KNOWN AS THE CITY OF LILIES, Florence is the ultimate romantic getaway for anyone who yearns for a peaceful weekend in the tranquil surroundings of Tuscany. With its famous red top buildings, the Uffizi Gallery and the Arno river, it’s one of the most well-known cities on the Italian mainland. Right now, it’s also the home of England starlet Ellie Brazil, formerly a forward for Birmingham City in the FA Women’s Super League.
Like fellow England youngster Katie Zelem, who moved to Juventus during the summer, Brazil was swayed by the lifestyle and culture of Florence and is enjoying her first experience of living and playing abroad. “The first two months I was here it was still summer, so it was gorgeous,” says the 18-year-old. “It’s just a different lifestyle, a few years ago I moved to Birmingham, away from my friends and parents, so it wasn’t something that scared me. It drove me to do it, to gain more independence and gain more life experience.”
Understandably, being a young teenager walking into a Fiorentina side that won Serie A by eight points last season, Brazil’s minutes and starts have been curtailed, but it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm about her experiences in Florence so far. “It’s going well in the sense of getting experiences that I would never have got in England,” she says. “I obviously wish I was playing more than I am, but I think that will come.
“The Italian is coming on slowly. Coming here meant promising my parents I would learn Italian, and I do enjoy it. Italian in general is a lot more culture than actually learning the language, they’re so driven by their culture more than anything.”
Despite the obvious language barrier, Brazil is consoled by the fact her coach and many of her teammates speak English, but she says she “appreciates” the fact she has to try hard to learn a new language when moving to their country. “The coach speaks English but the manager doesn’t, so it’s still a bit of a translation phase there. A lot of the girls speak English, but they’re very strict on the fact they want me to learn Italian. I’ve moved to their country so I have to mould myself into their lifestyle and their culture. I’m learning the keywords on the pitch. Shoot, turn, pass, left, right, up, down. The main things you need to know on the pitch, I’ve finally nailed those.”
For those who don’t know Ellie Brazil, some may at least recognise the surname. Far from just being the name of a country who happen to have won five World Cups, 18-year-old Ellie is the daughter of former Preston North End, Fulham and Newcastle United player Gary Brazil, who was also caretaker boss of Nottingham Forest earlier this year.
Ellie’s older brother, Jack, is currently coaching out in the Cayman Islands, so there was never any doubt about which sport she’d end up in, despite testing out tennis, badminton, table tennis and athletics as a child. “Football started when I was born,” she says. “I was born into a family obsessed with football. My brother looked up to my dad and I think when I was born he wanted a boy so he turned me into one.
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“From the age of three, I was in goal in the back garden with him pelting balls at me. But I always loved football, I could play it with my brother, my dad and eventually my friends. My brother has been my biggest fan since day one and he’ll always be my biggest fan. He’s doing incredibly well out in Grand Cayman and he’s always been amazing with me, he supports me better than anyone.”
At 15, Brazil confesses she had a big decision to make over which discipline her future lied in. Whilst part of the Derby County academy before her move to Birmingham, Brazil had become a successful young athlete, winning gold in the 800 metres at the 2015 English School’s Athletics Championship, but there was one particular aim which swung her towards kicking a ball around. “The idea of playing at a World Cup was what I thought about. I never expected to be living in Florence, but at that time it was the World Cup that made me choose football.”
Brazil would go on to play in a World Cup just last year, when the under-17 tournament was held in Jordan. “Playing there and seeing your parents in the stands and scoring a goal with your nan in the crowd was an experience I’ll never forget, I’m glad I made the right choice.”
England, under the guidance of head coach John Griffiths, went to Jordan and were dealt a tough hand. Drawn in a group with the mighty Brazil, a talented Nigeria side and eventual winners North Korea, England battled through with a draw and two wins before being knocked out by finalists Japan in the quarter-finals. “That tournament as a whole we went into it like any other team, we wanted to win,” she says. “We had no expectation because we weren’t named as the favourites, we were the underdogs and got given the hardest group, but that drove us even more to say we’d get out of it and that people would know who we were.”
It was a group of players that possibly demanded higher expectations. Brazil herself had broken into the Birmingham City team, whilst Alessia Russo had made her Chelsea debut earlier in 2016. Star player Georgia Stanway was a regular with Manchester City and captain Lotte Wubben-Moy was part of the Arsenal first team. “In that tournament, you saw players play better than they’ve ever done before and it was incredible to be a part of. Whether you were on the pitch, on the bench or in the stands. We were part of a team nobody will forget.”
