, Pele is, and in all likelihood will always be, the standard bearer for excellence.
And despite the external comparisons to two far more contemporary figures, for Rodrygo the dream of replicating Brazil’s greatest ever was never too far away.
“They [Pele, Neymar and Robinho] represent a lot for me,” he recalls. “Neymar was the one I followed the most, but I had the opportunity to meet the three of them.
“Even before coming to Madrid, I went to Pele's house and I received his blessing before leaving.
“I remember a phrase that Pele said: ‘Never be afraid of anything’. I will always take this phrase with me, whether here, in the Brazilian national team, wherever I am.
“He told me not to be afraid of anything, to play my game, play my football and not to be afraid of anything at all in my life. That has been fundamental for me, especially in my start here at Real Madrid.
“Robinho, on the few times we met, was super nice to me, super nice person, just like he looks on television, and he's even better off the field. I still have a friendship with Neymar. They mean a lot to me. They are idols for me.
“I saw Pele play a little [on video], but, according to everything they say, he is the greatest in history, so he is an idol. Neymar is my biggest idol. And Robinho too, for everything he did at Santos and also at Real Madrid.”
At the age of 16 years and 300 days, Rodrygo would follow in his idols’ footsteps by making his Santos debut, stepping off the bench as a late substitute in a 3-1 Serie A win over Atletico Mineiro.
Just over two weeks after his 17th birthday he netted his first senior goal with a last-minute winner against Ponte Preta. Santos had their new star attraction.
“Santos is my life,” Rodrygo says of his boyhood club. “It is the club that welcomed me when I was 10, gave me everything until I was 18, and I can only thank Santos.
“It is the club that will always be in my heart, not only because I am a fan, but for all that it has done for me and for all my family, for all the support it has given.
“Vila Belmiro means a lot to me. I always dreamed of being able to play there, of being able to enter that stadium.
“After I managed to realise the dream of making my professional debut at Vila Belmiro, it was really a dream come true, one of the happiest days of my life. Vila represents a dream and I was able to play a lot there.”
Though Rodrygo did not last as long at Santos as those superstars who came before him, he still made quite the impact.
A Copa Libertadores record holder as both the club’s youngest player and Brazil’s youngest goalscorer in the competition, he played just 41 Serie A games for the club before Madrid came calling, finishing his time with the club wearing the No.11 on his back in a tribute to Neymar.
Even with fame and fortune calling, young boys rarely forget their heroes.
Following his dramatic Madrid debut, Rodrygo spent the late autumn generating more headlines.
His first La Liga start saw him register a second league goal for the club before he truly spring-boarded into the wider footballing consciousness on a Wednesday evening in early November.
Making just his second Champions League start, within 375 seconds of kick-off against Galatasaray the teenager had already got himself on the scoresheet twice.
When the Blancos were awarded a penalty in the 14th minute, the opportunity arrived for him to score the fastest hat-trick in the competition’s history.
Never one for narratives, Sergio Ramos pulled rank and found the net from 12 yards himself.
One fairy tale extinguished, Rodrygo made sure not to let that near miss stop himself from earning a place in the record books.
With the game entering injury time and Madrid 5-0 up, he picked up possession on the left around 40 yards from goal before driving inside.
Having played the ball into Karim Benzema he continued his run to latch onto the return pass and poke the ball in for his hat-trick, and a perfect one at that.
In doing so he became the first player born in the 21st century to score a treble in Europe’s premier club competition, as well as the second-youngest ever to take home the match ball.
Used to following in the footsteps of legends, Rodrygo’s early performances suggested he had no issue when it came to playing under one of world football’s most revered individuals in Zidane.
Hailed for his ability to manage a dressing room during Madrid’s run of three straight Champions League triumphs, Zidane has now been tasked with building a team capable of replicating that success.
But those same players are two years older and the individual most to thank for the titles is now 1,500 kilometres away in Turin.
Rodrygo is just one of a number of young players who have been brought to the Bernabeu in recent years to help Zidane create his new generation of Galacticos.
And despite him being used more sparingly since the turn of the year, the signs are they are on the same wavelength.
“We have a very good relationship,” Rodrygo reveals. “He's a guy who gave me a good welcome, received me very well here and knew the right time to put me in to play and to prepare me.
“Now I believe that if I'm playing fine, he has a lot to do with it. He helps me a lot every day, talks to me, tells me what I need to improve, extols what I have been doing well.
“All this time with him has been very good.”
The 19-year-old’s arrival came 12 months on from that of compatriot Vinicius Junior, with the duo then joined by fellow Brazilian Reinier in January as Zidane’s attack of the future begins to take on a samba flavour.
In total the trio have cost Madrid €126m (£107m/$138m), and while they will be afforded time to develop, eventually there will come a point for them to lead one of Europe’s great clubs into a new era.
“We have this dream of making history here at Real Madrid and also in the national team,” Rodrygo says. “We [he and Vinicius] have a very good partnership.
“We met in Brazil, but because he is from Rio and I am from Sao Paulo, there was a certain distance, so we just talked on the internet and via WhatsApp.
“Today we are together every day, our friendship strengthens more and more. We have a lot of things in common and we have dreams that we hope to realise.”
On Reinier’s arrival, he added: “I think they are wanting to set up a trio here, or a Brazilian quartet up front! Let's see, I still don't know.”
The promise of three Brazilian players of the same generation leading the line for Real Madrid has not been lost on those back home.
The 2022 World Cup will mark two decades since the Selecao last lifted the most famous trophy of them all, with the last four tournaments returning just a solitary semi-final appearance for a nation who reached the final of the three previous editions.
Rodrygo’s coming out party against Galatasaray was followed swiftly by a Brazil debut as he played the final 20 minutes of his country’s 1-0 friendly defeat to Argentina in November.
A place in the squad for next summer’s defence of the Copa America is within his grasp if he can rediscover his 2019 form.
“That is the biggest dream of every Brazilian boy, to wear this shirt,” he says as he reflects on his Selecao bow. “It is a dream come true. I hope to wear this shirt more often.
“I will continue to do my job here to return to the national team more often. It is really the realisation of the biggest dream as a professional player, any boy dreams of wearing the shirt one day, and I was able to make that dream come true.
“I know it's a big responsibility, that's why I always have to do things, the right things, because I know that there are people who mirror me, there are people who will sometimes copy me in what I do. I know that the responsibility is huge.”
Rodrygo is right – he knows all too well the impact a hero can make on a young footballer’s career.
The signs are that he is now ready to step out of his own idols’ shadows and become an icon in his own right.
Photos credit: Baldesca Samper