The Boy From Hell by Antony | The Players’ Tribune
to read in Portuguese, click here.
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 have to understand where I’m from. my story. my roots. hell.
it’s an infamous place. fifteen steps from our front door, there were always drug dealers going about their business, passing things from hand to hand. the smell was constantly outside our window. Actually, one of my earliest memories is my father getting up from the sofa one Sunday and going to yell at the boys to walk down the street a bit and leave us alone, because his sons were inside trying to watch the football game. .
we were so used to seeing guns it wasn’t even scary. they were just a part of everyday life. we were more afraid that the police would break down our door. once, they invaded our house looking for someone and ran in screaming. They found nothing, of course. but when you are so young, those moments mark you.
Man, some of the things I’ve seen… only those who’ve lived through it can understand. On my way to school one morning, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I came across a man lying in the alley. he did not move. when I got closer, I realized that he was dead. in the favela, you become a little numb to these things. there was no other way to go, and I had to go to school. so I closed my eyes and jumped on the corpse.
I’m not saying this to sound harsh. it was just my reality. in fact, I always say that I was very lucky as a child, because despite all our struggles, I received 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 for us.
every day, my older brother would take me to the square to play soccer. in the favela everyone plays. children, old people, teachers, construction workers, bus drivers, drug dealers, gangsters. there, they are all equal. in my father’s time it was a dirt field. in my time, it was asphalt. at first he played barefoot, with bleeding feet. we had no money for proper shoes. I was small, but I bargained with a meanness that came from God. dribbling was always something inside of me. it was a natural instinct. and I refused to bow my head to anyone. I would like to elastico the drug dealers. rainbow bus drivers nutmeg the thieves. I really didn’t give a shit.
with a ball at my feet, I wasn’t afraid.
I learned all the tricks from the legends. Ronaldinho, Neymar, Cristiano. I watched 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 he 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 video game. if toniolo had two loaves of bread, it was one for him, the extra one for us. This is what people don’t understand about the favela. for every person who does evil, there are two who do 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 do my tricks against gangsters like some crazy bastard. he turned to the other people watching.
“who is the little boy??”
“the boy? anthony.”
he was the director of grêmio barueri. he gave me my first chance to get out of the skid row and play for his indoor soccer team. then i started dreaming. I remember one day he was walking with my mom when I saw this cool red car driving through our neighborhood. it was a range rover. but for me it was like seeing a ferrari. everyone was looking at him. it was the shit, man.
I turned to my mom and told her: “one day, when I’m a soccer player, I’ll buy that car.”
She laughed, of course.
He was serious.
I said, “don’t worry, after a while, I’ll let you drive it.”
I’d like to stretch out the drug dealers. rainbow bus drivers nutmeg the thieves. I really didn’t give a shit. With a ball at my feet, I wasn’t afraid.
Back then, I literally slept in the bed between my parents. we had no money for a bed just for me. Every night, I’d turn to the side, and there was my dad. turn to the other side, there was my mom. we were so close, and that’s what helped us survive. then something happened that changed my life.
When I was 11 years old, my parents separated. It was the most difficult moment of my life, because at least before, we all had each other. now, i would turn to my mother’s bedside in the middle of the night and she would be gone. That was devastating, but it also gave me a lot of motivation. I used to close my eyes and think, “I’m going to get us out of this.”
My father used to leave the house for work at 5 in the morning. he returned at 8 pm. I used to tell him, “now, you’re running for me. but soon I will run for you.”
if you talk to the media, they always ask about your dreams. the Champions League? The World Cup? the ballon d’or?
those aren’t dreams. those are goals. my only dream was to get my parents out of the favela. there was no plan b. He was going to make it or die trying.
at 14 i had my chance at são paulo fc. every day after school, he traveled to the academy with an empty stomach. sometimes, if it was a good day, my teammates and I would pool our money to buy a cookie for the bus ride home. I didn’t have to pretend to be hungry for motivation. the hunger was real.
within me, there was an intensity, maybe you could say an anger. I had some problems with my emotions. three different times, I nearly got kicked out of the club. I was on the list to be released. and three different times, someone at the club stood up for me. they begged me to stay. it was god’s plan.
He was very skinny, but he always played with “blood in his eyes.” this is the kind of intensity that comes from the streets. you can’t pretend people think i’m lying when i tell them this, but even after my professional debut with são paulo, i still lived in the favela. no no this is the truth, at 18 he was still sleeping in bed with my dad. it was either that or the couch! we had no other choice. man, even in 2019 when i scored the goal against corinthians in the paulista final, i was back in the neighborhood that night. people pointed at me on the street.
“I just saw you on TV. what are you doing here???”
“brother, I live here.”
everyone laughed. they did not believe it.
A year later, I was at Ajax, playing in the Champions League. That’s how quickly things changed. Not only did I have my own bed, but the red Range Rover was in my mom’s driveway. I told him, “see? I told you that I would conquer. and I won.”
When I told him that when he was 10, he laughed.
Now when I remind him, he cries.
went from the slums to ajax and manchester united in three years. People always ask me how I was able to “turn the key” so fast. Honestly, it’s because I don’t feel pressure on a soccer field. without fear. fear? what is fear When you grow up having to jump over dead bodies just to get to school, you can’t be afraid of anything in football. the things I have seen, most football experts can only imagine. There are things you can’t stop seeing.
in life, we suffer a lot. we care enough. we cried enough.
but in soccer? with a ball at your feet, you should only feel joy. I was born a dribbler. it is part of my roots. It is the gift that took me from the suburbs to the theater of dreams. I will never change my way of playing, because it’s not a style, it’s me. it’s part of me a part of our history as Brazilians. if you only watch a 10 second clip of me then you won’t understand. nothing I do is a joke. everything has a purpose. move forward boldly, instill fear in the opponent, create space, make a difference for my team.
If you think I’m just a clown, then you don’t understand my story. the art of ronaldinho and cristiano and neymar inspired me as a child. I watched these gods in awe on the stolen Wi-Fi, then stepped out onto the concrete court to try and imitate their genius.
even if you’re born in hell, that’s a little godsend.
when people ask, “what’s the point of your style? what message are you sending?”
Brother, I’m sending a message home.
even if you’re born in hell, that’s a little godsend.
in europe, where there is bread on the table every night, sometimes people forget that soccer is a game. a beautiful game, but it’s still a game. it is life that is serious, at least for those of us who were 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 house and my people, none of this matters. In my boots, before each game, I write a little reminder.
When I tie my shoelaces, I remember. I remember everything.
This is my story. if you still don’t understand me, or if you still think I’m a clown, I’ll just point to the ink on my arm…
Anyone who comes from the favela knows a little about what I’ve been through.
those words speak for me. and for all of us.