Philippe Coutinho had impatiently waited, and it was finally time. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers pulled out a letter in the home dressing room on April 13 last year, with Manchester City occupying the opposite quarters, and revealed the words he was about to read were penned by the Brazilian’s mother.
That was to be the last communication the players heard before taking to the Anfield turf, an unconventional approach, but one that had inspired the side to an unexpected and riveting Premier League run.
“I was so anxious for it to be my turn, for the manager to read the letter from my Mum,” Coutinho admits to CNN Sport. “I waited and waited for it. The manager had spoken to the mothers of every player in the team, he’d been reading a message before every game for months and finally my turn had come.”
It is a miserable May afternoon at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, the sky clouded a dark shade of grey, drenching those below with stubborn showers.
In a room on the complex’s upper tier, Coutinho watches the rain fall as he recounts a different pouring — one of emotion.
“At first, I didn’t know that the manager would be reading a letter from her, then he mentioned her name and I was really overwhelmed,” he continues. “It said she loved me, is proud of me, is always with me and missing me.
“There was more, but those are just the words I needed to hear. It filled me up. The other players were also really moved because every week, regardless of whose mother it was with the message, we were all inspired and emotional.
“We were getting really strong, powerful words and it pushed us so much.”
Coutinho turned in a titanic performance that day when Liverpool dared to dream of the title, netting the winner in an epic 3-2 encounter — a strike which Luis Suarez selected as the goal of the season for 2013/14 in his autobiography, “Crossing the Line.”
The tactic from Rodgers was an ingenious one, especially for a player like Coutinho, who places his family above all else.
The ink stretching from his fingers to his bicep form tributes to his parents, two brothers, and his wife Aine; it’s a permanent reminder of those closest to him who have sacrificed so much to aid his success.
During this interview, he constantly surveys his tattoos as he traces his career blueprint and it is clear his support structure are the central theme.
His journey began in Rocha, in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone, in the shadow of the iconic Maracanã stadium.
Coutinho’s modest home was sandwiched between Favela da Mangueira, one of the city’s oldest shantytowns which creeps up the hillside, and small industrial warehouses.
Importantly, it was also close to a concrete pitch, which is where he watched his older brothers Cristiano and Leandro challenge their friends, and where he would later conjure his magic.
“They were always with the ball like most children in the country, and of course, I wanted to be like them,” Coutinho says.
Except he was better, a whole lot better. From the age of six, the squares of stone used by the community became his haven and the streets turned into his playground.
His diet was futsal — a variant of the game employed on smaller fields with a heavier ball and just five or six players per team. With space restricted and the need for skill and improvisation heightened, the diminutive Coutinho flourished.
His family were always there witness to his expertise, but it was the grandmother of a friend who urged Jose Carlos to enrol his son into a football academy.
There was no hesitation from Coutinho’s father, and the gifted youngster joined a local boys team. A few months later, Vasco’s coaches approached the architect at a tournament and encouraged him to get Coutinho to attend a trial with the club.
“I was crying and I didn’t want to play because I was shy,” he remembers of the open day. He held onto his dad in the stands while the other kids warmed up. “I was new to the group, everyone knew each other so I was feeling a little uncomfortable and embarrassed.
“After a short while and some motivation, I was fine. When I actually started to play, it was all normal and natural. I wasn’t shy anymore, I was enjoying it.”
His parents, older brothers and later Aine would follow him everywhere, watching every game.
Their support fuelled Coutinho’s ability and at 16, his big breakthrough arrived. Italian giants Inter Milan paid $7.7 million to secure the services of the teenager, who would continue to develop at Vasco and join them two years later.
Again, his family proved pivotal. “They moved with me to help make the settling easier,” he explains. “But it was hard for them. As they were old, it was difficult for them to learn the language or adapt to a new culture and ways of doing things like I could.
“Aine had to change her entire routine, my dad had to quit his job which was painful because he loves to be busy. My parents eventually moved back to Brazil, so since then it has been me and my wife, although they are always involved.
“If there is something that needs to be done on my behalf back home for example, my brothers take care of it for me. I share everything with my family; all my happiness and success is theirs.”
A LOVE STORY
Aine was 17 when she left all that she knew behind and followed Coutinho to a new continent — and a new life.
She is his axis; his first call when something goes wrong or right. On a match day, it is her voice which encourages and inspires him. Every other day, she is his solace and escape.
“Aine plays a huge part in everything I do,” Coutinho says. “We didn’t study together, we didn’t really have mutual friends, except for one, who had a party and we both went to it. We met there and sat together for a long time just talking. We liked each other and we were both trying to show that to one another, but nothing was happening.”
The childhood sweethearts evolved into life partners and each other’s best friends, but given Coutinho is incredibly reserved the first steps weren’t easy.
“She is not as shy so she asked me to be her boyfriend,” he jokes. “There wasn’t really a moment where we were like, ‘okay we are together now.’
“We’re from the same neighbourhood and so we just started seeing more and more of each other, going places together and it grew deeper and stronger.”
Aine goes to every home game, and as many away days as possible. When he scores, part of his celebration is to always acknowledge her — blowing a kiss in her direction. It is a symbol of his gratitude for all she has sacrificed and the unwavering support she supplies.
NO ROOM FOR FAILURE
It is the love from Aine and his family which assuaged Coutinho’s early fears.
