When Lucas Leiva speaks of the difficulty of coming directly from Brazilian football to the English Premier League, those not in the know could easily mistake it for excuses.
Indeed, his arguments make such sense that they could be a legitimate justification for anyone wishing to explain why success eluded them. However, that is not the situation here. Rather it is a case of how, despite all the difficulties, the Liverpool defensive midfielder became a success story in England.
“I was 20 when I arrived in English football back in 2007. I was coming from Gremio where I’d already had first-team football,” the 26-year-old explained to FIFA.com. “I felt as if I was moving at 50 km/hour while everyone else on the field was at 100.
"I wasn’t prepared for that and needed to develop both physically and tactically," Leiva said. "That’s why many players choose not to go directly from Brazil to England. In Spain and Portugal, and even in Italy, the pace of the game is different.
"So much so, in fact, that early on I performed better in Champions League games than in the Premiership. In terms of the speed of the game, it was like going from one extreme to the other.”
Yet for all that, Lucas adapted. Indeed it was due precisely to this different match tempo in England that he changed from the midfielder who thrilled Brazilian football in 2006 and 2007 into a player with an entirely different remit.
“With Gremio I carried an element of surprise, and on many occasions operated practically as a central midfielder," said Leiva. "However, due to the pace of the Premier League, I changed positions. Even though I was 20, I couldn’t cope with the demands of joining the attacks and tracking back all game long. [The then Liverpool coach Rafael] Benitez soon realised that I felt more comfortable playing in a deeper role, winning back possession and starting attacks,” recalled the now fully fledged defensive midfielder.
“Nowadays I’m so comfortable with this position that it feels like I’ve always operated in it. I am, without question, a more complete player now because, should the match scenario require it, I can even play a more attacking role."
Fight for international football
That is not to say, though, that things were straightforward for Lucas in England. In the face of a challenge he gradually overcame – that of moving straight from Brazilian to English football – he found a way to adapt, in the process becoming a more effective and complete player.
He became an undisputed starter at one of the most successful clubs of all time as well as a fan favourite, culminating in his signing another long-term deal with the Reds this year. Having overcome the odds to succeed at Anfield, the player can now turn his attention to the only thing missing at the moment: international football.
It sounds strange to be talking about a possible international call-up for someone who made his first full Seleção appearance six years ago and looked set to make the No5 jersey his own after the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. However, after holding down a starting berth for a considerable period under Mano Mezezes, including during the 2011 Copa America, a severe cruciate injury to his left knee in December 2011 changed Leiva's outlook completely.
Not only did Leiva spend almost a year on the sidelines – a period during which he admitted fearing for his very career – but just as he was on the mend, Menezes was replaced by Luiz Felipe Scolari. The new Brazil coach used those early call-ups to shape the side that would win this year’s FIFA Confederations Cup, and Lucas would play no part in it.
“Of course I think about that and it upsets me," Leiva said. "I think to myself: I was so much part of the Seleção – I seemed to be guaranteed a berth. Naturally the injury affected that process, but I don’t want to give up as I’ve always been clear that this is something I want to achieve in my career.
"Anyone who has been part of the national team always wants to go back. It’s such a great thing,” Lucas said. The player will be hoping a good 2013/14 season, which he started promisingly with a fine opening-day performance for Liverpool at the weekend, can help him overcome the odds and fulfil his Seleção goal.
“I know the nucleus of the team is pretty much there and the chances of breaking into the side are slim. That said I’m still hopeful I’ll get another opportunity at least, especially if I can help Liverpool have a good campaign. I know it will be difficult, but I’ll keep on believing.”
Difficult and unlikely yes, but that was also how Lucas described the chances of someone making a successful transition from Brazilian to English football, and we know just how well he did on that front.