The Liverpool striker has plenty of reasons to smile.
Roberto Firmino needs a drink of water. He has spent an hour hustling through outfit changes, juggling a soccer ball, and shadowboxing under hot studio lights. Modeling clothes might not make you sweat like a Champions League final does, but it’s still thirsty work. As he sits down for our interview, the first thing he does is reach for the jug on the table.
The next thing he does is to fill the glass of his interpreter. Then, one by one, he serves everybody else before looking after himself. A small gesture, perhaps, but also a metaphor for the way he approaches his profession.
In a Liverpool team that scored 135 goals last season, Firmino was the centerforward who notched 27 of his own without ever forgetting to look after the rest of his team’s needs. He produced 14 assists and routinely ran further than any other player on the pitch. Only six defenders across the entire Premier League won more tackles. Praising Firmino in November 2017, Jürgen Klopp described him as Liverpool’s “engine.” A reminder of that remark still brings a smile to the player.
“We get along so well,” he says of his relationship with the Reds’ manager. “He’s an excellent coach, an amazing person, so passionate on the pitch. When he says that, to me, it’s a sign that I’m giving back what he wants. It motivates me to keep going, to do the things he asks.”
It helps that Klopp has found a role for Firmino that the player adores. He had rarely operated as a centerforward before coming to Liverpool in 2015, lining up most often for Figueirense and Hoffenheim in the hole just behind the attack. As a youth player for Clube de Regatas Brasil, in his hometown of Maceió, he used to be stationed even further back.
“I was a midfielder, though for a while I even played as a central defender,” he recalls. “But whenever I got the ball, I would start to dribble and to nutmeg people and join the attack. So every year I evolved a little bit further forward up the pitch. Once I got to the Under-17s, I became a No. 10, which was the position I held up until recently—when I established myself as a centerforward.”
“It was Klopp’s idea to fix me as a No. 9,” he continues. “But I accepted this role and adapted to it. Now I want to continue in this position until the end of my career.”
In some senses, it seems improbable that it took him so long. Firmino’s finishing ability has been apparent since at least 2013–14, when he scored 22 times in 37 games for Hoffenheim. Long before that, his childhood friends could have told you that he was happiest playing close to the goal. His idol growing up was Ronaldinho, “a magician” whose tricks he sought to emulate during pickup games.
Perhaps that comes as a surprise. The adult Firmino’s on-pitch persona seems light-years removed from that of Ronaldinho, a sensational but sometimes self-indulgent player who won acclaim for his feints and footwork, not his diligence tracking back. “I was inspired by him. I was wowed by his way of playing football,” Firmino explains. “But that was not enough. I needed to improve my own game, to try to be the best footballer in the world. Even better than he was.”
He holds eye contact as he speaks, making clear that this is something he does not want his audience to miss. Does he believe he’s close to hitting his target? To becoming the greatest player on the planet? Another smile. “I’m on a good path.”
Firmino’s selfless approach might leave some viewers thinking that he’s happiest out of the limelight, letting others steal the show. The reality is that he wants to be both: a team player and a transcendent talent, someone who can decide matches by himself and empower others to do so.
And why not? Firmino had 11 goals in the Champions League last season, as many as Mohamed Salah. He scored away to Manchester City in the quarterfinals and twice at home to Roma in the semis. Factor in his broader contribution to the team and you can make a strong case that he ought to have been among the top five or six candidates for the Ballon d’Or.
Instead, despite making it onto the official (not-so-) shortlist, his name has never drawn serious consideration. In part, that might be a consequence of playing alongside Salah during the Egyptian’s wildly prolific season. In any case, Firmino says he’s not jealous of his teammate or anyone else.
“They worked hard, and they deserved to be there,” he says, but then makes clear that he hopes to supersede them. Missing out, he says, “just gives me more motivation.”
