On the day he signed for Chelsea, David Luiz woke up at 5.30am, anxious and excited ahead of his flight to London, having dreamed about playing in the Champions League and the 2014 World Cup.
A week later, one of those dreams already looked in the balance, Chelsea having slipped to fifth in the Premier League following a defeat to Liverpool and a draw against Fulham. Fans, too, were crazy about the bombastic signing of Spanish star Fernando Torres rather than Luiz – but that was no problem for the Brazilian. “It is natural people are more interested in a goalscorer than a goal stopper,” he says.
And after what he’s been through, it takes more than a couple of bad results and a media circus to get the Blues’ £21m defender down. “I am,” explains the 23-year-old, “a positive person.”
A malnourished child growing up in Diadema on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Luiz was told several times that he was too small and fragile to become a professional footballer – hard to believe given he now stands at 6ft 2in (6ft 5in ?if you count the hair).
When he got his big move to Europe in 2007 with Benfica, a promising start was ruined by a broken foot that kept him sidelined, on and off, for 18 months. But he fought back to finally establish himself in his favourite position of centre-back last season, winning the Portuguese Primera Liga.
His first cap for Brazil soon followed and a start against France suggests Luiz will have made the position his own by the time his country welcomes the world in 2014. “I have overcome the worst part of my life,” says Luiz over a bite to eat in the London hotel he temporarily calls home. “Now everything is easier.”
A few questions from FFT should be a breeze, then...
How are you settling into life at Chelsea? London must be very different from Brazil and Lisbon, no?
It has been great so far. London has different weather and I haven’t seen all of it yet! And there is the language problem: my English is not so good. My girlfriend [the Portuguese Sara Madeira] speaks English well and now I depend on her to live, eat, breathe! I am studying every day to communicate better and enjoy the city as much as Lisbon. I know Chelsea better than I know London now. Chelsea is fantastic. There are people to do everything for you, and they do that so you can do your best on the field.
Tensions run high in a training ground game of I Spy
You’re a bit of a stranger to English audiences – can you tell us about your upbringing?
I was a happy child, despite my family being very poor. Because of that I’ve always cherished the simplest things. I enjoyed playing football on the streets, so I was taken to Sao Paulo FC at the age of nine. Unfortunately, I dropped out at 14. They told me I wasn’t going to grow. That is why I left home and went all the way to Bahia [in north-east Brazil] to try to play for Vitoria. My parents supported that decision from the beginning.
Every time I had a good chance I took it. I didn’t know I could change the life my family had when I left home. It was an uncertain dream; I had to give up a lot of things to become a football player. As time went by my body strengthened and things fell into place. I was never in the first squad in the junior categories, but I worked a lot to develop. That’s how Benfica got interested in me. I didn’t know of other big clubs who would have me. So I took the chance again.
Looking at you now, it’s hard to believe you were once considered too small!
[Laughs] I really was thin and small. But I keep no hard feelings from that time of my life. Since then I developed a lot and that is more than good enough for me. At the moment God wants it, things happen.
Who did you pretend to be when you were playing football in the street?
No one specifically. I started my career as a left-midfielder, so I liked to see players who made great plays and scored goals. I admired Kaka the most, both for the player and the man he is. I only started as a defender when I was 16 or 17 and Vitoria needed a player in that position at a match. And here I am.
How did the move to Benfica happen? Was it easier to adapt because you speak the same language and because there are lots of Brazilians playing in Portugal, or did you find it hard being away from home?
It was a giant leap for me. They were very nice to me, from the beginning. Only weeks before, I was playing in the Brazilian Third Division with Vitoria, in matches that started at 10am in 40- degree heat. Then, all of a sudden, I was at a well structured club with passionate fans. What I experienced in the Third Division made me better, so I could value all Benfica gave me.
I loved being in Portugal. The language was no problem and playing there, in matters of style, was not that different from Brazil, because they are very technical there too.
You had some hard times in Benfica due to injury. How difficult was that period? Did you ever think you might have to go back to Brazil and try another career?
Never ever. I spent about a year and a half sidelined because of two surgeries. Football is no cupcake. But psychologically I grew a lot in those bad times. God helped me out of it and I had the help of many great people in my family, my girlfriend and my friends, to overcome it.
At what point did you finally feel established as a Benfica player?
I never really felt that. Every step matters to me and every game can end you or make you even bigger. A match against Porto might interest the media more than Benfica playing a smaller club, but to me all matches are important. ?I will keep that at Chelsea too.
