Richarlison: “On the day that the guy pointed the gun at my head, he thought I was a drug dealer”
Richarlison stares blankly at the miniature pool table waiting at his feet. “Can you pot one of the balls?” asks FourFourTwo’s English photographer. The Watford forward turns to a Brazilian member of the crew for an explanation in his native tongue.
Clarification doesn’t cure the look of bemusement, but, undeterred, he collapses his gangly 5ft 11in frame like a Transformer experiencing a mechanical malfunction, elbows and knees akimbo as he lines up his shot. As FFT’s photographer crouches into position, Richarlison’s agent, his agent’s wife and a family friend hang over the back of a sofa at his Hertfordshire home, each poised to capture the moment on camera phones.
CRACK! The white ball connects with its intended target, propelling it into a corner pocket. “YEAAAHHH!!!” his trio of devotees cheer, throwing their hands up in celebration. “Got it,” says the snapper.
It only took one take. Like a lot of other things the Brazilian has attempted since coming to England last July, it all comes too easy. The 21-year-old cost Watford £11.5 million from Fluminense – a fee they’ve more than trebled in just a year thanks to Everton.
But dealing with the pressure of a big transfer fee is a doddle when you’ve previously had a drug dealer point a gun at your head.
“My life could have ended several times from being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he tells FFT, as the tone of our meeting quickly gets decidedly more serious.
“On the day that the guy pointed the gun at my head, he thought I was a drug dealer trying to steal his distribution point. I was scared. I thought: ‘If he pulls the trigger I’m dead’ – but I survived and moved on.
“I had a dream of being a footballer and I focused on training to reach my objective. I’ve always made the right choices and God has put me in the right place.”
He was doing well, and so were Watford last season. After making their best-ever start to a Premier League campaign, the club suffered a major loss of form. Manager Marco Silva was sacked in January and a new era under Javi Garcia began.
The club's downswing didn't affect Richarlison, though, who hadn't allowed himself to get carried away. “I kept my feet on the ground. I knew I hadn’t won anything,” he says.
Poverty, a broken home, rejection, a near-death experience – the young attacker’s mettle has been tested by far more harrowing experiences than a drop in performance. No matter what’s been thrown at him, one goal has remained a constant. He puts down the pool cue and sinks into his comfy sofa to tell FFT all about it.
High as a kite
While Richarlison endured many of his toughest challenges in his hometown of Vila Rubia, a rough area of Nova Venecia in south-east Brazil, he can’t help but smile when he recalls his childhood.
“It’s a nice city and I always go home to visit when I have holiday,” he says with a smile. “I like to fly my kite there – I was going to bring one back here, but it’s very cold and I can’t do it outside.”
Shouldn't a young millionaire footballer be cruising in a Bentley full of Cartier carrier-bags? Apparently not this one.
“I was raised by a very humble family, so I grew up playing with with kites and footballs,” he explains. “Once our neighbour cut their grass and threw it away, so me and my brother picked it up and planted it at my house to make a pitch. We made two goalposts and played football.”
Nothing was going to stop Richarlison achieving his dream – not a lack of pitch, and not the pressure to turn to drugs to escape the hardships of poverty.
“Where I lived there were a lot of people that used drugs and guns, so although it was quiet, it was dangerous. Several times I was offered weed, but thank God I never smoked it. The coaches from my football school were police officers and they always gave me and my brother good advice.
“A lot of my friends got lost on drugs and most of them are in prison. I still talk to them, but I have a lot to be thankful for not going down that path. I had a conscience. I couldn’t do it.”
As with many children from Brazil’s impoverished areas, football was Richarlison’s ticket out of a poor neighbourhood. But talent alone wasn’t going to be enough to propel him to superstardom. At a young age he was forced to make big decisions – decisions that required the foresight, maturity and mental fortitude of a person much older than seven.
“My mum and dad split up and she was moving out of Nova Venecia. I was on top of the moving truck we were leaving on and I jumped down and went running to my dad,” he recounts.
“I knew my mum I wouldn’t play football or take me to games, so I went to my dad and stayed with him until I was 10.”
When his dad relocated for a new job, Richarlison had to move back in with mum. And when she struggled to provide for her four children on a cleaner’s wage, Everton’s future No.30 went to work.
“I worked at a car wash, I sold popsicles, made chocolate truffles and sometimes I would work with my grandfather, but I didn’t like it,” he says.
“Football, the game I’d played since I was a kid, was all I could think about. Every Monday I would run 9km to the football school and train, whether it was in the hot sun or the rain. I didn’t want to do anything else.”