Nagging away at him was an important question: how do you become a professional footballer in Brazil when there are millions who are trying to do exactly the same?
“It’s a shared feeling among boys in Brazil, because it’s like a factory,” he explains. “You have to give everything because there’s an endless supply of talent and the factory is always full.
“It is constantly in the back of your mind that there are millions of kids trying to do the same thing. But what I knew is it wasn’t just about the skill or the technique, you have to be really strong mentally and be very determined to make it.
“Most of the youngsters I grew up playing with do not have a career in the game now. Sometimes people think it is easy to be a footballer but it is hard work that never stops.”
It was at the age of 13 when it dawned on him he might just make a living from football.
“I first thought to myself, ‘Okay, you can actually be a professional’ when I got called up to the Brazil Under-14 squad,” reveals Coutinho.
“I was selected out of so many really talented players, so it was a way of showing me that this could be a career — that I could make it, that I was good at it. At that point I realised I had to start thinking about the game more seriously.”
For all Coutinho’s charisma on the ball, it is his industry which is applauded most by his managers.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, who coached the playmaker during a loan spell at Espanyol in 2012, explained: “Philippe is a Brazilian player and, as it happens with most Brazilians, he has a special magic in his feet.
“Aside from the magic that he has, he also has an amazing work-rate… What’s important about him is he is a good lad, a good kid — a great, humble person. It is really clear to me is that Coutinho is a really responsible player — really dedicated and responsible to his own players.”
A desire to put in the shifts has seen the 22-year-old triumph in situations where others might have crumbled.
His move to Italy, “a dream for any young kid because when we’re growing up, we watch all our idols play in Europe and that’s where we want to be”, was nightmarish in reality. There were injuries and there were times when 90-minute run-outs seemed a figment of his imagination.
“Everything I went through there helped shaped me,” Coutinho insists. “I had some injuries, limited game time and things were not going my way but this was a very, very important period for me.
“It was the hardest point of my career because it was the first time I had been away from home and I had to start proving myself from scratch.”
By the age of 20, the attacker had kitted up in four different countries across two continents, experiencing the most contrasting of cultures and playing styles.
“Because of the difficulties in Italy, I found it easier to adapt in Spain during my Espanyol loan,” he explains.
“With England, the pace and physicality is the biggest factors you have to cope with. I’ve always been a quick thinker, but in the Premier League you also have to react quicker.
“There is no time, and no space just given to you. I try to learn something in every place, in every situation so there is no question that all these different experiences had helped make me the player I am.”
THE GOLD DUST
Those days at Inter are now a distant memory.
Even his 2014 World Cup snub from Brazil feels like an age ago as he is set to star for them in the Copa America — Latin America’s most important tournament — in Chile.
Coutinho has clocked up more than just guaranteed starts for Liverpool and a continued national team spot, he has shimmied and shot his way to accolades and acclaim.
The snaps of his genius during his first season and a half on Merseyside have developed into a full HD picture.
Suarez, now at Barcelona, immediately knew the playmaker would provide the abracadabra after his first few training sessions in January 2013. “Philippe was incredible. He changed us completely,” the striker details in his book.
“He’s the one that gave us faith in having the ball because his technical ability is so good. You knew that he wouldn’t lose it, you knew that he would produce something special with it, that he would always chose the right pass.”
Suarez, often the reference point for Liverpool’s remarkable tilt at the title last season, actually credits Coutinho with the side’s swashbuckling style that took them so close to the Holy Grail of winning the Premier League
“It is amazing to have such a great friend and player say such words about me,” says Coutinho, who is almost overwhelmed by Suarez’s praise. “It is a real honour.”
Suarez isn’t the only one in thrall to Coutinho’s talent.
Pele thinks he’s fantástico, as does Cafu, while Neymar has backed him to become the biggest star in England.
Despite these declarations, there is no sign of pressure and absolutely no sense that the athlete sitting in front of me thinks he’s ‘made it.’
Coutinho welcomes his PFA Player of the Year nomination along with the kind words from top footballers past and present as a reminder that his crusade is still in its infancy.
“I could have never imagined, when playing on that concrete pitch, that I would be appreciated at a club like Liverpool and be the footballer I am today. But there is still a lot for me to learn and do.”
Rodgers has said he is Liverpool’s ‘gold dust’ — the sparkle, the shine, the lustre.
It makes him happy to know that his gifts are making others smile.
Coutinho suggests that this is perhaps a Brazilian thing, and I point to his idol Ronaldinho.
Just the mention of that name and his grin grows greater, his eyes twinkle, his animation levels increase. And that’s the point – he wants people to also feel something when they think of his football.
The virtuoso is already halfway there if the chants from Liverpool supporters and a big banner on the Kop — Liverpool’s famous terrace at its Anfield ground — are an indication.
“It is so hard to define what that means to me,” he says. “It is a very unique and special feeling. It’s incredible when I hear the song, and it is touching that there are people who connect with you.
“I had goosebumps the first time I saw the flag with my face on it because I was really not expecting it. It was a cool surprise, and I want to thank the fans for the effort even to write ‘O Mágico’ [The Magician] in Portuguese.”
It’s been five years since Coutinho left home, and while the weather in Liverpool is anything but familiar, everything else seems to suggest he’s finally found another place he belongs.