Long Reads

Diego Carlos’ dead-end had a way out

Have you ever reached that point when everything that happens around you makes you believe that life has another plan? That point when you have invested everything in what you are truly passionate about but it seems that things just don’t go your way? That stage where you have to take a tough decision and responsibility weighs on you so much that you are so scared to take that step forward?

Have you ever experienced that moment when you had to pick between your dream and your family? I am talking about that point when your ego triumphs over everything that you hold dear. That situation where you leave everything back and you already know that it could pull you into pieces any given day.

When Diego Carlos had his back to the wall back in 2014, he decided to follow his gut and, fast-forward six years, he became one of the most sought-after centre-backs in European football. But it still hurts.

“It’s very difficult and very complicated because I have many dreams and day by day we have to surpass ourselves,” Diego Carlos told Sevilla’s media earlier this season, tears rolling down his face.

“My parents give me strength. I know that I am on the right path and I am doing things right. If they are happy, I am even happier.”

Pain, tears, pride, happiness – all these emotions running through him like a whirlwind in his head when the club showed him a video of his parents back in Brazil. At once, Diego Carlos looked back and memories started flowing.

“I had a very happy childhood, [as] I never stopped playing or enjoying things despite the difficulties,” he said. “My parents taught me a lot.”

He remembered those days when he was still a kid in São Paulo and had to wake up at six in the morning, ride his bicycle and head to work at a furniture factory. He would finish around 5pm, hop on his bike, ride to training and then back at home, where he would eat something fast before going to school.

He also recalled that day. It was the day that changed his life. One of these moments that you may not realise that it was one of the most important you have ever experienced until many years later when you will have the time to take a deep breath, let everything that surrounds you pause for a second and take a trip down the memory lane.

That day, Diego Carlos went with his best friend to be tested out for a local club, América-SP. When he showed up barefoot at the training, the coach asked him to put on his boots. Diego Carlos innocently replied that he had no boots. The man offered to lend his boots but warned him that they were three numbers larger than the youngster’s size. Who cares? Diego Carlos just wanted to play football.

“He saw that I was good, but I couldn’t play because I didn’t have money to pay the team,” he added. “They let me stay for free and that’s where it all started.”

At América-SP he played as a forward but when Desportivo Brasil came knocking, they asked him to join the team under one condition: he had to shift to centre-back.

“I had doubts because it is complicated,” he recalled. “Every goal that you concede is our fault (laughs). I went to talk to my father, who was against me moving, but even so I went there.”

While at Desportivo Brasil, he would hear for the first time the phrase that would hunt him for years to come, but one that he recalls with laughter nowadays. “Unfortunately, you will have to move as there is no space for you here,” they would tell the 20-year-old before loaning him out to São Paulo.

“When I went to São Paulo, nobody knew me,” he confessed in an interview for LaLiga TV. “I was just another player. After six months, I was able to participate in two competitions with São Paulo’s B team. I was able to play like a starter. I enjoyed it, along with the opportunities. My career really took off there.”

After spending six months at the reserves, he made the leap to the seniors for whom he played until the end of the season. However, São Paulo had as many as seven centre-backs in their squad and, once again, there was no room for Diego Carlos. He was at a dead-end and all he knew was that it was time to sit down and make a decision that would alter the course of his life for better or worse.

“I had already known it would be difficult to gain playing time,” he admitted. “I spoke to my agent and I told him that I want to go to Europe. I wanted to be with a club that would give me the opportunity to play.

“I knew I wanted to play in Europe. I had to give it my all. I knew that if I didn’t put it all on the line, I’d have to go back to Brazil and I didn’t know what that would do to my career.”

In 2014 he boarded the flight for the transatlantic trip to Portugal to join Estoril. However, his path into Europe was not filled with roses. The Portuguese club asked him to move on loan to gain more experience and Diego joined Porto B in September of the same year.

At Porto, he met one of the men who would mark his career: Julen Lopetegui. “When he arrived in Porto I was at the reserves,” Diego Carlos told AS years later. “I was one of the players who he would always ask to join the first team training.”

Diego Carlos went on to play 19 games for Porto B before moving back to Estoril, who would monitor their player’s progress during his loan spell. Following his return, Diego Carlos established himself as a starter at Estoril. The 2015/16 campaign was a huge turning point for the Brazilian, who played as many as 34 games of top-flight football and netted two goals.

