Wendell Lira’s palms are sweaty. It is the eve of the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2015 Gala, and the Brazilian forward’s unease is down to nervous expectation and the fact he is unused to holding the object he has in his hands, which to him is a trophy in itself.
The item in question is a large black and white photograph of himself, which he has been asked to sign and with which he is posing for a photo session, a procedure that all the Gala nominees are required to go through but which appears to mean more to him than any of them.
Unsure as to how to hold the portrait, Lira, who would step up a day later to collect the 2015 FIFA Puskás Award as the scorer of the goal of the year, could barely contain his excitement at it all: “It’s just fantastic! You just don’t think that someone could come up with something like this.”
He added: “I don’t think people realise what it is to come from the province of Goias, in the Brazilian interior, and to live out a dream like this on account of a goal you’ve scored in the regional championship.” That goal, a spectacular spinning bicycle-kick, was scored in front of 297 spectators on the cool and rainy evening of 11 March 2015 at the Estadio Serra Dourada in Goianesia.
By the time it had out-polled Alessandro Florenzi’s strike for Roma against Barcelona and Lionel Messi’s against Athletic Bilbao, Lira’s wonder goal had received nearly 1.4 million views on FIFA’s YouTube channel. “Seriously? I never thought there’d be so many,” he replied. “It’s really nice because it’s almost like it’s putting Goianesia, which is really small, on the map. I’m delighted for my whole province, quite apart from what it means to me personally.”
His life-changing strike came while on duty for Goianesia Esporte Clube, helping them secure a 2-1 win over Atletico Goianiense in the state championship. A Brazilian fourth division club, Goianesia are based in the city of the same name, which has a population of 66,000 and lies 170 kilometres from the state capital, Goiania.
Unfortunately for the 27-year-old forward, he was released by the club at the end of the competition, and it was not until lunchtime on 6 November that a fresh opportunity came his way. It all happened at his mother’s house, where his efforts to polish off a nice plate of rice and beans were thwarted by a succession of phone calls and text messages.
Taking up the story, he said: “People were all talking about ‘Puskás’ and I thought it was some kind of joke. I just tried to ignore it, but it was impossible. I’d never seen anything like it. In the days after the shortlist with the ten finalists came out I got 300 calls from all over the place.”
One of those calls came from Vila Nova, a Goiania-based club playing in the national second division and with whom Lira had been negotiating for some time. They were not the only club to contact the player with a firm offer, however. Already something of a fairytale, his story has since taken on an extra dimension with his trip to Zurich.
“I’ve only been out of Brazil once before, for an U-20 tournament in Japan, and my wife has never been abroad at all, so it’s been a celebration for us ever since we stepped on the plane,” said the player when asked if he is feeling the effects of the 20-hour flight from Goiania to Switzerland. “Just coming here and having the chance to meet someone like Messi and sit close to him is special in itself, but if someone had told me that my goal would beat his, I wouldn’t have believed them. Even now, I only know it’s real because of that.”
Lira nods at the trophy, which he clutches with both hands, moist again with perspiration. And once again, he looks uncertain as to what to do with it, as if it had just dropped out of the sky. “It’s heavy,” he said. “A lot more than you’d think.”