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Interview

"It’s hard to imagine, let alone believe it"

“Surreal” is how Jorginho describes a golden summer crammed with trophy-winning feats for both club and country. Having nearly turned his back on the game before his career had even properly begun, it’s not surprising he needs to keep pinching himself

WORDS Simon Hart | INTERVIEW Caroline de Moraes | PORTRAITS Darren Walsh

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.”

“I’M NOT THE FASTEST NOR THE STRONGEST PLAYER SO MY STRENGTH IS REALLY IN MY HEAD – TO ANTICIPATE PLAY”
By

He recounts how “one very talented player at the school did end up leaving because he couldn’t take the pressure and the tough conditions”. Yet his own resilience did not wane. He has a simple reason why: “My dream. I saw it as an opportunity; for me, it was my only opportunity. I’d already had trials at three other teams and each one of them shut the door on me.”

His determination is illustrated by the fact that when his mother, once a keen amateur football player, came to visit and saw the state of the toilets, she broke down in tears and urged him, “Pack up your things, we’re leaving here right now.” But the 14-year-old Jorginho was steadfast. “I said to her, ‘If you make me leave, I’m not going to become a football player and I’m just going to be a jack of all trades for the rest of my life. Is that what you want?’ She went home crying as she was upset with my living situation, but I was fine. I stayed there until I was 15, then got selected and was off to Italy.”

That was a rare occasion he did not listen to his mother, who was the source of some of his first lessons in football, “teaching me things” during kickarounds on the beach. “With the technical side, I actually took more from my mum, which is less common, while my dad was always supporting me off the field.” Along with his sister Fernanda, he adds.

His heroes then were Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaká – all attacking players. It was at the academy in Guabiruba that he began the slow transformation into one of the world’s finest holding midfielders, a key source of balance for his teams with that rare knack of being in the right place to deny space to the opposition and then find the correct pass. “The coach there was Italian, and before moving there I’d played a bit further forward, as a No10. When I worked under this Italian coach, he had his way of doing things and was like, ‘No, you should play a bit further back, in front of the defence,’ where I play nowadays. At the start, I wasn’t having any of it. I said, ‘Let me be further forward, playing as a ten, having fun,’ and he said, ‘No, play here.’ With time, I learned – I soaked things up. He really got me to like that position and [understand] how important it was for the team. That’s when I started looking up to Xavi and Pirlo.”

He has now followed that pair in playing a key midfield role in a Champions League-winning team. Jorginho was Player of the Match in the first leg of Chelsea’s quarter-final win over Porto and caught the eye again in the semi-final against Real Madrid with his ability to break up play, closing the passing lanes in front of his defence and also sparking attacks with his tidy distribution.

Reflecting on his endeavours, he says there is something innate in his ability to read the game, which enabled him, for example, to make 76 ball recoveries and 26 interceptions across 12 appearances in Chelsea’s victorious Champions League campaign. He then made just one interception fewer (25) in his seven matches at EURO 2020, the most since the data-collectors began counting. Jorginho elaborates: “Well, I believe this comes from ‘up above’: the famous gift from God. I can understand and read plays, anticipate moves.” One of the striking things about seeing him in person is how slight he is – notably his slender legs – and he is the first to agree that “physically, I’m not the fastest nor the strongest player so my strength is really in my head – to anticipate play. When I’m about to get the ball, I’m aware of what’s going on around me. I think this is something that comes from within. From an early age, I always noticed that my mind was a bit quicker than my friends’.”

And while his mind interprets, he passes on information to the team-mates around him. Hence his nickname in the Italy squad of ‘Radio Jorginho’. He explains: “Yes, that’s another thing that comes naturally to me. The way I see it, communication is a key aspect; it’s so helpful. My intention is simply to convey information and try to help my team-mates: ‘Close down here, go over there, stay, wait, press them back, drop back, right, left, go back, play a long ball.’ It’s all about information that’s directly helpful on the pitch. This is something innate in me, that my sister says I take from my mother. She says I’m like my annoying mother when I play, so that’s in my blood!”

In this sense, he sounds like the perfect complement to his midfield colleague at Chelsea, N’Golo Kanté – a player who keeps the volume turned right down during matches. “With Kanté, the thing is, the guy is a monster. He covers every blade of grass [but] he doesn’t speak. I guess he’s the only player I know that never utters a single word throughout the whole match. And he runs for everyone. He’s all over the pitch, he steals so many balls, he’s got immense physical power. He’s unbelievable for all of his power, his bursts of energy. Also, his ability to foresee where the ball is going in order to steal it, it’s amazing.