Several European clubs placed him on their radar, but it was Nantes who moved faster and acquired his services in exchange for an estimated two millions euros. Although he struggled at the beginning to adapt to a new language and new surroundings, he mustered as many as 108 games in all competitions with the French club and gradually became one of the stand-out centre-backs in Ligue 1.

There were two moments that marked his spell at the French side, one of them exceedingly surreal and the other particularly sad. The first involved a referee, one red card and a profoundly nonsense kick.

It was back in January 2018, when Nantes faced Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade de la Beaujoire. The visitors had hit the counter and Diego Carlos was on his way back to defence when he accidentally knocked over the referee Tony Chapron.

A potentially funny moment for both fans at the stands and post-game shows viewers suddenly turned into the oddest bit of action of the season. While on the ground, Chapron kicked the Nantes defender before standing up, showing him the second yellow card and sending him off.

Diego Carlos couldn’t believe what had just happened. Neither did the fans nor his teammates who complained to the referee to no avail.

Following the incident, the French football league (LFP) rescinded his second yellow card and suspended Chapron.

“During the Nantes-PSG match, I was barged by Nantes player Diego Carlos,” read his statement. “As a result of the impact, I felt a sharp pain from a recent injury. I reacted badly by moving my leg towards the player.”

Although Diego Carlos may look back and laugh at the incident with Chapron, the other moment that marked his time at Nantes would give him a great wound.

On January 21, 2019, his teammate Emiliano Sala would board a plane to travel to Wales and join his new team, Cardiff City. Two days before, he went from Cardiff to France to say goodbye to his teammates before embarking on his new adventure. This farewell would be forever.

“I called him, I called [again] and he did not answer to me,” a crying Diego Carlos told Antena 3 ten months after his friend’s death. “I saw that the plane had not arrived. I came home, I meditated in bed and I cried. My son asked me, ‘what’s wrong with you dad?’ I didn’t know what to say. ‘Dad has lost a friend, a great friend.’

“Emiliano was an incredible person. Very happy. Every day we came to train he was smiling. I always follow people who always want to go further than their limit, who do everything to achieve their dreams. This was Emiliano.”

His friend’s passing away hurt him a lot but at the same time Nantes proved to be a platform through which Diego Carlos would show off his qualities and many European clubs took notice.

A queue of potential suitors began to form, but between them there was a man whose name is the first that would pop up to your mind whenever you enter into a discussion about transfer bargains. Enter Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo, alias Monchi.

Monchi, who was always fond of the French market, had already tried to sign Diego Carlos when he was a sporting director at Roma. Although he didn’t manage to lure him to Rome, the Brazilian was his first signing upon his return back to his beloved club, Sevilla.

When he signed Diego Carlos, Monchi knew exactly what he was getting: a player who had the skills to build play from the back, a centre-back with the physical characteristics of a bull, an imposing defender like no other in LaLiga Santander – a man who “is stronger than the vinegar” as his former teammate, Nolito, has emphatically pointed out.

“I only go to the gym to do some stretching,” Diego Carlos told Sevilla’s media. “No machines. I look at other players, I talk to them, but no [muscular] hypertrophy [workouts].”

Sevilla signed Diego Carlos in exchange for a reported 15 million euros and has set his buyout clause at 75m euros with his contract running until 2024. In Diego Carlos, the Andalusian side found exactly what they were missing.

“I am a person who is always prepared for everything, with my humility and my professionalism,” he told Diario de Sevilla. “I do my best for my club. If I have to sprint across the field, I will do it. I will do everything for my teammates and for my club.”

The Brazilian adapted very fast to his new surroundings and he became Sevilla’s ‘El Muro’ – the Wall. To do so, he was helped by an old acquaintance, Lopetegui, who established him right away as his first-choice centre-back.

In his first season at Sevilla, he is already considered as one of the best defenders in a league that boasts the likes of Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Raphael Varane. It shouldn’t sound strange that elite clubs such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Barcelona have already emerged as potential suitors.

As Diego Carlos himself boldly put it in an interview with MARCA back in February 2020: “For me the [prototype of the] perfect centre-back is Diego Carlos.”

When he was asked to make the toughest decision in his life, he didn’t shy away. Diego Carlos saw the dead-end but knew that there was a way out. And what a trajectory that was.

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