On March 28th 2017, Brazil beat Paraguay in Sao Paulo to become the first nation to qualify for this summer’s World Cup.
That night – with a starting XI that included Roberto Firmino in place of an injured Gabriel Jesus – they turned in a dominant performance to get three points and put clear daylight between themselves and the chasing pack.
I was fortunate enough to have been in the Arena Corinthians to watch the game, and as everybody poured out of the ground I reflected on an accomplished performance from Firmino. He did not find the net, nor did he provide an assist, but his movement had been key to making the breakthrough against a hardy Paraguayan backline.
Brazil huffed and puffed for the opening 33 minutes but had failed to work Antony Silva in the visitors’ net. Then, as Philippe Coutinho advanced down the right, Firmino made one of his selfless off-the-ball runs, dragging Paraguayan centre-back Dario Veron towards the right-hand touchline.
Paulinho saw the space that had been vacated, moved into it and played a one-two with Coutinho, who curled a delicious left-footed shot into the bottom corner. Firmino thrust his arms in the air, grinning from ear to ear, and ran to rejoice alongside his then club-mate.
The Selecao went on to win 3-0, giving a second-half lesson in attractive attacking play, but it was only through their striker’s clever running that the Paraguayan resilience was cracked. It was not a flashy flick nor a thunderous finish, but Firmino had played his part to perfection.
It was to my bewilderment, then, that on the television the next morning, pundits were roundly criticising the Liverpool man’s display.
Velloso, an ex-goalkeeper who now appears on TV channel Bandeirantes, tore into the front-man when asked if there were any players who had underperformed; “Yes.” He said, “Firmino… Yesterday he should have been the team’s reference point, he should have played with his back to goal, laid balls off and got in the box to finish. He didn’t manage to perform that function.”
He was not the only one to express such thoughts, clearly missing the merit in Firmino’s work off the ball. But perhaps the reproach should not have come as such a surprise. The Liverpool number nine has not always been a universally popular man in his homeland.
It might seem strange to those who watch him week in, week out in the Premier League, but it has taken a long time for the boy from Alagoas to prove his worth. It is only with his scintillating performances in this year’s Champions League that his true value has become clear for all Brazilians to see.
There are three main reasons for this lack of acclaim. First and foremost is the fact that he never played for a big club in Brazil.
Firmino was born in the city of Maceio and started out in the youth ranks of local club CRB. Aged 17, he moved to Figueirense, a second-division outfit in Florianopolis, 3,000km to the south. There, he played just 38 league games before moving across the Atlantic to complete his development at Hoffenheim.
Having never played for one of the country’s 12 big teams, Firmino has no adoring public, no hype in the partisan media and nobody calling for his inclusion merely because of the club colours he wore as he came through the ranks.
Secondly, his limited time on the pitch for the national team has not helped his cause. Firmino has 19 caps (and 5 goals) but has only played a total of 865 minutes – completing the full 90 just once. In this context, his goal ratio begins to look quite good, working out at a successful strike every 172 minutes.
Firmino is no super sub, however. To extract the maximum from the Liverpool man, he needs a run of games playing from the start, so that those around him can fully understand how to take advantage of his dynamism and ingenuity.
Thirdly, Firmino is not your conventional Brazilian number nine. Over the years, Selecao fans have been used to seeing the likes of Romario, Ronaldo, and more recently even Luis Fabiano – all out-and-out goal-scorers – as the most advanced player in a yellow shirt.
Firmino is an altogether different prospect. He wanders from the focal point of the attack, drawing defenders away, playing one-twos and creating space for midfielders to run in behind. It is something his team-mates must adore but it’s not as eye-catching as getting the goals or physically dominating defenders, so praise from the press and public is not forthcoming.
One only needs to look at the other players pundits have touted for inclusion in the national team over the last year to see that some Brazilians would prefer a forward who acts as a reference point for the team.
In November, ex-Selecao striker Walter Casagrande said on SporTV that “Jô [ex-City and Everton] is a better player. On the pitch, he does more things than Firmino… Tite is looking for a penalty-box forward, [Jô] has already played a World Cup, so wouldn’t be frightened by the magnitude of the event.”
In a conversation I had with Neto, another ex-Brazil attacker and now one of Brazil’s foremost TV personalities, he echoed Casagrande’s thoughts about Jô and added, “You won’t win the World Cup with Firmino as your second-choice striker.”
Earlier in the year, Neto had even used his blog to call for the return of another player from the dismal 2014 World Cup campaign. “The only name I see as a substitute for Gabriel Jesus is the reliable goal-scorer Fred… he’s still the country’s main number nine”.
Brazil manager Tite, on the other hand, has never lost faith in Firmino. His is the only opinion that matters, and the forward’s place on the plane to Russia is already guaranteed.
And finally, with eight goals and four assists in 10 Champions League games so far this season, it appears that the rest of the country is coming around to Tite’s way of thinking.
In February this year, Neto published an article entitled ‘My sincere apologies to the lad at Liverpool’, in which he admitted his mistake in ever doubting the striker’s ability.
Firmino’s starring role in Liverpool's remarkable 5-1 aggregate victory over Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals this week will have only aided his case.
Those doubters are becoming less vocal.
All stats relating to the Brazilian national team come courtesy of @MineiroGiant