NOTICEABLY QUIET AND EMOTIONALLY DETACHED, when young Casemiro finally opened up about what had been tormenting him since he was a boy, he told his mother Magda one day while playing of how he had long wondered why his father was never there. A mere three years old, Casemiro, Magda, and his two little brothers had been left to fend for themselves in the poorest neighbourhood of São José dos Campos, a small rural city a couple of hours northeast of São Paulo.
Their shack of a house was so small that it didn’t have space for the four of them. At night, the boy would go to his aunt’s or his grandmother’s to sleep, meaning that the first time he had ever had a room to call his own was when he headed to the big smoke to bunk at the São Paulo FC training centre as a hand-picked 14-year-old.
Separated from his family for the first time, with neighbours recalling how he would wait in front of their house longing for Magda’s return home from work at no older than five years of age, the teen prospect contracted hepatitis and was interned on a hospital ward for three months with both mother and son often crying, praying and separated by a hundred kilometres.
At 18, already a face in the Estádio do Morumbi, Casemiro stumbled. Dazzled by fame and money, he indulged in fast cars and fast women; a night owl lost in the headlights. Once an athletic prodigy, his game “collapsed” as one former coach put it, adding that the youngster had “lost his focus” to boot.
But Casemiro, known in the Bernabéu changing rooms as ‘Case’, learned his lesson on the path to becoming one of the world’s best defensive midfielders, additionally referred to as ‘Casemito’ by adoring teammates on the back of his dominant performances, with ‘mito’ representing both the Spanish and Portuguese word for ‘myth’. A fable. A legend.
His real name, though, is Carlos Henrique Casimiro. Initiating his career as Casimiro, his surname was printed incorrectly on his team shirt and had him enter the field as Casemiro. His debut display was of such a high quality, though, that, ironically for a player who masterfully assumes the responsibility of tidying up other’s errors, he preferred not to jinx his form and stuck with the incorrect spelling making it his own.
“He always had a problem. To become [USA 94 and La Liga-winning Deportivo legend] Mauro Silva. But only he knew it,” recalled Real Madrid director general José Ángel Sánchez, who oversaw the then-21-year-old’s loan move from São Paulo in January to the B team. Already having seen plenty na vida, he wowed club officials and had them keeling over with laughter exerting confidence beyond his years. “Give me five games and I’ll show you that I deserve to be a starter,” he demanded.
Despite making his full first-team team debut less than three months later, this requested succession of matches didn’t come. Not yet anyway. Casemiro wasn’t ready and was shipped out on loan to Porto after having made an impression in a Champions League encounter with Dortmund in a tie the Brazilian international believes “changed [his] life”.
Hammered by four memorable Robert Lewandowski goals in the 2012/13 semi-final, the following season provided Real with a chance to extract their revenge in the quarters. Taking a 3-0 lead to the Westfalenstadion, the Spaniards were almost turned over by two first-half goals in 13 minutes from Marco Reus as Dortmund looked likely to achieve a third and fourth at any given moment.
Although he had come on 10 minutes from time in the first leg, Casemiro was given a run-out with 17 minutes to spare in the return fixture, and with much more on the line this time round. “I told myself: ‘Casemiro, do not miss this opportunity’, and I didn’t,” he recanted to UOL Esporte, putting on a quick clinic in defensive tempo control and securing a semi-final berth against defending champions Bayern Munich, who had overcome Dortmund at Wembley a year before after they too had spanked Spanish opposition in Barcelona.
However, 2014 was to be the year that pride was restored for Iberian football with Real humbling Bayern 5-0 on aggregate to set up an all-Spanish, all-Madrid final. La Décima was finally landed, and Casemiro picked up a Champions League winners medal with six appearances in the campaign, yet sadly did not make the bench at the Estádio da Luz.
A lone season at Porto gave Casemiro the most playing time in Europe up until now, marking four goals in 40 appearances and helping the Portuguese outfit reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League whereupon a 6-1 defeat at home to Bayern sullied an otherwise positive spell. That summer, on 5 June to be exact, Real swiftly activated his buy-back clause and tied him to a contract due to expire in 2021 in a move instructed by new manager Zinedine Zidane.
His generation’s finest player, allowed to flourish and express his full creative capabilities thanks to the relentless efforts of Claude Makélélé for both Real and France, Zidane recognised identical qualities in Casemiro to accommodate the attacking intentions of national teammate Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and captain Sergio Ramos across the back line in addition to, of course, what is arguably modern football’s finest central midfield pairing of Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, either alongside or in front of him.