“Mateo Kovačić is more of a playmaker with more technical skills to advance in small spaces, someone who enjoys having the ball at his feet. He’s more about creating play than Kanté, who is there for stopping the opposition, even though Kanté does a lot of playmaking too with all his speed and those quick legs of his. He’ll thrust in between two opponents, and when I think he’s lost it, no, he’s done it again. He never misses the ball.”

This last sentence could apply just as easily to Jorginho himself, a player whose attributes are now more appreciated than ever following an extraordinary spring and summer. He has collected silverware before, including the Europa League at the end of his first Chelsea campaign under Maurizio Sarri, the former Napoli coach whose decision to bring him to Stamford Bridge in 2018 prompted initial question marks from some Chelsea fans, concerned he lacked speed and strength. Jorginho himself saw the “son of Sarri” barbs as just another challenge, another obstacle to overcome for a man now reportedly in contention for the Ballon d’Or.

Hence his wish to pause and reflect during that summer visit to Verona. ‘Surreal’ is his word for this annus mirabilis, which also includes August’s Super Cup win with Chelsea. “I come from a small town, Imbituba – I’m not sure you’ve heard the name before – and I’ve achieved so much, with trophies and awards. It’s really surreal. When I speak to my family and friends, we always use the word ‘surreal’ because it’s hard to imagine and believe everything which has been happening, so that’s why I say I’m really living the dream and I feel really fulfilled and happy.”

Just don’t ask him which of his two biggest prizes he prefers. “Don’t compare!” he exclaims. “There are two different emotions, because in one case you’ve been working daily, all through the year, and you stand for the club’s colours – multiple nationalities, multiple cultures, playing for one club. And it’s amazing, it’s the top achievement for a club. I can’t believe I’ve won this, especially against [Manchester] City.” As for the EURO, that triumph “mobilises your country, your people. And that’s powerful, too. I got videos from all over the world.” Surreal indeed. Get that man another milkshake.  

Insight
Close shave

Jorginho shaving a reporter’s tash is one of the least likely sights at a Champions League final

Something else to know about Jorginho is that he has a sense of humour. The bleached haircut that he unveiled at the Super Cup match against Villarreal in August – and the sight of his Chelsea team-mates ruffling his head in the post-match celebrations – give the impression he is game for a laugh. It would not be wrong either, judging by the bet he had last season with Fred Caldeira, a UK-based reporter for the Brazilian television network TNT Sports. When Jorginho commented on Caldeira’s moustache after one interview last season, the pair ended up making the following bet: if Chelsea won the Champions League, Caldeira would shave off his moustache and Jorginho would trim his beard – but leave the moustache. Hence the curious pitch-side spectacle at the Estádio do Dragão, late on the night of 29 May, of two men each pulling out a pair of clippers and beginning the depilation process. Surely a first for a Champions League final.

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Interview

"It’s hard to imagine, let alone believe it"

“Surreal” is how Jorginho describes a golden summer crammed with trophy-winning feats for both club and country. Having nearly turned his back on the game before his career had even properly begun, it’s not surprising he needs to keep pinching himself

WORDS Simon Hart | INTERVIEW Caroline de Moraes | PORTRAITS Darren Walsh

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.”

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“I’M NOT THE FASTEST NOR THE STRONGEST PLAYER SO MY STRENGTH IS REALLY IN MY HEAD – TO ANTICIPATE PLAY”
By

He recounts how “one very talented player at the school did end up leaving because he couldn’t take the pressure and the tough conditions”. Yet his own resilience did not wane. He has a simple reason why: “My dream. I saw it as an opportunity; for me, it was my only opportunity. I’d already had trials at three other teams and each one of them shut the door on me.”

His determination is illustrated by the fact that when his mother, once a keen amateur football player, came to visit and saw the state of the toilets, she broke down in tears and urged him, “Pack up your things, we’re leaving here right now.” But the 14-year-old Jorginho was steadfast. “I said to her, ‘If you make me leave, I’m not going to become a football player and I’m just going to be a jack of all trades for the rest of my life. Is that what you want?’ She went home crying as she was upset with my living situation, but I was fine. I stayed there until I was 15, then got selected and was off to Italy.”

