Shy Firmino prefers feet to do the talking in World Cup
LONDON (AP) — Roberto Firmino's first selection by Brazil four years ago wasn't popular.
Then-coach Dunga was known for casting his net wide, and he plucked Firmino out of Hoffenheim, a mid-table club in the Bundesliga. Firmino and Hoffenheim were on the rise, but both were still relative mysteries to Brazil fans and pundits.
Without uttering a word against his critics, the striker made his debut in a friendly against Turkey in Istanbul as a late substitute, and days later joined Neymar up front again against Austria in Vienna, and scored the winning goal from long distance.
Days out from another friendly against the Austrians, the critics are quiet. To the fans, he is affectionately known as Firmino Safadao (Naughty Firmino), and their favorite to be Brazil's main striker at the World Cup in Russia.
Firmino's great form at Liverpool has allowed him to seriously challenge Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus as Brazil's starting forward. On Sunday, he scored the second goal in a 2-0 win against Croatia in Liverpool while Jesus barely touched the ball during the friendly.
"I am at 100 percent of my form and this has been my greatest season in every aspect," Firmino says. "At that game against Austria four years ago I was still young. Now I play in a much more intense league. I was quick to adapt and grew a lot, especially mentally."
Those comments amount to a major speech by Firmino. He's not a talker. After almost a decade in Europe he has difficulty speaking Portuguese, and he's shy in front of media.
Family members say Firmino has been generally quiet since his early days playing almost all day long on the streets and improvised pitches of Trapiche, a favela of Maceio, arguably Brazil's most violent state capital.
Bel Firmino, the player's father, says his son didn't like to speak much even when they roamed Maceio beaches as vendors of "pretty much anything we could get."
"I did the talking, he only collected the money and gave the change," the father tells The Associated Press after a day roaming around Maceio wearing a Liverpool shirt with the name "Daddy" on it.
Bel Firmino adds his son likes to express himself with music and fashion more than words.
"Even when we were poor in Trapiche he did not wear anything he didn't like. He did not complain, he silently forgot the rejected items in the back of the wardrobe," the father says.
It's a trait that helped Firmino become more popular to Brazilian fans long before his 27 goals this season for Liverpool, whose fans embrace him as "Bobby."
In October 2016, before Brazil played Bolivia in World Cup qualifying, the striker wore a ponytail copied from Brazilian pop singer Wesley Safadao (Naughty Wesley in English). Supporters in Natal, a city close to Firmino's Maceio, gushed over it.
They pressured Brazil coach Tite to field Firmino during the entire first half. When Firmino finally joined in and scored from a header in the 6-0 win, the crowd started chanting "Vai, Safadao!" (Go, Naughty Boy).
"I loved it. Good vibe," Firmino gives in a typically clipped answer.
His shockingly white teeth, flamboyant dress code, and short frank answers made him even more beloved at home, where he played for only one full season at tiny Figueirense, when it was in the second division.
"I love Safadao, it is an honor to be compared," Firmino says. "But I am never having that hairstyle again. Too much work."
Firmino's wife, Larissa, doesn't believe too much work was the reason to drop the hairstyle. She says her husband spends much more time getting ready to go out.
"Roberto is very careful about his looks, they have to be sharp since he will not be speaking much anyway," she says jokingly.
"Off camera he is much less shy, of course. He speaks little to you because he is really focused on playing, especially now in this World Cup."
Firmino likes to say he and Jesus are living a great moment in their careers and deserve to be in contention as Brazil's target man.
"Brazil is to gain from our challenge," he repeats at the end of his news conference, which seems to last hours for the striker. In fact, it lasts only 14 minutes after a series of quick answers to journalists.
"Phew," Firmino says as he leaves, "glad this is over."