With giant palm trees stooping towards turquoise water, high-rise hotels glimmering in the sun, and opulent beachside restaurants selling lobster and expensive liqueurs, it’s easy to see why Maceio, the capital of Alagoas state, is known as Brazil’s Caribbean.
Yet like most cities in the country’s underdeveloped north east, this picture postcard scene tells only part of the story, the superficial face of a metropolis reliant on tourism. Venture a few blocks inland and a different Maceio gradually comes into view; the place regularly listed among Brazil’s most violent.
It is here, among the carpets of litter, filthy waterways and shanty housing, that a timid young boy with an ever-present smile started his journey from the streets to the Selecao, from Alagoas to Anfield.
Roberto Firmino Barbosa de Oliveira was born on 2 October 1991 in Trapiche da Barra, a poor neighbourhood squeezed between a polluted lake and a poverty-stricken favela. Inside his simple childhood home, he would drift off to the cacophony emanating from the nearby 20,000-capacity Estadio Rei Pele. It’s little wonder football was never far from his mind.
That home in Trapiche has recently been refurbished and converted into a hotdog store, but the Firmino family’s original rear wall remains. Its rusty metal anti-climb spikes are still there as well, still trusted to keep thieves out. They used to serve a second purpose too – keeping a determined young boy in.
“It has always been violent here and Roberto’s mother was very protective of him,” says Bruno Barbosa dos Santos, a childhood friend of Firmino. “He was football mad, but it was difficult for him to be let out, so he would jump over the wall to come play with us in the street. One time he fell and had to get stitches in his knee. He still has the scar.”
Other friends recall how they would throw stones on to Firmino’s roof to tempt him out for a game, or how the coach at his first club Flamenguinho would set up a stepladder to make it easier for his star player to sneak away. Even when playing with children six years older, Firmino was a level above.
“Roberto’s mother worried that because of the neighbourhood he could become a bandit, but he never thought about that kind of thing,” says another old friend, Dedeu, who still lives in Trapiche.
“He was quiet and timid – he just smiled – but he was football crazy. Even when he didn’t have a ball, he’d be doing keepie-ups with an orange. His dream was to be a professional, but where we live it’s very difficult to achieve these things. That’s why I am so happy for him. He deserves all his success.”
Speak to anybody who knows Firmino or his parents Mariana Cicera and Jose Cordeiro and the sentiments are always the same. One particular Portuguese word comes up time and again: “humilde”. Humble. A dedicated family that earned its escape from poverty.
Jose was a street vendor, selling bottled water from a coolbox outside music shows and football matches. It was the family’s only source of income and Roberto would help by collecting the money and giving change. But while dad fought to feed the family, son had a grander goal.
“He was always a good kid, thinking of others,” says Bruno, who remains in touch with the Liverpool forward, exchanging messages occasionally via WhatsApp. “Even now, he helped my grandmother; gave her a wheelchair after she had a stroke.
“His dream was to get his mother, father and sister out of here.”