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He faced a gun, but now he shows his EPL calibre

Richarlison was poised to sign for Ajax Amsterdam when Watford manager Marco Silva called him.
Richarlison was poised to sign for Ajax Amsterdam when Watford manager Marco Silva called him.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • His friends pushed drugs but he just pushed a little ice cream cart. His deal with a local shopkeeper was that he would keep half the profit on what he sold.

So he would arrive at the shop in the morning, load his wagon with ice creams, chocolates and confectionery and hit the streets, returning when it was dark.

He also cleaned cars in the streets for money. A good salesman? "No! No!" hooted Richarlison. "I sold just a little."

It makes the fact he became a footballer the more impressive. Growing up in Nova Veneza, near the coast in Brazil's southern Santa Catarina state, times were tough.

His father, a bricklayer, and mother, a cleaner, had separated. He was the eldest of five children and there wasn't always food.

His neighbourhood, Vila Rubia, was notorious - in his back yard, dealers would stash their drugs. Many were mates.

AVOIDING THE CRIMINAL LIFE

The majority of my friends went to sell drugs in the street. Because they saw easy money - a lot of money. But I knew it was wrong.

RICHARLISON, Watford striker, on why he chose to stay on the right side of the law.

"The majority of my friends went to sell drugs in the street," said Richarlison. "Because they saw easy money - a lot of money. But I knew it was wrong."

He resisted peer pressure.

"My coaches, they were working with the police as well and they always gave me suggestions of what to do, what were the correct things and what were not," he said.

"And it was the same at home.

"This was why I chose not the criminal life."

When he was about 13 or 14, he was playing with friends in the street. The wrong street. A trafficker arrived and thought they were kids who had tried to steal from him and suddenly Richarlison had a gun at his head.

"I turned away and started to run and never went back to that street."

At 17, he had never owned a set of boots, yet by 18 he had a three-year Nike contract.

On his Watford debut, despite just three days' training after waiting for his work permit, and starting as a substitute, he stole the show against Liverpool - but when you have survived a gun at your head, you are hardly going to be intimidated by Dejan Lovren.

As a kid, he said, he would run all day, like his father, an amateur striker who played in the mould of Jamie Vardy, "always running for the full 90 minutes".

He remembers a game where his dad scored seven times. "I learnt from watching my father because he never gave up on the pitch and was looking to score.

"This is something I want to do as well. I'm going always to look for the goal and never give up, and if I can give the assist I give the assist," Richarlison said.

Initially rejected by Avai and Figueirense, he was at a tiny club - Real Noroeste - until he was picked up by America Mineiro at 17, and a year later he was at Fluminense and playing home games in the Maracana. Eye-catching for the Brazil Under-20s, he was signed by Watford for £11.5 million (S$20.6 million), which already looks a bargain with Tottenham interested.

He had been poised to join Ajax. "We just needed to sign the last papers," he said.

"Then Marco (Silva, the Watford manager) called me and told me I could play in his tactics, in one of the three forward positions.

"He told me he knew all about my qualities and he wanted me. I didn't think about it and I'm very glad I chose Watford."

Silva's charisma, and of course native Portuguese, sealed things.

"He gave me a lot of confidence over the phone and that is not easy for a manager to do," Richarlison, now 20, said.

Sharing a common language with his manager has helped him settle and Heurelho Gomes "has been like a father for me. I thank him a lot because he was the first person that gave the confidence to be with my team-mates''.

Richarlison's own hero was Ronaldo, the Brazilian one - but Jamie Redknapp recently compared him to Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of build, raw skills and quick impact upon the Premier League.

Back home, his family watch him play on television and "the neighbours say they shout like crazy and are very loud", but he's becoming a big noise generally - the boy who sold ice cream, and is taking to the Premier League so coolly.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2017, with the headline 'He faced a gun, but now he shows his EPL calibre'. Print Edition | Subscribe