"It's mine!" Winning the 2009-10 Portuguese league title with Benfica
The fans loved your hair at Benfica: has it always been like this? At Everton, they sell Fellaini wigs – do you think Luiz wigs might take off at Chelsea?
I know the fans love to have a laugh at that. It is part of the show, but it is not part of my game. I let my hair grow in Portugal and I intend to keep it. I hope people look at me for my work, but it’s all right having my hair as extra, though.
You played in a number of positions at Benfica. How much has this helped with your development as a player?
European football is a lot about tactics. In Brazil, style matters more and players there don’t care about tactics that much. Playing in different positions gives you a global perspective on what makes the game tick. That teaches you how to play more collectively. Brazilians have the best prime material, but they sure need more tactics.
Did it surprise you Chelsea paid £21 million for you? Is it a fair price?
I was really happy to have this acknowledgment of my skills. Things happened very early for me in my career and everything still feels new. But I don’t care much about those numbers; I am more interested in showing my work and winning trophies here. I want to enjoy playing for Chelsea, regardless of the other things that come along with playing at a big club.
How would you describe yourself as a player? What are your strengths?
I leave that for others to say. I just do the best I can at the profession I love.
Well, what� areas of your game do you need to work on the most?
All of them. If I lose track of what I do well, how could I enhance what I need to improve? I work on everything, really.
Are you a centre-back only these days or would you be happy to play in other positions? You came on in midfield against Liverpool on your debut...
I can play in other positions if it is necessary. I want to win the Champions League with Chelsea: I must be ready to do whatever it takes.
Why Chelsea? Did you know much about the club before you chose them?
I knew the players are among the greatest on the planet, I knew the structure to work is phenomenal and I knew there’d be a lot of pressure, because it is a big club in Europe and hasn’t won the Champions League. I didn’t know about any other club being interested in me. I was really happy when I learned Chelsea wanted me. Of course, I read the same things everybody reads. If it were up to the papers I would have played everywhere by now! Thank God I learned to control myself and have my feet on the ground.
How much are you looking forward to playing with John Terry?
His fame is more than justified. I have spent moments with him and you can say he lives and breathes Chelsea. He is here to help you on and off the field. He has such an identity with this club; this identity of a great captain who has been so successful. It is a privilege for me.
You’ve recently broken into the Brazil team. The 2014 World Cup must be in your sights...
The World Cup is so far away. It would be very negative for any Brazilian player to consider himself a part of the team this early. Brazil have so many great players and if you lose focus another one takes you out. There are many good Brazilian defenders in Europe and every other day another good one starts playing in my country. I know I have to do well at Chelsea and only think on a match-by-match basis. Only then my dream of playing in the World Cup will come true.
I’ve always loved the Selecao and even people who never played professionally dream of being there! [Laughs] But it is very far away. I hope to play well here, be called to play for Brazil in friendlies and, eventually, in the Copa America. We have to do it step-by-step.
David Luiz, Pato and Sandro: aka the Brazilian Hair Bear Bunch
Is there more pressure now, playing in the most high-profile league there is?
Wherever I go, I have to show the best I can do. In some places, such as England, you have everybody watching you. I know I am at a new league and I am sure that will make me develop as a footballer. I will adapt to a new style of play, which is stronger and more dynamic. I am sure I will have a good chance of being in the World Cup if I do well here. And I will work a lot to make that happen.
How do you like to relax when you’re not playing football?
I like going out with my girlfriend and spending time with other people I care about. I’m an average person and I take my joy out of simple things. A chat with a friend at home could be unforgettable – more than spending a lot on a trip or something like that. Being simple makes life more beautiful and enjoyable. I don’t like to be sad about something I didn’t get. I don’t like to keep thinking at difficult moments. I like living life as an average person. I did that in Diadema, in Salvador, in Lisbon and I hope I can do that now I am living in London.
You said you have a lot of admiration for Kaka – is religion as important to you as it is to him?
My family has always been religious. My glory is all His. I have all my blessings because He has given them. He guides our hearts and without Him I wouldn’t have left poverty nor got all the good things I have today.
I have never met Kaka in person, but I have always admired him in many ways. He is a man of the Lord and he is a fantastic player. I hope I have the chance to play next to him some time, either in Chelsea or in Brazil.
Interview: Mauricio Savareze. From the April 2011 issue of FourFourTwo.