CHENNAI: There is a story from a few years ago that accurately captures the very essence of Richarlison de Andrade. During his days at Watford in the Premier League, he was subbed off with 25 minutes remaining on the clock. The then 20-year-old, who had opened the scoring against Chelsea that night, was moved to tears.
After the match (Watford beat Chelsea 4-1), he explained the reason. "I was crying because I wanted to play and help my teammates, but in the end the guy (Roberto Pereyra) that entered the pitch did the job well so it's all okay," he had explained.
It's something he has brought to the Brazil team. An undying fire, a passion, to play. That passion and fire also reduced him to tears after picking up a calf injury while playing for Tottenham in October. "Even walking hurts," he had summed up.
Forget walking. On Thursday night against Serbia, Richarlison hung himself in the air for a fraction of a second, before bringing down his right foot to volley the ball into the bottom corner. It was a goal that sang Brazil, the hedonism evident in the way the forward controlled and lifted the ball in one movement using just his toes on the left foot before using it as a pivot while scissoring the ball home with his other foot. It's the sort of goal you see footballers score in commercials to advertise perfumes or protein shakes while their crush looks on.
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The only thing the 25-year-old was advertising at the Lusail Stadium was the marriage between extraordinary skill and art. Show the video at the Louvre and it might give an inferiority complex to Monalisa.
At some level, Richarlison's brace was ironical. There was a clamour to start Gabriel Jesus as the N0 9 with Richarlison on the bench. Jesus had moved to Arsenal to play as the central striker and had begun the season well. Richarlison, too, swapped homes, moving from Everton to Tottenham but he was going through proper bedding in period.
But coach, Tite, knew what he was doing. For all of Brazil's depth in the forward areas, Richarlison offers the team what almost nobody else can. While the likes of Neymar, Raphinha, Vinicius Junior and the substitutes Jesus and Antony among others, like to dribble or like playing the final pass before the finish or want to take part in the build-up play, Richarlison is happy to be economical with his touches and passes. In a sense, his true value was his first goal. Ghosting in behind the defender to score a goal from close range.
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The numbers explain this better. He had 25 touches, 12 accurate passes (only two in the final third) but was the main man. The passion that he brings to the yellow jersey is something that can't be quantified (this is not to say some of his teammates lack this) but he's always up for the fight. For him, determination and the will to fight are kings. The Italians have a word for this. Grinta. Grit. He symbolises that.
It is also poetic justice Richarlison scored both the goals. At the most political of World Cups, Brazil aren't just attempting to win it for the sixth time. Their mission in Qatar is more fundamental: to reclaim the ironic yellow jersey that had been appropriated by the country's far-right president, Jair Bolsanaro. He made the yellow jersey a centre part of his divisive presidency. It fractured an entire nation and left the national team susceptible to cliques (few players, including Neymar, openly backed Bolsanaro including at the recently held national elections).
What role did Richarlison play? He became one of the first Premier League players to promote the importance of vaccines in the fight against Covid-19. He has railed against the rise of fake news and conspiracy theories (two of those were found in abundance in Brazil during Bolsanaro's reign). He has even vowed to donate any of the World Cup winnings to causes close to his heart.
To understand why Richarlison cares about social causes or from where he got this passion from, there's another story. He narrated it himself in a piece for The Players Tribune. He grew up in Nova Venecia in Espirito Santo, a state in southeastern Brazil. The gist was this.
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He had done odd jobs growing up. Selling ice pops. Farming. Washing cars. All by the age of 15. One time, when returning from a game of football, his friends and he were mistaken for drug sellers. Guns were pointed. "In any case, after all my experiences in Nova Venecia, I realised I had no choice," he wrote in November 2020. "I wanted nothing to do with drugs. I wasn’t a farmer. Selling ice pops wasn’t my thing. And I sure as hell wasn’t gonna go back to the car wash. Basically, I couldn't see myself doing anything other than playing football."
Football became his life. Didier Drogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neymar jerseys adorned his cupboard. He wanted to play like all of them.
On Thursday, he scored like them.