Self-belief is a prerequisite for any elite athlete, but especially one who’s made the career choices that Firmino has. Not every 19-year-old would have the courage to leave Figueirense and move to Hoffenheim, a village club propelled to the top tier of German football less than a decade before by the investment of local-boy-done-good Dietmar Hopp.
Firmino’s hometown of Maceió is a coastal city—“the best in the world,” he says—close to a million people, with a summer that lasts “all year round.” Florianópolis, home to Figueirense, is about half the size and a few degrees cooler, but even winter temperatures there hover above 60F.
In Germany, he arrived to temperatures well below freezing. “For the first few months I really did suffer with the adaptation,” Firmino recalls. “It was so cold when I arrived, –20C [–4F] I think. It was really, really, cold, and it was lonely. I didn’t have a wife then, though I did have a friend, Junior, who came with me and helped me a lot.”
Firmino is married now, with two young daughters. Junior followed him to England and remains a part of his close circle—though at the time of our interview was away looking after his own newborn son. That experience in Germany was formative for the striker, and not only for the challenge of a new language, a new culture, and a new climate.
The image of young Brazilian footballers honing their skills on golden sand has become a cliché, and for Firmino there is a good measure of truth to it. “I played a lot on the beach,” he says. “Obviously on grass pitches as well, when we could, or anywhere else to get a game in, but at least three times a week it would be on the beach with my friends.”
“Playing there does influence the way you see the game,” he says. “Of course. When you’re on the beach, there’s no pressure, so we have more fun. We’re playing to have fun.”
Would a kid who grew up in that environment have a different perception of football, of what it means to play the game, than a kid who grew up in Hoffenheim? Firmino believes so. “I think Germans have a working mentality. They start with the idea that they need to run and work a lot. The Brazilian mentality is more about creativity and skills,” he explains.
“I think if you blend these two, if you combine these two sets of characteristics, you get an outstanding player. That’s where I want to get. That’s me.”
Firmino interjects twice as those words are being translated, exclaiming “un crack!”—shorthand for a brilliant player—before enunciating the word “quality!” in very deliberate English, syllable by syllable.
That is, after all, the key. It is not being raised in a German or Brazilian setting that makes you a great footballer, but the combination of abundant natural talent and the willingness to put in the time and effort to hone your craft.
Still, the cultural question is an interesting one. If playing on the beach was all about joy and expression, and playing in Germany introduced him to a more businesslike mind-set, what does football mean to Firmino today, at 27? Is it all about results, about winning, or is it still the thrill of having the ball at your feet?
“That’s a tough question,” he says. “Football is a passion. Being a professional footballer, when I step onto the pitch, I want to win always. I want to help my teammates. Mainly I want to help my teammates: That’s it.”
And so we’re back where we started, to Firmino the player and person whose first thought is for everyone else. Invited to speak about the emotions he feels, as a striker, from staring down a set of goalposts, his mind turns not to conquest and glory but to his loved ones and a desire to achieve success for his family.
Perhaps the answer would have been different if I had asked him again with a ball at his feet. Firmino has spoken about undergoing a transformation at the start of each game, shedding the easygoing persona that he inhabits and becoming aggressive, even ruthless.
When I ask about that switch, he describes it as “something automatic. When I go on the pitch, I simply forget about the external world—it’s all about the game. It has to be like that. You need to forget everything and just focus.”
We got a glimpse during our photo shoot. Firmino had hardly been shy in front of the cameras, engaging enthusiastically with our photographer, Roger Neve. Yet something switched when a soccer ball came out, nervous excitement replaced with confident familiarity. Invited to pose with the ball balanced on his forehead, Firmino dropped it onto his foot and flicked it up into position.
People tell you who they are with more than just words. As we wrap up our interview, Firmino is asked if he has time for one more quick set of photos, a request to which he happily accedes. The shot involves pouring water onto his face. Not surprisingly, a puddle of water winds up on the floor.
Not wanting to leave a mess for someone else, Firmino asks for a towel to clean it up.
Photographs by Roger Neve.