There was a day this past summer when an alert football fan wandering through one of Verona’s main squares would have seen an unlikely sight – that of a Champions League and EURO 2020-winning footballer perched on a stone step, drinking a McDonald’s milkshake. Hardly an everyday happening at the Piazza Brà. For the footballer in question, Jorginho, it had real significance. It was, as the Chelsea and Italy midfielder explains, a moment to reflect and to remember where he had come from, following a couple of heady months in which he became only the tenth man to win European Cup and EURO finals in the same year.
The worldwide audiences who have watched Jorginho shine for club and country in 2021, earning the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award in the process, see only the end product, not the early years of rigorous work and sacrifice. The 29-year-old with the milkshake in his hand was remembering the days when that was a weekly treat for his 15-year-old self – a skinny teenager recently arrived in Europe to pursue a dream, reversing the route once taken by his paternal great-grandfather, an Italian emigrant to Brazil.
He takes up the story of his days as a Verona apprentice: “I was training 20 hours a week, at weekends, and I didn’t have any money to do things so there were various times I’d go and buy a €1 milkshake, sit on the steps in the main square in Verona and spend time there people-watching. After the EURO, I was back in Verona for other reasons, and I went there to have a €1 drink and to sit on those steps. After all I’d been through, it was really moving for me – so many things were running through my head. It was really emotional for me, doing that 14 years later.
“I went there when I was 15, and I lived in the academy with youngsters who were playing for the Verona and Chievo youth teams. I was rooming with five other lads. Six of us in one room, and we’d have breakfast, lunch and dinner together.” It was actually an old monastery and, sitting on that step in the square, he likely also remembered “Mr Michele, who was the director” as well as “the cooks, Bruna and Lucia, and the cleaning lady, Gabriella”, who “saw me grow up and helped me so much”.
Another memory which may have surfaced was of the day he called home, weeping and wishing for a plane ticket back to Brazil and his home state of Santa Catarina in the south of the country. By this point, he had spent almost four years away – two of them at an academy in Brazil, followed by his first 18 months in Italy during which he played for Berretti, a local youth team connected with Verona. He had begun training with Verona’s first team but was fed up. His then agent was drip-feeding him a mere €20 a week and life was “just football then school, then football again, then school again and that was all”.
Hence the emotional call made to his mother, Maria Tereza. “I rang home crying a lot and said, ‘I’ve had enough. Football isn’t for me – I want to quit, I want to go home, I just want to play football for fun and that’s that.’ It was then I was fortunate enough to have the family I have, because they said, ‘No, you’re not coming back. You’re so close to making it.’ And, fortunately, they convinced me to not go back.”
“While I was at this football school, I’d sometimes be away from home for one or two months, and when you’re 13 and away from home for one or two months, you really notice it."
It is a reminder of the resilience required to build an elite football career, which has brought honours with Napoli – the Coppa Italia won in 2014 – and now Chelsea and Italy. Jorginho had resilience in abundance. Football is what he wanted do from a very young age. He grins when reflecting that “all my eldest son cares about is animals” and comparing this with his own boyhood, when all he cared about was having a ball at his feet. “I’d sleep with a football and wake up with a football. I was always playing with a football.”
His family lore has it that, at the age of five, he was asked by his father, Jorge, what he wanted to do when he grew up. There was only one answer. “I don’t remember this, but it’s something that he’s told me happened,” Jorginho recounts. “I answered, ‘I want to be a football player.’ He said, ‘You want to be a football player like the ones you see on TV? It’s not that easy. There’ll be tough moments. You’ll be away from your family; you could suffer a serious injury.’ After he said all that, he asked me again and I answered, ‘I want to be a football player.’ So, he told me I could count on him for support and that he’d help me to realise my dream.”
Already then, Jorginho was playing football. He grew up in Imbituba, a port town one hour from the state capital of Florianópolis, with a population of around 45,000. Imbituba gained significance in the 18th century as a centre for whale fishing and its old whaling station is today a museum. Jorginho fondly recalls playing on the beach with friends as a child and, to continue the maritime theme, his first-ever club – a futsal team his father took him to aged four – was called Peixe, which translates as Fish.
The official minimum start age for players there was six, making Jorginho very much a minnow, but the coach allowed him to play after some persuasion from his father. “My dad told me to go and grab a football and play, and to make the most of it. So, I played and I played well – I scored a goal. After the session, my dad went up to the coach and said, ‘OK, he’s been here once now, he enjoyed it. Thanks very much, that’ll do.’ And the coach said ‘No, no, no. You have to bring him back. I’ll take responsibility for him!’ So, that’s where I started to play football. I developed there and I moved to outdoor football with Vila Nova, my local club.”
He gives the names of his first coaches, Luciano ‘Mancha’ dos Santos and Mário Junior, and remembers how, aged 12, he had trials with three major teams in Brazil – São Paulo, Palmeiras and Internacional. All were unsuccessful, yet he returned home defiant to Imbituba. “I went back still wanting to be a football player, no matter how tough it was going to be. It gave me the motivation to not give up, to believe in myself. My family believed in me, my friends believed in my potential, everyone believed in me.
“It’s only natural to be upset when things don’t go the way you want them to, but at no point did the thought of giving up enter my mind. So, I went back home to Imbituba, I went back to Mário Junior’s football school and I continued to play there. And when I was 13, there was a tournament in Vila Nova and an Italian businessman who was there watching had his own project in Guabiruba, which is a neighbouring city in Santa Catarina – around 150km from where I lived. He had this project which was to bring talented young players to his football school. The objective was to select the players they thought could develop their careers in Europe. He selected me and other lads from my city, and we all headed to his football school in Guabiruba and I was there for two years. For me, those were the toughest two years of my life because at the time, my parents had already got divorced, so my financial situation was a lot tighter.
“While I was at this football school, I’d sometimes be away from home for one or two months, and when you’re 13 and away from home for one or two months, you really notice it. My accommodation wasn’t the best and I had to eat the same thing for two or three days. The bread wasn’t as fresh as the bread you’re used to eating back home every day, and we had to have cold showers in the winter as there was no hot water.”