‘It was football, or nothing’

When Cafu Lifted The World Cup In Yokohama In 2002, On The Other Side Of The Globe, 11-Year-Old Raphael Augusto Ran Down The Streets Of Rio de Janeiro With A Ball At His Feet And A Flag In His Hands. For Him, The Choice Was Made…

We chose to start with the toughest, a question to which Raphael Augusto responded with the only English he spoke throughout the interview. ‘Tough one,’ he says peering into the computer screen. Google Translate has the question that we typed, in English on the left and in Portuguese on the right, as Augusto’s eyes go back to his life in Recreio dos Bandeirantes, a small town in Rio de Janiero. But even as he tries to look back through a childhood that offered him very little, there is a smile that cloaks the frown beneath it.

“What would I have been if not a footballer? I don’t know. My childhood was not easy. I was born in a very poor neighbourhood and I never had a proper education. When I was young, there were things in my locality that influenced a lot of children. I may have been locked up in a jail, maybe still struggling to make ends meet with some daily wage job, but thanks to my family, my friends and to football, I did not choose that path.’

In Rio de Janeiro, Augusto’s house is far from the Christ the Redeemer statue, or as he recalls with a smile on his face, ‘Cristo Redentor’, but that never stopped him from knowing it was there; the very reason he has it inked on him.

“Today I can provide for my family because when I was very young, He provided for me. My house is far from Alto da Boa Vista, where the statue is. But I knew that he was always looking over all of us. I have the statue tattooed on me because it was and continues to be a very important part of my life. When we were tempted to do wrong, what stopped me and so many others, was the knowledge that He was watching.”

From the concrete streets of Rio to the lush green at the Fortress, Augusto’s had quite the journey. Since signing for the Blues in the summer, the Brazilian has by far been the standout player in the club’s first four games of the campaign. “I’m very grateful to be at this club and for the fans who have received me well. It makes me very happy. It is a big season in the club’s history because we are defending the title, and together, I believe that this team has the capacity to do it.”

While ‘rags to riches’ stories warm the heart, Augusto says that the battle continues to rage on even after the contracts, endorsements and pay checks come in. “When something like football gives you an escape from being poor, it is always difficult to handle. When you start getting money, you don’t want to leave your friends or the people in your neighbourhood behind. That is what happened to Adriano, the Brazilian striker. Fifteen years ago, he lost his father when he was at the very top of the world. Many of his friends who he grew up with had chosen a life of crime, and though I really respect that he returned to his roots even after he became famous, it didn’t help his career. He had bought himself a home in Barra da Tijuca, but he found happiness going back to Vila Cruzeiro, the place that raised him. We would hear stories of him riding with his friends on scooters, handing out free food to the kids who were playing football on the streets. He wanted to make people happy but in doing that, he had lost himself.”

Even as he narrates a tale of tragedy, one that stopped one of football’s greats from achieving his true potential, Augusto manages to keep a smile, albeit wry, on his face. Augusto believes that the ‘smile’ is a pre-requisite if you want to make it as a footballer from Brazil. “My favourite footballers are Ronaldinho Gaucho and Falcao, the futsal player. They were very inspirational to me in my life and they both always play with a smile on their face. Brazilians, not just footballers, want to find happiness in everything they do. We want to be the reason people smile, and we cannot do that if we are not smiling ourselves.”

On the inside of his right calf, Augusto has tattooed an airplane, one that signifies his travels and travails as a footballer; a journey that he says has taught him much. “When I came to India, there were people who were questioning me because it was a different choice. I am glad that I made the decision to go abroad because whatever I have learned in life, I have learned from my travels. That tattoo is one that tells me to always explore, to discover and to learn. Football has only brought me positive things. Because of it I have been to places I had never even dreamt of. I have been to different cultures, met different people, and I am so glad for it.”

Seventeen years ago, when Ronaldo put two past Oliver Kahn at the International Stadium, in Yokohama, twelve thousand miles away, a young Raphael Augusto ran down the streets in joy. It is the moment he said it all began for him.

“When Brazil won the World Cup, I was watching from the streets. Not everyone had a TV, so the rich would make big screens for the poor to enjoy. The time difference between South Korea or Japan and Rio was 12 hours, so the games happened in the morning for us, and when we won, we partied on the streets. We painted the streets and played the drums and we danced late into the night. It feels good to remember it now, because all the memories of my friends and neighbours come back to me. That World Cup made my bond with football very strong.”

With every answer and every memory that he pulls out (and he has many), we can’t help but circle back to the smile that is painted quite permanently on Augusto’s face. As we draw closer to the end of the interview, he helps us lock down on a headline with his final answer.

“When I was young, I didn’t have much. We were definitely not the poorest, but we didn’t have enough. I had dreams and I had the desire to make them come true. I dreamt of a good life; to get married, to have kids and to be able to provide them a life I couldn’t have. And the answer to all of that was football. It was football, or nothing. Today I have a beautiful wife and the fact that I can provide an education for my children, something that I didn’t have in my childhood, makes me very happy. I am living my dream. When football has given me so much, how can I not smile when I’m on the pitch?”

  • Raphael Augusto was once selected to play against Ronaldinho in an exhibition match, it was then that he decided to move from playing futsal to football.
  • Augusto has the initials RMMSR inscribed on his boots, they stand for Raphael, Miguel, Marcos, Sophie and Raphaela; his family.
  • This interview was conducted in Portuguese and translated with the help of Flavia Gomes.