Regarding England’s 3-0 quarter-final defeat to Japan, Brazil adds: “Going out against the Japanese was hard, we did so well against Korea [drawing 3-3] and we thought they’d be similar to that. After the game we all agreed that we got outplayed, it was heartbreaking, but we also couldn’t put into words what it felt like to get to a quarter-final. We wanted to get to the semi-finals because we felt if we did we could get to the final, so to be that close and not get there was devastating.”
Their next chance though is just around the corner, as the team have qualified for the Under-20 World Cup to be held in France next August. Before that, Brazil and her teammates go to the States next month to face USA, Brazil and Finland in a trio of friendlies to prepare for the tournament.
With usual head coach Mo Marley still taking interim charge of the senior team in the wake of Mark Sampson’s dismissal, former Wales assistant Rehanne Skinner will take the team to Florida. “We’re all very excited, the girls are like a second family,” says Brazil. “We have WhatsApp groups, Snapchat groups, we’re always in contact to see how everyone’s doing.”
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With Brazil now in Italy and several of her teammates having moved to the USA permanently to play college football, the forward is more excited than normal to meet up for the camp. “It will be lovely to see everyone, when I’m with them is when I’m personally happiest, because at my age group I’ve got the best girls in England behind me. Everyone’s very excitable in our group chats at the moment with regards to going to Florida. We didn’t expect to go there just before Christmas and the teams we’ll be playing are World Cup standard.”
Talking to Brazil, there’s also a very real sense the team are keen to make up for a disappointing Under-19 European Championships in August. Held in Northern Ireland, eight teams went head-to-head for the tournament, with the added incentive of five spots available for the U20 World Cup.
England were drawn in Group B with France, Netherlands and Italy, but went out after losing the decisive final group game against France. Coming third in the group meant a play-off for the final World Cup spot against neighbours Scotland, a game the young Lionesses 2-0. Brazil says: “We analysed every game and everything we did to find out what we did wrong and the outcome we came out with was just that we have to put it behind us.
“Our aim was to go out there and qualify for the World Cup. Of course, we all wanted to win the Euro’s, every team does, and we could have won it with the potential we have. A lot was going on at the time but it wasn’t an excuse at all. We lost Georgia [Stanway] to injury, that’s just another fact. She’s a big part of our team and an incredible player, but we’re excited now to be back together and go forward to a World Cup.”
After the World Cup, attention will turn to cracking the senior team for the main young stars among the squad, including Brazil. The squad have seen Keira Walsh and Leah Williamson receive their first call-ups, and Brazil admits the group of friends can’t help but talk about the future on the odd occasion. “We’ve spoken about it now and then, it’s everyone’s dream. You wouldn’t try so hard and go through all these camps if your end goal wasn’t to play for the senior team, and Mo’s end goal is to get us to the senior team.”
Twelve months ago, Brazil was just about finding her feet with Birmingham, making several appearances as the team reached the Continental Cup final in October. After a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City, coaches David Parker and Marcus Bignot stepped down, replaced by academy coach Marc Skinner, who immediately gave Brazil more opportunities early in 2017.
Brazil’s form and talent led to her being handed a start in the biggest club occasion of all, the Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley, just months after her 18th birthday. It was a repeat of the Continental Cup match against Manchester City, but an even more one-sided result, Nick Cushing’s champions running out 4-1 winners.
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“In regards to Marc, I cannot thank that man enough for the opportunities he gave me, but Wembley specifically. It was just incredible, when we were walking around the pitch the day before, it was just like ‘wow’. Me and Charlie [Wellings] were sat there and it felt like we were playing FIFA, it just didn’t seem like it was actually happening.”
With Birmingham trailing 3-0 at half-time, Skinner gave Wellings, a close friend of Brazil’s, the final 25 minutes to soak in the Wembley atmosphere. The change would leave both with a moment to remember, as Brazil set up Wellings for Birmingham’s consolation goal.
“The result might not have gone our way, but it was an experience I’m never going to forget,” recalls Brazil. “Charlie coming on was amazing. Best friends, two youngsters, we always said if we got on together we’d just enjoy it, so when the ball went in the net, that’s a feeling I’ll never forget. