Brazil and flair; forever synonymous with one another when it comes to the beautiful game. Such has been the connection and admiration of that relationship that Nike’s famous Joga Bonito advertising campaign remains one of the most popular to ever see a public release.
Further still, few will forget how the likes of Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Denilson, Neymar, and other Seleção icons - of varying degrees - brought elegance and grace across the European game while forever etching their greatest moments in our memory. For 22-year-old Brazilian starlet Antony, there is no better feeling than having the ball at your feet.
Now plying his trade at the very highest level after his blockbuster summer move to English giants Manchester United in the wake of taking the Eredivisie by storm with AFC Ajax, the graduate of São Paulo Futebol Clube’s vaunted academy setup has already endeared himself to Red Devils faithful for a string of strong performances which have included three goals in just six appearances, with only Marcus Rashford (4) scoring more goals than the gifted right-sided winger.
But his jump to Europe’s top league has brought with it a level of scrutiny and skepticism that is levels above what he may have faced in the Netherlands, and recent criticism from pundits and fans alike on the back of a needless bit of on-ball skill brought him under the microscope for all the wrong reasons.
For Antony, who recently presented a mini-autobiography to the popular outlet The Players’ Tribune, his passion for dazzling with technical flair is born from his childhood surroundings.
“I was born in hell. That’s not a joke. For my European friends who don’t know, the favela where I grew up in São Paulo is actually called Inferninho — “little hell.” If you really want to understand me as a person, then you must understand where I am from. My history. My roots. Inferninho.”
“Man, some of the things I have seen …. Only those who have lived it can understand. On my walk to school one morning, when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I came across a man laying in the alley. He was not moving. When I got closer, I realized he was dead. In the favela, you become kind of numb to these things. There was no other way to go, and I had to get to school. So I just closed my eyes and jumped over the dead body.”
“I am not saying this to sound tough. It was just my reality. In fact, I always say that I was very lucky as a child, because despite all of our struggles, I was given a gift from heaven. The ball was my savior. My love from the cradle. In Inferninho, we don’t care about toys for Christmas. Any ball that rolls is perfect to us.”
“Every day, my older brother would take me to the square to play football. In the favela, everyone plays. Kids, old men, teachers, construction workers, bus drivers, drug dealers, gangsters. There, everyone is equal. In my father’s time it was a dirt pitch. In my time, it was asphalt. In the beginning, I played barefoot, on bleeding feet. We did not have money for proper shoes. I was small, but I dribbled with a meanness that came from God. Dribbling was always something inside me. It was a natural instinct. And I refused to bow my head to anyone. I would elastico the drug dealers. Rainbow the bus drivers. Nutmeg the thieves. I really did not give a f***.”
“With a ball at my feet, I had no fear.”
“I learned all the tricks from the legends. Ronaldinho, Neymar, Cristiano. I used to watch them on YouTube, thanks to my “uncle” Toniolo. He is not my blood uncle. He was our next door neighbor. But he treated me like family. When I was little, he used to let me steal his WiFi so I could go on YouTube and get my football education. He even gave me my first videogame. If Toniolo had two loaves of bread — it was one for him, the extra for us. This is what people don’t understand about the favela. For every one person doing bad, there’s two doing good.”
“I always say that I grew up in the wrong place, but with the right people. When I was 8 years old, I was playing in the square when the first angel crossed my path. This older guy was watching me doing my tricks against the gangsters like a crazy bastard. He turned to the other people watching.
“Who is the little kid??”
“The kid? Antony.”
“It was the director of Grêmio Barueri. He gave me my first chance to leave the slum and play for their futsal team. So then I started dreaming. I remember one day I was walking with my mom when I saw this cool red car driving through our neighborhood. It was a Range Rover. But to me, it was like seeing a Ferrari. Everyone was looking at it. It was the shit, man.”
“I turned to my mom and I said, “One day, when I’m a footballer, I’m going to buy that car.”
To close what was an insightful and touching read Antony concluded; “In Europe, where there is bread on the table every night, sometimes people forget that football is a game. A beautiful game, but still a game. It is life that is serious, at least for those of us born in the little hells of the world.”
“I always say that wherever I go in life, no matter what happens to me, I represent the place that taught me everything. Without my home and my people, none of this matters. On my boots, before every match, I write myself a little reminder.”
“When I tie my laces, I remember. I remember everything.”
“This is my story. If you still don’t understand me, or if you still think that I am a clown, then I will just point to the ink on my arm….”
Now, as part of Tite’s Brazil squad on the hunt for it’s sixth World Cup win, Antony has a chance to represent himself, his family, his roots, and his country, on the biggest stage football has to offer. The ultimate dream of millions of kids across the globe. And one thing is for sure; he’ll be pulling off a trick or two.