That was a rare occasion he did not listen to his mother, who was the source of some of his first lessons in football, “teaching me things” during kickarounds on the beach. “With the technical side, I actually took more from my mum, which is less common, while my dad was always supporting me off the field.” Along with his sister Fernanda, he adds.

His heroes then were Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaká – all attacking players. It was at the academy in Guabiruba that he began the slow transformation into one of the world’s finest holding midfielders, a key source of balance for his teams with that rare knack of being in the right place to deny space to the opposition and then find the correct pass. “The coach there was Italian, and before moving there I’d played a bit further forward, as a No10. When I worked under this Italian coach, he had his way of doing things and was like, ‘No, you should play a bit further back, in front of the defence,’ where I play nowadays. At the start, I wasn’t having any of it. I said, ‘Let me be further forward, playing as a ten, having fun,’ and he said, ‘No, play here.’ With time, I learned – I soaked things up. He really got me to like that position and [understand] how important it was for the team. That’s when I started looking up to Xavi and Pirlo.”

He has now followed that pair in playing a key midfield role in a Champions League-winning team. Jorginho was Player of the Match in the first leg of Chelsea’s quarter-final win over Porto and caught the eye again in the semi-final against Real Madrid with his ability to break up play, closing the passing lanes in front of his defence and also sparking attacks with his tidy distribution.

Reflecting on his endeavours, he says there is something innate in his ability to read the game, which enabled him, for example, to make 76 ball recoveries and 26 interceptions across 12 appearances in Chelsea’s victorious Champions League campaign. He then made just one interception fewer (25) in his seven matches at EURO 2020, the most since the data-collectors began counting. Jorginho elaborates: “Well, I believe this comes from ‘up above’: the famous gift from God. I can understand and read plays, anticipate moves.” One of the striking things about seeing him in person is how slight he is – notably his slender legs – and he is the first to agree that “physically, I’m not the fastest nor the strongest player so my strength is really in my head – to anticipate play. When I’m about to get the ball, I’m aware of what’s going on around me. I think this is something that comes from within. From an early age, I always noticed that my mind was a bit quicker than my friends’.”

And while his mind interprets, he passes on information to the team-mates around him. Hence his nickname in the Italy squad of ‘Radio Jorginho’. He explains: “Yes, that’s another thing that comes naturally to me. The way I see it, communication is a key aspect; it’s so helpful. My intention is simply to convey information and try to help my team-mates: ‘Close down here, go over there, stay, wait, press them back, drop back, right, left, go back, play a long ball.’ It’s all about information that’s directly helpful on the pitch. This is something innate in me, that my sister says I take from my mother. She says I’m like my annoying mother when I play, so that’s in my blood!”

In this sense, he sounds like the perfect complement to his midfield colleague at Chelsea, N’Golo Kanté – a player who keeps the volume turned right down during matches. “With Kanté, the thing is, the guy is a monster. He covers every blade of grass [but] he doesn’t speak. I guess he’s the only player I know that never utters a single word throughout the whole match. And he runs for everyone. He’s all over the pitch, he steals so many balls, he’s got immense physical power. He’s unbelievable for all of his power, his bursts of energy. Also, his ability to foresee where the ball is going in order to steal it, it’s amazing.

“Mateo Kovačić is more of a playmaker with more technical skills to advance in small spaces, someone who enjoys having the ball at his feet. He’s more about creating play than Kanté, who is there for stopping the opposition, even though Kanté does a lot of playmaking too with all his speed and those quick legs of his. He’ll thrust in between two opponents, and when I think he’s lost it, no, he’s done it again. He never misses the ball.”

This last sentence could apply just as easily to Jorginho himself, a player whose attributes are now more appreciated than ever following an extraordinary spring and summer. He has collected silverware before, including the Europa League at the end of his first Chelsea campaign under Maurizio Sarri, the former Napoli coach whose decision to bring him to Stamford Bridge in 2018 prompted initial question marks from some Chelsea fans, concerned he lacked speed and strength. Jorginho himself saw the “son of Sarri” barbs as just another challenge, another obstacle to overcome for a man now reportedly in contention for the Ballon d’Or.

Hence his wish to pause and reflect during that summer visit to Verona. ‘Surreal’ is his word for this annus mirabilis, which also includes August’s Super Cup win with Chelsea. “I come from a small town, Imbituba – I’m not sure you’ve heard the name before – and I’ve achieved so much, with trophies and awards. It’s really surreal. When I speak to my family and friends, we always use the word ‘surreal’ because it’s hard to imagine and believe everything which has been happening, so that’s why I say I’m really living the dream and I feel really fulfilled and happy.”

