Eduardo Uram always wears silk shirts in meetings with football clubs. He needs to impress: the former jewellery and watch seller has become one the most powerful football agents in Brazil since the late 1990s, and was responsible for sealing the transfers of Dani Alves and Maxwell to Sevilla and Ajax respectively when few people had heard of them.
He also struck the deal to take a 19-year-old Roberto Firmino to Hoffenheim, after the attacking midfielder had shone for Figueirense and won the 2010 award for Serie B's most promising footballer.
Uram was a partner of Figueirense and, with his football company Brazil Soccer, worked with the Figueira in the transfer market.
Back in 2009, Uram made a list of 10 players he intended to buy a percentage of economic rights for, and discussed it with a member of the board while taking a lift to their training centre. Firmino wasn't on it. If it wasn't for the advice of Figueirense’s representative, Uram would have never considered him.
Soon he was glad he did: months later, Uram made a hefty profit when Firmino was sold to German club Hoffenheim for €4m.
Uram found out about Firmino the best possible way – direct from someone at the club who’d watched him up close – and much earlier than others did in his homeland. That was almost nine years ago now, though – and yet it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that most Brazilians still aren’t aware of the Liverpool star's worth.
Bobby vs Jesus
In a recent interview with UOL Esporte, Brazil national team coach Tite confirmed that the Liverpool attacker will be in his 23-man squad for the World Cup. Yet there’s still a large group of people in Firmino's home country who don’t rate him and would rather have other players in his place.
Despite his success in the Premier League with 13 goals and seven assists this season, the Brazilian is still not considered as reliable back home.
When it comes to the debate over who should start in attack with Neymar for Brazil’s first World Cup game against Switzerland on June 17, Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus is the only winner among fans and pundits. Firmino stands no chance against Jesus in the battle for their love.
Worse still for the Liverpool man, this wasn't even a discussion until a few months ago. Firmino’s fight had always been for one of Brazil’s reserve slots at Russia, as a possible replacement in the absence of Jesus.
His unrelenting work ethic and intelligence may suggest that such a position belongs to him, but he’s faced competition from candidates that will come as a surprise for those far away from Tite’s office in Rio de Janeiro. Namely, Diego Souza: a 32-year-old who had two brief spells in Europe and played his entire career in midfield; Jo, who flopped at Manchester City and Everton as a youngster; and Diego Tardelli, the former Real Betis and PSV Eindhoven forward who enjoyed a prolific 2017 season in China.
If it sounds like a joke, consider this: that trio made their careers in Brazil. Firmino didn’t; he only played professionally in his homeland for little more than a year, and in the second tier at that. Aside from Figueirense supporters, few were familiar with him when he left to join Hoffenheim. Fewer still had even seen him play, and that remained the case when he received his first international call-up by then-coach Dunga in October 2014.
Firmino was immediately dubbed “the new Afonso Alves” – the former Middlesbrough striker who also developed his career abroad and was criticised in Dunga’s first spell.
The 26-year-old’s displays for Liverpool since then have helped him move away from that comparison, but they still haven't convinced his home crowd that he won't suffer the same fates as Alves, Sonny Anderson and Giovane Elber. There remains a degree of scepticism, and perhaps a dose of ignorance, about how far he can go.
FourFourTwo Film – Gabriel Jesus: My Path To Greatness
One of Brazil’s most influential football commentators, Walter Casagrande – a former Torino, Ascoli and Porto striker – admitted that Firmino’s lack of connection with fans is an issue. “Our kids shouldn't leave the country too early, otherwise they'll face the same stuff Firmino has to cope with when he comes to the national team,” he said. “He’s doing very well for Liverpool, but he doesn’t have a local background; someone to root for him.”
Casagrande is among those who would rather have Jo, top goalscorer of the last Brazilian championship with Corinthians, as the Jesus back-up.
“Jo is a better footballer than Firmino; he can offer more to the team than Firmino does,” he claimed.
A more moderate voice comes from Tostao, the most respected football columnist in the country and a 1970 World Cup winner.
"If Coutinho is over-complimented, Firmino gets less than he deserves in Brazil," the 71-year-old wrote. "The boastful people and those who only watch highlight videos of the Premier League ask for Jo and Diego Souza’s call-up. Besides being a great finisher, Firmino makes everything easier for his colleagues because he’s constantly moving around. He’s one of those strikers who don't limit themselves to being a goalscorer."
Tostao thinks he can even lead the line at the World Cup: “If Firmino continues to do so well and Gabriel Jesus doesn't get more playing time to shine, he may lose his starting berth.”
As the trip to Moscow approaches, the Seleção's No.9 shirt has become the subject of growing debate in Brazil – not least after Tite suggested in an interview with newspaper O Globo that a tactical set-up including both forwards hasn't been ruled out. The upcoming friendlies against Russia and Germany in March will show if he’s serious about it.
It doesn't seem likely that Tite will replace Jesus for Firmino as his main striker, however. He’s always been loyal to his players and almost definitely won't drop one of his most decisive men within two games of the World Cup.
Tite took a gamble on Jesus to solve a long-running problem at centre-forward, and it paid off as the teenager scored seven goals and paired beautifully with Neymar in qualification. Firmino, on the other hand, put in some performances that didn’t help his cause and which led Tite to look for new options – including giving Diego Souza a try.
Being shy in front of the cameras doesn’t make Firmino’s struggle to gain his compatriots’ love any easier either. Despite that dazzling smile, he lacks charisma and dislikes interviews. He was once asked how he saw Brazilian football at the moment and replied that he had a TV at home. Everybody in the conference room laughed.
Soon, though, he may be the one to smile when he fulfils his dream of going to a World Cup. Right now it doesn’t matter if it's as a starter or not, but scrutinising eyes will be on him back home if and when he steps onto the pitch for Brazil this summer.
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