Wendell Lira: The one-time waiter who beat Lionel Messi to the 2015 Puskas Award
Lira almost had his career ended by a knee-injury and worked in his mother's cafe to make a living
“And the Puskas Award for 2015 goes to Wendell Lira!” The announcement took everyone by surprise. Lionel Messi was probably the outright favourite to win the award for his incredible solo effort against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey. It was the most talked about goal of the year with ESPN even analysing and breaking down the goal. Even Alessandro Florenzi’s goal from near the half-line was a serious contender.
The 27-year-old forward must also have been surprised. He just sat in his seat with the headphones still in his ears and listening to the translator. As if he needed a translation for his own name. Perhaps he too couldn’t believe he’d beaten Messi.
So who is Wendell Silva Lira? Before he shot to fame for that goal, he was a footballer struggling to make ends meet and almost gave up on his career at one point. We unearthed a few facts about him.
1) Lira made his senior debut aged 16
The 5’9” forward started his youth career at Goias – a club in Brazil. He was so promising that he was handed his debut when he was only 16. His performances were noticed by scouts and youth coaches and he soon made his way into the Brazil U-20 side.
2) AC Milan tried to sign Lira before signing Pato
Once he made his breakthrough, AC Milan came calling and offered R$6m (Brazilian Real) for his services. But Goias did not budge. Brazilian clubs are known for holding on to their players till they get a handsome transfer fee, knowing full well that they cannot compete with European clubs financially. Hence, Milan’s offer was rejected. Lira had only just signed a five-year deal with Goias.
That same year, Milan then went ahead and signed another Brazilian forward – Alexandre Pato.
“I understood their decision,” Wendell said when talking about the rejected offer. “I was happy just to be playing and they thought they could sell me for more money later.”
1.6m people voted for the Puskas award and this stunning Wendell Lira effort won it! #BallondOr https://t.co/O6njramPhn
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) January 11, 2016
3) Injuries saw his career come to a halt and he became a waiter
Soon after the Milan offer was rejected, a knee injury saw Lira’s career come to a standstill. “I suffered a serious injury on my knee that kept me out of football for one year,” Lira explained. “When I came back, it wasn't that good so I played for lots of clubs until I signed for Vila Nova.”
Before he did join Vila Nova, though, a frustrated Lira almost retired. He even became a waiter in his mother’s cafe just to earn a living. But his family, especially his wife Ludymila and new-born daughter Marcela, gave him the encouragement to follow his dreams.
“She was always by my side, telling me to keep going,” he said about his wife. “She's the main reason I didn't give up.”
4) He played for seven clubs in four years
The injury early in his career had done some considerable damage and Goias released him in 2012. Since then, he played for Atletico Sorocaba, Trindade, Goianesia (twice), Novo Horizonte, Uniao Recreativa dos Trabalhadores, Anapolina and Tombense.
It was during his second stint with Goianesia when he scored that goal on 11 March. In the pouring rain, Lira made a well-timed run through the defence as his teammate Da Matta chipped the ball over the back-line. Lira turned and scored with an acrobatic bicycle-kick while turning on the spot. His life would never be the same again.
5) He thought the Puskas Award nomination was a prank
To be one of the final 10 nominees in the world itself is a great achievement. To get included in the final three blew him off his feet! Lira checked everything from the local news to the internet to make sure he had been nominated.
“I was at my mother’s house and it was impossible for the telephone to stop ringing, and the Whatsapp messages kept coming,” Lira recalled. “Then I went to see what was happening and there were lots of messages congratulating me. I though it was a prank but they sent me the links and then I believed it. I was shocked.”
He even recalled a moment where a fan approached him for a photo and he thought he was going to be assaulted.
“It was another f***ing shock [on making the final three-man shortlist]. I was leaving my house at around 12pm and a guy blocked my way. I thought I was f***ed, that he would assault me. But then he took out his phone and asked for a photo. After that he told me I was among the finalists.”
6) Lira had never been on a plane before the trip to Switzerland
While Brazil maybe a huge country, Lira spent most of his time in the lower leagues and never had to travel too far. Of course, he had no choice but to get on an airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean and get to Switzerland.
While talking about travel arrangements and his preparations, he told a Brazilian reporter: “I'm taking three shirts and two pairs of trousers. I'm taking the suit in my hand luggage. It was made specially by a local shop. I'm leaving space in my suitcase for the trophy.” Well done, Lira!
Lira, however, didn’t think it was a great goal compared to the other nominees. “It was a nice goal, but I think there were better ones,” he said. “I'd give it 8/10!”