Just don’t ask him which of his two biggest prizes he prefers. “Don’t compare!” he exclaims. “There are two different emotions, because in one case you’ve been working daily, all through the year, and you stand for the club’s colours – multiple nationalities, multiple cultures, playing for one club. And it’s amazing, it’s the top achievement for a club. I can’t believe I’ve won this, especially against [Manchester] City.” As for the EURO, that triumph “mobilises your country, your people. And that’s powerful, too. I got videos from all over the world.” Surreal indeed. Get that man another milkshake.  

Insight
Close shave

Jorginho shaving a reporter’s tash is one of the least likely sights at a Champions League final

Something else to know about Jorginho is that he has a sense of humour. The bleached haircut that he unveiled at the Super Cup match against Villarreal in August – and the sight of his Chelsea team-mates ruffling his head in the post-match celebrations – give the impression he is game for a laugh. It would not be wrong either, judging by the bet he had last season with Fred Caldeira, a UK-based reporter for the Brazilian television network TNT Sports. When Jorginho commented on Caldeira’s moustache after one interview last season, the pair ended up making the following bet: if Chelsea won the Champions League, Caldeira would shave off his moustache and Jorginho would trim his beard – but leave the moustache. Hence the curious pitch-side spectacle at the Estádio do Dragão, late on the night of 29 May, of two men each pulling out a pair of clippers and beginning the depilation process. Surely a first for a Champions League final.

Interview

"It’s hard to imagine, let alone believe it"

“Surreal” is how Jorginho describes a golden summer crammed with trophy-winning feats for both club and country. Having nearly turned his back on the game before his career had even properly begun, it’s not surprising he needs to keep pinching himself

WORDS Simon Hart | INTERVIEW Caroline de Moraes | PORTRAITS Darren Walsh

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.”

“I’M NOT THE FASTEST NOR THE STRONGEST PLAYER SO MY STRENGTH IS REALLY IN MY HEAD – TO ANTICIPATE PLAY”
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He recounts how “one very talented player at the school did end up leaving because he couldn’t take the pressure and the tough conditions”. Yet his own resilience did not wane. He has a simple reason why: “My dream. I saw it as an opportunity; for me, it was my only opportunity. I’d already had trials at three other teams and each one of them shut the door on me.”

His determination is illustrated by the fact that when his mother, once a keen amateur football player, came to visit and saw the state of the toilets, she broke down in tears and urged him, “Pack up your things, we’re leaving here right now.” But the 14-year-old Jorginho was steadfast. “I said to her, ‘If you make me leave, I’m not going to become a football player and I’m just going to be a jack of all trades for the rest of my life. Is that what you want?’ She went home crying as she was upset with my living situation, but I was fine. I stayed there until I was 15, then got selected and was off to Italy.”

That was a rare occasion he did not listen to his mother, who was the source of some of his first lessons in football, “teaching me things” during kickarounds on the beach. “With the technical side, I actually took more from my mum, which is less common, while my dad was always supporting me off the field.” Along with his sister Fernanda, he adds.

His heroes then were Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaká – all attacking players. It was at the academy in Guabiruba that he began the slow transformation into one of the world’s finest holding midfielders, a key source of balance for his teams with that rare knack of being in the right place to deny space to the opposition and then find the correct pass. “The coach there was Italian, and before moving there I’d played a bit further forward, as a No10. When I worked under this Italian coach, he had his way of doing things and was like, ‘No, you should play a bit further back, in front of the defence,’ where I play nowadays. At the start, I wasn’t having any of it. I said, ‘Let me be further forward, playing as a ten, having fun,’ and he said, ‘No, play here.’ With time, I learned – I soaked things up. He really got me to like that position and [understand] how important it was for the team. That’s when I started looking up to Xavi and Pirlo.”

He has now followed that pair in playing a key midfield role in a Champions League-winning team. Jorginho was Player of the Match in the first leg of Chelsea’s quarter-final win over Porto and caught the eye again in the semi-final against Real Madrid with his ability to break up play, closing the passing lanes in front of his defence and also sparking attacks with his tidy distribution.

