he day Carlinhos Casimiro went on trial at São Paulo, coaches gathered the hopefuls and asked what position they played. From the town of São José dos Campos 150km north-east, about 11 years old, he was one of maybe 300 kids of which 50 might make the cut – if they were lucky. He was also a striker, the most popular position, so when they were called he did what he had to do: he lied. A familiar cherubic smile creeps across his face and fills the screen as he remembers the moment almost two decades on.
Fifty, 60, hands went up, maybe more, so his stayed down. Casemiro – the spelling changed years later when a shirt was printed wrong – didn’t much like those odds. Next, they asked who was a No 10, his other position. More hands went up. Again, his didn’t: it was still a lot of kids. When they asked for defensive midfielders, he remembers there being eight or nine. Seeing an opportunity, he raised his hand. “Me,” he said, “I am.”
He’s always been smart.
Turns out he was a defensive midfielder too, given time. Once he started, he didn’t stop and Casemiro may well be the world’s best now: the man his coach never rests or rotates – his apparent indestructability is a running joke – he is a title winner with a claim on being La Liga’s most important player this season. The Brazilian now travels to Manchester seeking to make progress towards his fifth European Cup. There’s something in that decision that defines him, the ability to read what is required.
“Since I was a kid, I always thought and that day it came off,” he says.
That’s thought. Not fought. Although there’s plenty of that. Casemiro is 6ft 1in, more than 13 stone, and plenty of footballers have felt the force of his physique. “I like to think,” he says, gently delivering his midfielder’s manifesto. “It’s not the legs, it’s the mind that’s in charge. You have to be strong, aggressive: I like challenges, contact. But you play with your head; I always thought the key was thinking: being better positioned, seeing the move before it happens.”
That day, he saw it. He had to. He once told Jorge Valdano that he fights for every ball as if it were “a plate of food”. Casemiro’s mother Magda, a cleaner, brought him, his sister Bianca and brother Lucas up alone. They were poor, there wasn’t always enough food and their tiny home was cramped, forcing him to spend nights with his grandparents or staying with teammates to sleep properly before playing. He recalls Nilton Moreira, who ran the club a six-mile walk away, paying fees he couldn’t: about €3. Being given boots and food. And how joining São Paulo meant finally getting fed properly. “Football,” he says, “is an escape valve, a way of achieving something in life.”
“That’s especially true in Brazil where maybe we have more difficulties in education and culture,” he says, “but it’s not only there.” Casemiro recently watched Marcus Rashford’s campaign – “I really admire him, not just because he’s a great player but for how he used his position” – and links his own commitments at Save the Children Spain to a growing, welcome social conscience among footballers, insisting: “People suffering, ill, hungry, unclothed, doesn’t get seen; raising awareness is the right path.
“Everything I am is because of my mum, because of football. I was fortunate to find a way thanks to football: friends didn’t have that luck. Knowing how hard it was is why I do everything from the heart, 200%.”
Easy to say, but it has the ring of authenticity. Even among ultra-professionals he is different. “Casemiro does the work others won’t,” Sevilla’s Brazilian midfielder Fernando told El País. There’s the hyperbaric oxygen chamber, electric recovery boots, extreme abstinence, and morning sessions before training – teammate Rodrygo says Casemiro is always dragging him to the gym – together with constant videos and analysis: good decisions are not guesswork, nor are they all intuition.
Rafa Benítez called him a “listener”. Julen Lopetegui describes him as “a joy to coach”, whose “secret is the desire to improve, his willingness to adapt”. It is born perhaps of an awareness that he may not be a natural virtuoso, some sense maybe that his place is at the service of others: he describes his role as “filling gaps, helping teammates”. It is manifest in his performances. When he arrived at Madrid, he didn’t look that good. He didn’t look this good, anyway.
