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Casemiro’s Persistence During A Difficult Childhood Is A Lesson For All Of Us

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column — on Casemiro’s childhood filled with poverty and grief, and his exemplary mentality to get through it all

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

‘KO’ — by Finn

Earlier this summer, a video surfaced from a recent interview with Casemiro, where the Brazilian broke down in tears as he recalled a childhood story. During the interview, Casemiro was holding a bottle — some kind of yogurt beverage. “As a child I always wanted to drink these, but we never had the money,” Casemiro said as the tears emerged. “It didn’t cost much, around 20 cents, but my mom would always call me back because no one had the money to buy some.” Casemiro now could open up his own yogurt-drink factory, if he wanted to, and later implied that he chugs these back like water when he returns to Brazil despite the drinks not being a great choice — only because he can, when he couldn’t before. Casemiro’s smile now lights up the sky and brings warmth to everyone around him. His happiness is merited. His childhood is filled with painful memories.

“When I was seven or eight I used to ask my team mates if I could sleep in their houses to be able to get a better night’s sleep before a game,” Casemiro recalled back in 2013 when he was still with Castilla. Everything and anything during his childhood would’ve been an upgrade for him. When he finally started to break through the Brazilian football scene in small steps, Sao Paolo’s youth system allowed him some basic material needs that showed him how great living conditions can be. “I had a room, food, air conditioning and a TV,” Casemiro said of his three-year stint at Sao Paolo. He had a long way to go still, and other struggles to overcome; but for a lot of kids growing up in Brazil, the situation is so dire that it’s the simplest things, like basic comfort and sleeping arrangements, that will have young players soaking in appreciation. It means a lot to them.

What Casemiro endured as a kid in Brazil is unfortunately not uncommon. Poverty is ever-present. Sao Jose Dos Campos, the working class industrial area outside Sao Paulo where Casemiro was raised, has been up and down economically. The gulf in wealth, and generally imbalanced distribution of money in that city and beyond, is extreme, and according to the Gini Coefficient, the country as a whole is one of the world’s leaders when it comes to income disparity within the population. At the turn of the century, the situation was so dire that many felt the problems were irreversible, one Brazilian journalist told me, and despite steps being taken, many families still suffer greatly.

In 2003, the government launched the ‘Bolsa Familia’ program — a system that gives financial compensation to impoverished families on one condition: keep your kids in school and keep them vaccinated. Those incentives have helped, overall, but non-attendance in schools among kids under 16 is one of the biggest problems in the country, and the major reasons for staying out of school is malnourishment. As of 2006, according to an institution for higher education in Brazil, it was reported that almost 20% of the country’s population are extremely impoverished.

Casemiro’s escape in all this, as is this case with many kids in Brazil, was football. For some, football is a mere distraction and incredibly fun way to spend one’s time; but for others, it is an urgent leap to ‘make it’ — a critical attempt to actually sort out the financial futures of an entire family tree for generations to come and reward the hard-working parents who deserve so much.

With Casemiro, it was just one parent — his heroic mother, Venancio Magda de Maria Casemiro — who was around. Helping his mother and siblings financially was one of the most gratifying things Casemiro has ever done. “With the first money I earned I bought my mother a house,” he said. “I remember it well. She thought I only played football to enjoy myself but I had it very clear that I wanted to help her.”

Amid the poverty, Casemiro (the eldest child of his family) had to watch, at the age of five, his father angrily drive away from the house to never return again. Casemiro was the man of the family from the beginning.

“If I see him on the street today, I won’t recognize him,” Casemiro told Globoesporte. “He had a serious fight with my mother when I was five and left the family for my mother to manage. I’ve wanted to meet him because I have no grudge against him. It was what God wanted for me. That’s why I have always left it just the way it is.”

“My mother was always with me. She always supported me, and thanks to God, I can help my family. I’m happy I had her by my side when I needed her the most.”

What Casemiro has achieved in his life until now is exemplary. He juggled school and football, helped raise his siblings and took care of his mother, and endured poverty alongside the emotional trauma of seeing his father abandon his family. He turned into a football star by training religiously and persevering amid the competition of a nation that has football injected into its collective DNA. He just kept working at it until it was impossible for scouts to ignore what he brings to the table.

