hen Bruno Guimarães was considering a move to Europe, he was not short of options. Benfica, Arsenal and Atlético Madrid were keen, but Lyon had a card up their sleeve: Juninho Pernambucano. Before moving to France, where he won seven Ligue 1 titles as a player, Juninho had lifted two Brazilian championships and a Copa Libertadores with Vasco Da Gama. The Guimarães family are fanatical Vasco supporter so, when Juninho picked up the phone and told Guimarães that he wanted to make him “the best midfielder in the world”, his destination was sealed.
“Juninho spoke with my father, with my mother and with me. I believe in his word and I believe that I can be one of the best,” says Guimarães via video link from his home in France. “Juninho is a great guy, who won a lot of titles here at Lyon. He was extremely honest with me and my parents. It was a hard choice, but they told us exactly what they wanted.”
The 22-year-old has adapted well to his new surroundings. He won the man of the match award in his first three games for Lyon, including his impressive showing in a 1-0 win over Juventus in the last-16 of the Champions League. Even the language has not proven too big an issue. Some of his teammates have translated the managers’ instructions and others have helped him along by pointing and signalling. The club have provided a translator and he has lessons every day on Skype with a tutor from Brazil.
Finding his feet in football was anything but straightforward, however. After Guimarães was rejected by a series of clubs in his native Rio de Janeiro, his parents Dick and Márcia had to travel 433km to Osasco – a tough, industrial suburb of São Paulo – at dawn every Sunday to see their teenage son play in the youth team of minnows Audax. After a match, the three of them would spend some time together, but Dick and Márcia had to work the following day so back up the highway they went.
As a child, Guimarães played futsal for Flamengo in Rio, but he did not manage to transition to the 11-a-side game. He spent a year at Fluminense, but that did not work out either. He was also discarded by Botafogo. Despite being just a boy, Guimarães told his parents that he was giving up 11-a-side football and would be sticking with futsal.
Yet his father kept pushing him. “He used to be angry at some games, demanding a lot, because he knew my potential,” says Guimarães. “It was good for me. He made jokes, but in a serious way. If we lost a game, I would eat a ham and cheese sandwich and get juice. But, if we won, he would let me eat whatever I wanted. If we lost, I would talk to my mother later in the day and tell her that I was hungry. ‘Give me a burger, for the love of God!’” he recalls with a laugh.
The persistence eventually paid off, with Guimarães earning a move to Série A club Athletico Paranaense in 2017, where he was met with an odd coincidence. The taxi in which Dick and Márcia drove to Osasco each Sunday – and which sustained their family for decades – was number 39 of the rank in Vila Isabel, a northern suburb of Rio. When he arrived at Athletico, he asked his dad which number he should wear. His father replied that 39 had always brought the family luck.
When Guimarães arrived at training the next day, he found out that he had already been assigned the number. He called his father immediately: “Dad, you won’t believe it! They gave me the 39! I didn’t even ask!” With the 39 on his back, Guimarães encountered the good fortune that his father had envisioned, leading Athletico to the Copa Sul-Americana and Copa do Brasil for the first time in the club’s history and being selected as the best defensive midfielder in the country.
When he arrived at Lyon, Guimarães asked Juninho if he could wear the number 39 again. His new employers agreed. “I try not to forget where I came from. I know what I had to go through to be here, to live what I am living. Despite having lifted a few trophies and being young, I want to do it much more. I want to play in the Olympics, at the World Cup and in the Champions League many more times. I want to win, I want to participate.”
Despite his performance against Juventus, it has not all been rosy in his early weeks in Europe. He says that the Coupe de France semi-final against PSG is the game in which he struggled most. It ended 5-1 to PSG, but was even until the hour mark, when Lyon went a man down and conceded a penalty. “Facing Neymar was the hardest,” he says. “They had a great day. It was a great match until the 60th minute, when the penalty was given. We had to go after them. It was a knockout game, in our stadium. But it was also dangerous, as Neymar and Mbappé had an open field to counterattack.”
Lyon are still alive in the Champions League, but Guimarães and his teammates do not know when – or if – they will go to Turin to play for a place in the quarter-finals. Being in quarantine in an unfamiliar land has been a mental struggle. “It is a very bad feeling, because of the form I was in and because of the coronavirus pandemic. We know that it is important to save lives and to stay home, but our mind gets a little messy. This kind of thing happens once in a lifetime and we have to acknowledge it by staying safe. Everybody has to go through this together so we can all go back to our normal activities, doing what we love – which is playing football. There’s a high number of deaths here in France, so that worries me a lot.”
When the Olympics were postponed, Guimarães worried that he would not be able to take part next year due to the age limit of the competition. He appealed to the IOC and Fifa in a video. “The appeal was not just for me, but for every footballer born in 1997. We’ve been training and thinking about the Olympics for more than a year. It is a situation that we cannot control, which is why I asked them to raise the age limit. So many players would not be able to play, like Lautaro [Martínez] for Argentina; [Ousmane] Dembélé, for France; David Neres, Richarlison, Lucas Paquetá, me, Matheus Cunha for Brazil. We all have the dream to play in the Olympics.” He says the decision to let players his age take part next year was “good for football and for the athletes”.
The excitement surrounding the Olympics – to which he will now almost certainly go, having excelled during the qualifying tournament in January – was added to when he was selected for Brazil’s senior team for the first time in March. One of Tite’s staff had watched Lyon beat Juventus, so he knew he had a chance of making the squad. While Guimarães was training, he asked Cláudio Caçapa – a former Brazil defender who now works at Lyon – to listen to the announcement. “I went on to the field and he went to the locker room, but he came back shortly after. ‘You are in, you are in,’ he said, and I was so happy. When he told me, all of the players found out and started to congratulate me.
“It was a defining moment, which I will never forget. After training, I saw the reaction of my family. I started to cry. It was a very emotional moment. Our dream finally came true. This is one of the greatest moments of a player’s career.” With the Olympics next year and the World Cup the following year, Guimarães has plenty to look forward to when football returns. He still has a long way to go to reach the heights Juninho believes he is capable of, but he has already come a long way.