In his first season as a Los Blancos regular, Casemiro played a vital part in Zidane’s plans, featuring in 11 European fixtures as Madrid overcame Atlético in Milan, this time being crowned Champions League kings as the number 14 featured in all 120 gruelling minutes of a clash eventually decided on penalties. In the build-up, Diego Simeone was asked who posed the biggest threat to Atlético’s chances of achieving retribution. Ronaldo? Bale? Benzema? None of the above. “For the balance of the team, he is without a doubt their most important player.”
Of whom did El Cholo, among his generation’s best midfield enforcers himself, speak? “Casemiro’s presence forces the opposition to regroup better and be the superior force,” said the Argentine, who like many others had first been impressed by a dominant performance in the 2-1 Clásico win over Barcelona in the Bernabéu months prior. “He has changed the face of Madrid.”
And the face of Brazil as well. Simeone’s exact words were mimicked without the slightest shred of bitterness by the man Casemiro keeps out of the side when coach Tite opts for just one of the two, Man City midfielder Fernandinho. Seleção captain Miranda is another admirer, the two having played at São Paulo when Casemiro was coming up through the ranks and, along with Marquinhos, likewise providing excellent cover for Marcelo and Dani Alves’ forays into the unknown.
Football is a game of ifs and buts. Many Brazilians were left wondering what could have been if Casemiro had been selected for the 2014 World Cup squad in order to provide much-needed midfield stability and defensive cover, the lack of which was brutally exposed by the Germans in the Mineirão.
Just as Casemiro’s re-signing was one of Zidane’s first lines of action upon his appointment as Real head coach, so was his recalling to the national side at the behest of Tite, with inclusion in Dunga’s B-side of sorts for the centenary 2016 Copa América notwithstanding. A fibula shaft fracture saw him sit out four qualifiers after the foundations of a new-look Brazilian team had been laid out in vital 3-0 and 2-1 away wins in Ecuador and Colombia that temporarily managed to lift the mood of a nation still in the throes of political, social and economic crises.
Donning the yellow and green again in March 2017 for an emphatic 4-1 romp in Montevideo that guaranteed Brazil became the first team other than Russia to qualify for next year’s World Cup was followed up by a 3-0 homecoming parade over Paraguay in São Paulo, albeit in the Arena Corinthians and not the Estádio do Morumbi.
Unable to rest on his laurels, he still had business to conclude at the Bernabéu. Returning to the fold, he played a vital part in key victories that helped Real lift a first La Liga title in five years, as Barcelona wilted and dropped points, in addition to those that paved their way to becoming the first-ever team to clinch back-to-back Champions League trophies.
Before each game, the Madrid and Brazil holding man usually receives a visit from one of his best friends, Oscar Ribot, whose counsel is greatly valued. On the Thursday before the Cardiff finale, Casemiro was as cocksure as ever. “It’ll be a very difficult and tough game.” he said of the tie. “But we’ll win.” This kind of self-belief is nothing new; Ribot further noticed a strong and pure brand of self-esteem that had the volante also proclaiming: “I think I will score.”
At Los Merengues’ hotel in his hometown of Cardiff, teammate Gareth Bale communicated his belief that Casemiro would find his way onto the scoresheet, as did Cristiano Ronaldo. On the eve of the game, Predrag Mijatović, who scored the winner in the 1998 final in Amsterdam, similarly at the expense of Juventus, recalled how he had predicted his own destiny almost two decades earlier. But Casemiro?
Sánchez reminisced how the ball, having rebounded off the boot of Alex Sandro from Toni Kroos’ shot, spilled into no man’s land. “Where are you going, Casemiro?” came the popular cry from Madridistas as their star drilled it into the bottom corner with echoes of a crisp volley against Napoli that had found itself in similar climbs earlier in the tournament.
Just 48 hours earlier, he had decided what his celebration would be – a kiss and holding up of the badge to repay the Madrid faithful for their loyal support. Planning at home and being thrust upon the world stage whilst overcome with emotion are two different things, though. In the end, a crossing of the chest and a kneel was all Casemiro could come up with.
For Marco Asensio’s goal, which sealed the 4-1 victory, Casemiro chose not to celebrate with his contemporaries and threw himself to the ground – praying to the sky in repetition of how he had requested the Lord’s intervention a year ago in Milan during the penalty shootout. There that evening in the San Siro had been his whole family – including those who offered him shelter when there was no room at the inn back at his mother’s house. During those dark days, Dona Magda had encouraged him to orar whenever he faced problems as, no matter how great they were, she was sure Deus could resolve them. Yet in Cardiff, just after half-time with the final deadlocked at 1-1, it was he, Casemiro, who did.
By Tom Sanderson