Casemiro may not have had his father around, but what he did have was Nilton de Jesus Morreira — the man he often refers to as a father-like figure. Morreira, who founded a football school in Sao Jose Dos Campos, was the man who discovered Casemiro in the first place. It was him who presented Casemiro to Sao Paolo, and it was him that was around for Casemiro through everything. To this day, Morreira still tells his students to “hit the ball like Casemiro does” when it comes to shooting drills.

“I look him on like a son,” Morreira said in 2015. “It was me that arranged his DNI [national identity card], his passport, I was at his wedding... I am very proud of him.”

At Sao Paolo, Casemiro started to sharpen his maturity even further. From the age of 11, he started captaining the club’s youth teams. In 2009, he was called up as part of Brazil’s U-17 World Cup squad. In his second year with Sao Paolo’s senior side, he won the Copa Sudamericana, and a year after, he was scouted by Real Madrid and joined Castilla.

Nothing was easy for Casemiro. There were no handouts. During his youth, as the dream of battling poverty and other difficult issues had started to become real, he was diagnosed with Hepatitis. That took a toll on him both mentally and physically. It was a blow to an already difficult life. He lost weight and became too weak to train. During his time with Sao Paolo, he was unable to work out for three months straight.

“As soon as I got to Sao Paolo, I had this problem, a disease known as Hepatitis,” Casemiro said. “I spent some time without training or playing. I was restless and was worried that I had failed. A lot of people tried to keep my mind at peace. At one point, I thought about quitting football even after I had recovered. My past and family sufferings strengthened me most to keep my career going.”

It’s hard to picture Casemiro as frail and weak. As it stands, he is a physical specimen, even when playing against grown men whom he throws around with ease while retaining the ball. That physical trait existed from his younger days, Morreira says, and immediately after he recovered from Hepatitis, Casemiro went back to bodying helpless attackers.

“He started with the under-9s and then the under-11s,” Morreira said. “He was a lot stronger than the other kids of his age, but it was more dynamism than physical strength. He had a lot of ability to play the ball and to control it.”

Morreira says Casemiro’s best position is the ‘six’. It’s impossible to argue with that, given his skill-set and desire to hedge back and play grinch on the opposing team’s counter-attacks. But Morreira was unsure where Casemiro, who started as a wide-man before joining Sao Paolo, would end up positionally. Growing up, they played him everywhere — including up front. Youth coaches loved his control and touch with both feet. It wasn’t until Sao Paolo found him a home as the team’s midfield anchor where Casemiro started doubling-down on what defines him as a footballer today.

At some point towards the end of his tenure in Brazil — right before he joined Castilla — certain media in Brazil decided Casemiro was ‘arrogant’ and started to bad-mouth his character. It was nonsense. Everyone who is around Casemiro immediately falls in love with him. He has swooned all of his coaches throughout the years. Benitez talked at length about Casemiro’s ability to ‘listen’. Lopetegui can’t praise him enough: “It was a joy to coach him (at Porto); he listens, asks for advice, takes it on... His secret is the desire to improve, his willingness to adapt. He is everyone’s partner, helping them out: making adjustments, watching everything.” Casemiro’s first Castilla coach, Alberto Toril, raves about his work ethic, stating that his ‘chubby’ face should not fool anyone — he is very professional.

When Morreira heard Benitez’s high praise of Casemiro’s character, his immediate reaction was, “That’s why I don’t agree that he’s arrogant.”

What Casemiro has achieved now as a footballer is incredible. His story stirs the soul and warms the heart. What he does on the pitch is elite, and his willingness to do things on the field that no one else does is something that Toril, Lopetegui, Zidane, and Benitez have all raved about. He makes life easier for his teammates. But what he’s done off the pitch is even more important. There is a lesson in his life for all of us to take.

“My family had no fixed home to live in. We stayed at my aunt’s house,” Casemiro recalls. “We only had one room and a bathroom. I never had toys like other children. My mother always told me: ‘I’ll buy it for you next time’, but the next time never came.”

“Thankfully today I can buy her gifts.”

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