Reflecting on his endeavours, he says there is something innate in his ability to read the game, which enabled him, for example, to make 76 ball recoveries and 26 interceptions across 12 appearances in Chelsea’s victorious Champions League campaign. He then made just one interception fewer (25) in his seven matches at EURO 2020, the most since the data-collectors began counting. Jorginho elaborates: “Well, I believe this comes from ‘up above’: the famous gift from God. I can understand and read plays, anticipate moves.” One of the striking things about seeing him in person is how slight he is – notably his slender legs – and he is the first to agree that “physically, I’m not the fastest nor the strongest player so my strength is really in my head – to anticipate play. When I’m about to get the ball, I’m aware of what’s going on around me. I think this is something that comes from within. From an early age, I always noticed that my mind was a bit quicker than my friends’.”

And while his mind interprets, he passes on information to the team-mates around him. Hence his nickname in the Italy squad of ‘Radio Jorginho’. He explains: “Yes, that’s another thing that comes naturally to me. The way I see it, communication is a key aspect; it’s so helpful. My intention is simply to convey information and try to help my team-mates: ‘Close down here, go over there, stay, wait, press them back, drop back, right, left, go back, play a long ball.’ It’s all about information that’s directly helpful on the pitch. This is something innate in me, that my sister says I take from my mother. She says I’m like my annoying mother when I play, so that’s in my blood!”

In this sense, he sounds like the perfect complement to his midfield colleague at Chelsea, N’Golo Kanté – a player who keeps the volume turned right down during matches. “With Kanté, the thing is, the guy is a monster. He covers every blade of grass [but] he doesn’t speak. I guess he’s the only player I know that never utters a single word throughout the whole match. And he runs for everyone. He’s all over the pitch, he steals so many balls, he’s got immense physical power. He’s unbelievable for all of his power, his bursts of energy. Also, his ability to foresee where the ball is going in order to steal it, it’s amazing.

“Mateo Kovačić is more of a playmaker with more technical skills to advance in small spaces, someone who enjoys having the ball at his feet. He’s more about creating play than Kanté, who is there for stopping the opposition, even though Kanté does a lot of playmaking too with all his speed and those quick legs of his. He’ll thrust in between two opponents, and when I think he’s lost it, no, he’s done it again. He never misses the ball.”

This last sentence could apply just as easily to Jorginho himself, a player whose attributes are now more appreciated than ever following an extraordinary spring and summer. He has collected silverware before, including the Europa League at the end of his first Chelsea campaign under Maurizio Sarri, the former Napoli coach whose decision to bring him to Stamford Bridge in 2018 prompted initial question marks from some Chelsea fans, concerned he lacked speed and strength. Jorginho himself saw the “son of Sarri” barbs as just another challenge, another obstacle to overcome for a man now reportedly in contention for the Ballon d’Or.

Hence his wish to pause and reflect during that summer visit to Verona. ‘Surreal’ is his word for this annus mirabilis, which also includes August’s Super Cup win with Chelsea. “I come from a small town, Imbituba – I’m not sure you’ve heard the name before – and I’ve achieved so much, with trophies and awards. It’s really surreal. When I speak to my family and friends, we always use the word ‘surreal’ because it’s hard to imagine and believe everything which has been happening, so that’s why I say I’m really living the dream and I feel really fulfilled and happy.”

Just don’t ask him which of his two biggest prizes he prefers. “Don’t compare!” he exclaims. “There are two different emotions, because in one case you’ve been working daily, all through the year, and you stand for the club’s colours – multiple nationalities, multiple cultures, playing for one club. And it’s amazing, it’s the top achievement for a club. I can’t believe I’ve won this, especially against [Manchester] City.” As for the EURO, that triumph “mobilises your country, your people. And that’s powerful, too. I got videos from all over the world.” Surreal indeed. Get that man another milkshake.  

Insight
Close shave

Jorginho shaving a reporter’s tash is one of the least likely sights at a Champions League final

Something else to know about Jorginho is that he has a sense of humour. The bleached haircut that he unveiled at the Super Cup match against Villarreal in August – and the sight of his Chelsea team-mates ruffling his head in the post-match celebrations – give the impression he is game for a laugh. It would not be wrong either, judging by the bet he had last season with Fred Caldeira, a UK-based reporter for the Brazilian television network TNT Sports. When Jorginho commented on Caldeira’s moustache after one interview last season, the pair ended up making the following bet: if Chelsea won the Champions League, Caldeira would shave off his moustache and Jorginho would trim his beard – but leave the moustache. Hence the curious pitch-side spectacle at the Estádio do Dragão, late on the night of 29 May, of two men each pulling out a pair of clippers and beginning the depilation process. Surely a first for a Champions League final.

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