The Boy From Hell by Antony

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I was born in hell. It’s not a joke. For my European friends who don’t know, the favela I grew up in in Sao Paulo is actually called Inferninho — “little hell”.

If you really want to understand me as a person, then you have to understand where I’m from. My history. My roots. Inferninho.

It’s an infamous place. Fifteen steps from our front door, there were always drug dealers going about their business, passing things from hand to hand. The smell was constantly outside our window. In fact, one of my earliest memories is my father getting up off the couch on a Sunday and yelling at the guys to take a walk down the street and leave us alone, because his kids were inside trying to watch a football game.

We are so used to seeing weapons that it wasn’t even scary. They were just a part of everyday life. We were more afraid that the police would knock down our door. Once they broke into our house looking for someone and ran in screaming. They found nothing, of course. But when you’re that young, those moments mark you.

Man, some of the things I’ve seen… Only those who have lived through it can understand. Walking to school one morning, when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I came across a man lying in the alley. He wasn’t moving. When I got closer, I realized he was dead. In the favela, you become somewhat numb to these things. There was no other way and I had to go to school. So I just closed my eyes and jumped over the dead body.

I’m not saying this to sound difficult. That was just my reality. In fact, I always say that I was very lucky as a child, because despite all our struggles, I received a gift from heaven. The ball was my savior. My love from the cradle. At Inferninho, we don’t care about toys at Christmas. Every ball rolling is perfect for us.

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Every day my older brother took me to the square to play football. In the favela, everyone plays. Children, old people, teachers, construction workers, bus drivers, drug dealers, gangsters. Everyone is equal there. In my father’s time it was a clay court. In my day it was asphalt. At first I played barefoot, on bleeding feet. We didn’t have money for proper shoes. I was small, but I dribbled with malice that came from God. Dribbling has always been something in me. It was a natural instinct. And I refused to bow my head to anyone. I would elasticize the drug dealers. Rainbow bus drivers. Nutmeg thieves. I really didn’t give a f***.

With the ball at my feet I was not afraid.

I learned all the tricks from the legends. Ronaldinho, Neymar, Cristiano. I watched them on YouTube, thanks to my “uncle” Toniolo. He is not my blood uncle. He was our neighbor. But he treated me like family. When I was little, he would let me steal his WiFi so I could go on YouTube and get a soccer education. He even gave me my first video game. If Toniolo had two loaves of bread — that was one for him, an extra one for us. This is what people don’t understand about the favela. For every person who does poorly, there are two who do well.

I always say that I grew up in the wrong place, but with the right people. When I was 8 years old, I was playing in the square when the first angel crossed my path. This older guy was watching me pull gangster tricks like a crazy bastard. He turned to the other people watching.

“Who is the little child??”

“A child? Antony.”

It was the director Grêmio Barueri. He gave me my first chance to leave the slum and play for their futsal team. Then I started to dream. I remember one day I was walking with my mom when I saw this cool red car driving through our neighborhood. It was a Range Rover. But to me it was like seeing a Ferrari. Everyone was watching it. That was bullshit, man.

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I turned to my mom and said, “One day, when I’m a soccer player, I’m going to buy that car.”

She was laughing, of course.

I was dead serious.

I said, “Don’t worry, after a while I’ll let you drive it.”

I would elasticize the drug dealers. Rainbow bus drivers. Nutmeg thieves. I really didn’t give a f***. With the ball at my feet I was not afraid.

Antonius

Back then I was literally sleeping in the bed between my parents. We had no money for a bed just for me. Every night I turned to one side and there was my dad. Turn to the other side, there was my mom. We were so close, and that helped us survive. Then something happened that changed my life.

When I was 11 years old, my parents separated. It was the hardest moment of my life, because at least we all had each other before. Now I would turn to my mom’s side of the bed in the middle of the night and she was gone. It was devastating, but it also gave me great motivation. I used to close my eyes and think, “I’m going to get us out of this.”

My father used to leave the house for work at 5 in the morning. He would be back at 8 in the evening. I told him: “Now you’re running after me.” But soon I will run for you.”

If you talk to the media, they always ask you about your dreams. Champions League? World Championship? Ballon d’Or?

These are not dreams. Those are the goals. My only dream was to take my parents out of the favela. There was no plan B. I was going to succeed or die trying.

At the age of 14, I got a chance at FC Sao Paulo. Every day after school, I would travel to the academy on an empty stomach. Sometimes, if it was a good day, my teammates and I would save up money to buy a cookie for the bus ride home. I didn’t have to pretend I was hungry for motivation. The hunger was real.

There was an intensity in me — maybe you could say anger. I had emotional problems. Three different times, I was almost fired from the club. I was on the release list. And three different times, someone at the club stood up for me. They begged to keep me. That was God’s plan.

I was so skinny but I always played with “blood in my eyes”. It’s the kind of intensity that comes from the street. You can’t fake it. People think I’m lying when I tell them this, but even after I made my debut for Sao Paulo, I was still living in a favela. No, no — it’s true — at 18 I was still sleeping in bed with my dad. It was either that or the couch! We had no other choice. Man, even in 2019 when I scored against Corinthians in the Paulista final, that night I was back in the neighborhood. People were pointing at me on the street.

“I just saw you on TV. What are you doing here???”

“Brother, I live here.”

Everyone was laughing. They didn’t believe it.

A year later, I was at Ajax, playing in the Champions League. So things changed quickly. Not only did I have my own bed, but a red Range Rover was in my mother’s driveway. I said to her, “See? I told you I would win. And I won.”

Anthony |  Brazil |  The Boy From Hell |  The Players' Tribune
Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty; Manchester United via Getty

When I told her that when I was 10, she laughed.

Now, when I remind her, she cries.

I went from the slums to Ajax to Manchester United in three years. People always ask me how I was able to “turn the key” so quickly. Honestly, it’s because I don’t feel any pressure on the football field. No fear. Fear? What is fear? When you grow up, you have to jump over dead bodies just to get to school, you can’t be afraid of anything in football. The things I saw, most football pundits can only imagine. There are things you can’t do unsee.

We suffer enough in life. We worry enough. We cry enough.

But in football? With the ball under your feet, you should feel only joy. I was born a dribbler. It’s part of my roots. It’s the gift that took me from the slums to the Theater of Dreams. I will never change the way I play, because it’s not a style, it is me. It’s a part of me. Part of our story as Brazilians. If you just watch one 10-second clip of mine, you won’t understand. Nothing I do is a joke. Everything has a purpose. To go forward boldly, to instill fear in the opponent, to create space, to make a difference for my team.

If you think I’m just a clown, then you don’t understand my story. The art of Ronaldinho and Cristiano and Neymar inspired me as a child. I watched these Gods in wonder on stolen Wifi, then went out onto the concrete pitch to try to imitate their genius.

Even if you are born in hell, it is a small gift from heaven.

When people ask, “What’s the point of your style? What message are you sending?”

Bro, I’m sending a message home.

Even if you are born in hell, it is a small gift from heaven.

Antonius

In Europe, where there is bread on the table every night, people sometimes forget that football is a game. A beautiful game, but a game nonetheless. IT IS life it’s serious, at least for us born in a little hell of a world.

I always say that wherever I go in life, whatever happens to me, I represent the place that taught me everything. Without my home and my people, none of this matters. On my boots, before every game, I write a little reminder to myself.

“FAVELA.”

When I tie my shoelaces, I remember. I remember everything.

This is my story. If you still don’t understand me, or if you still think I’m a clown, then I’ll just point to the ink on my hand…

Anyone who comes from the favela knows a little about what I went through.

Those words speak for me. And for all of us.

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