“I love to learn,” he says. “I watch back, see the errors, evaluate. I love that. People say I think like a coach. I always try to read the game, the other team’s mind, their coach, what they’re trying to do. Often the smallest details – a metre either way – change everything. I have [football analytics platform] Wyscout and watch everything, from China or anywhere. My wife gets annoyed. It’s my work. There’s a time for everything but it’s my job. And I love it. My life is football. I have to think permanently about football.”
So, you’ll have spent recent days watching Manchester City then, Friday’s opponents in a tie Madrid begin 2-1 behind? Casemiro smiles, as if it’s a stupid question. “Man, since the day the league ended,” he says. “It’ll be a very, very hard game, but we go with hope. This shirt obliges you to win every game – even friendlies.”
Last summer Casemiro cancelled a family trip to Disney World, instead heading to pre-season early because Madrid had lost 7-3 to Atlético in a pre-season game in New Jersey. There was duty to be done, teammates to defend. No wonder Lopetegui insists: “Centre-backs love him.” Everyone does. Zinedine Zidane calls him “fundamental”.
The same Zidane who was Casemiro’s idol. “Even today I get a little nervous talking to him,” he says, smiling. “I tell him he doesn’t know what he meant for us, for me.” But he took a World Cup off Brazil? Casemiro laughs. “Yeah, I tell him that: you took ‘98 away but it didn’t change anything. Also, knowing him now, I can say he deserves it. He’s incredible: the humility, how he expresses football. He treats us with so much affection and love.”
The feeling is mutual. Few value Casemiro’s role like Zidane, who had seen it before with Claude Makelele, teammate for club and country. Zidane understood that the collapse of the galácticos began with Makelele’s departure and mention of him has Casemiro beaming. “Makelele is one who invented this position,” he says. “Him, Mauro Silva, Dunga. Gilberto Silva was another. There was a period teams played with two, but it’s mostly one pivot again now. I watch videos of them: they developed this position. Zidane is a specialist: he knows every player’s importance. But Makelele wouldn’t have been as important without Zidane. Or me without Toni [Kroos] or Luka [Modric]. Fede [Federico Valverde] now, or Isco.”
As Casemiro talks, it’s startling how quiet he is: soft, almost sweet. There’s something of that even in how he plays, a contradiction in him. Before every game he prays no one gets hurt – “yes, both teams” – but he committed more fouls than anyone last season and he doesn’t hide that being hard is part of his game. Yet there’s an angelic smile and something oddly undemonstrative. There’s no bid for attention, no hint of vindication. In fact, he retracts one line, concerned it risks sounding presumptuous. It doesn’t. A silent leader, he never seems to shout.
“Well, there are moments,” he says, grinning.
“It’s just my personality,” he continues. “I am very, very, very calm, even if my playing style is aggressive and everyone can see that. It’s my mum’s values: be polite, treat everyone the same. You can’t lose that, ever. You don’t need to shout to lead; you can be quiet too. People might think I don’t say much but I talk to the younger players. Often, it’s better to speak alone, look someone in the eye, than before a big group. They understand better, and that’s what matters.”
Another cliche collapses. And another: nor is he just a defensive midfielder, even as he seems reluctant to make a claim for more. Although Casemiro made more recoveries than anyone this season, only four players completed more passes and he scored five goals.
“Maybe,” he concedes. “That’s Zizou. He’s very insistent; he always, always says: ‘Case, you can do more: arrive from the second line, feed midfielders, bring the ball out cleanly.’ This year, maybe I’ve had more protagonism with the ball, but I still know my job: rob the ball, give it to my teammates. But Zizou is pesado, heavy going: always talking to me, wanting more. He says: ‘I’m not asking you to do something you can’t do; I’m asking you to do something you can.’ He trusts me a lot.”
Casemiro didn’t always think so. One day early in Zidane’s first spell, the midfielder knocked on the manager’s door. He hadn’t played yet and couldn’t understand it. Wasn’t Zidane supposed to be the manager that rated him, finally making him a fixture? What do I have to do, he asked: name it, I’ll do it. Relax, Zidane told him: you’ll start playing soon and when you do you won’t stop. And that’s exactly what happened.