Wednesday 14 August 2019, 07:28

Wendell Lira: The Puskás Award saved my life

  • The FIFA Puskás Award helped save Wendell Lira from suicide

  • The Brazilian discusses beating Lionel Messi to the prize & it transforming his life

  • He weighs in on The Best FIFA Men’s and Women’s Player races

“I’d already decided I was going to end my life,” Wendell Lira, then a debt-ridden, injury-plagued footballer, candidly told “When you can’t put food on the table, give your daughter and wife the minimum they need to get by… I saw no way out.

“I’d spent the whole night crying. I was going to play a friendly in Goianesia. On the way from Goiania to Goianesia I cried my eyes out, because I’d already planned on ending my life on that journey. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I returned home. I hugged my daughter and knew I couldn’t let her grow up without a father.

“Two days later I got the news I’d been nominated for the Puskás Award. It saved my life, allowed me to turn it around, rewrite my story, win the Puskás, get the opportunities it brought, work and support my family.

“The award came at a really, really crucial moment. Thank God I didn’t end up making that huge mistake.”

Wendell Lira sizzled as a Brazil youth international, alongside Denilson, Willian and Alexandre Pato, and was the subject of a bid from AC Milan which Goias rejected. Two grave knee injuries clobbered the forward's career into freefall, however, and the following years saw him swap clubs as frequently as shorts and receive very little playing time – and, consequently, remuneration.

Wendell was lost at sea. On 6 November 2015, he heard the coastguards’ siren.

“I was having lunch with my mother," he explained. "My phone kept ringing. I thought it was [someone chasing] debts, because I owed a lot, so I didn’t answer.

“But because it kept ringing and ringing, I ended up answering and it was a guy from Goianiense who told me, ‘You’ve been nominated for the Puskás Award!’”

It got even better for Wendell. His gem, scored for unknown Goianesia against Atletico Goianiense, in front of 297 spectators in Campeonato Goiano, went from the ten-goal FIFA Puskás Award shortlist to the final three – and booked the Brazilian a trip to Zurich for the awards.

His competition came from no less than Lionel Messi, who slalomed five challenges to score a belter against Athletic Bilbao, and Alessandro Florenzi for his stupendous, 50-yard strike against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League.

“At first I didn’t think I had a chance of winning,” Wendell admitted. “I looked at Messi’s Instagram and thought he was certain to win on votes because he had so, so many fans.

“But then everybody in Brazil got behind me, started campaigning for my goal. Everyone kept stopping me in the street telling me I was going to win.

“It reached a point where I started to believe it myself. I got carried by the wave and travelled to Zurich believing that I had a chance of winning.

“But just to be going to the awards was a fairytale. I went to meet Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, of whom I'm a huge fan.

"Me and my wife, we spent the first five, six years of our marriage in difficult circumstances. We didn’t have much money. We’d never had a honeymoon. So when I discovered I was in the final three, I said, ‘Ludymila, let’s have fun, take lots of photos, see a new country.’ That trip was our honeymoon."

When Hidetoshi Nakata read out his name as the victor, Wendell, overcome with emotion, bowed his head, before turning to embrace his sobbing wife.

“Even today, I still can’t believe it,” he said. “It was a fairytale. I don’t know if in 15 or 20 years it will sink in: that I beat Messi to win the Puskás Award. Leaving my name in football history is something that means so much more to me than money ever could.

“My daughter was only two years old at the time, but she’s six now and people always tell her she’s the daughter of Wendell Lira who scored the most beautiful goal of the year.

“The other day she came home from school and said, ‘Dad, all my friends want your trophy – can I give it to them?’ (laughs) I said, ‘No, Marcela – this belongs to daddy.’

“The Puskás Award changed my life. It gave me the momentary fame to be able to back myself to quit football and say, ‘I’m going to become a YouTuber and a gamer.’ ”

Wendell became a professional EA Sports FIFA player and a celebrated YouTuber.

Wendell’s fellow previous FIFA Puskás Award recipients are Cristiano Ronaldo, Hamit Altintop, Neymar, Miroslav Stoch, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, James Rodriguez, Mohd Faiz Subri, Olivier Giroud and Mo Salah, but whose goal does he believe was the most breathtaking?

“Every one of them was beautiful, but for me Neymar’s goal was the best,” Wendell said. “Such magic! He used genius, ability, creativity and improvisation. He improvised everything so rapidly. It was unbelievable.”

You can vote now for The Best FIFA Men’s Player and The Best FIFA Women’s Player. Wendell knows where his votes are going.

“If you look at his statistics, you simply have to mention Messi, but Van Dijk was incredible,” he said. “Nobody could get past him.

“I’ve never seen a centre-back do what he did. I’m 30 years old. I caught a bit of [Fabio] Cannavaro at his peak and he was a great player, but I don’t believe Cannavaro was as good [in 2005/06] as Van Dijk was last season.

“He was fantastic. He stopped some of the best players in football history and helped Liverpool win [the UEFA Champions League]. Van Dijk would be my pick.

“For the women, I’m sad that Marta’s not there. She’s the Pele of women’s football. But Rapinoe was exceptional at the World Cup. As well as being an outstanding player, she showed that she has everything a player needs to be the best in the world: character, belief, confidence.

“She had the firm belief to say that the United States would be champions. She didn’t just talk – she backed it up on the pitch. She truly deserves the award.”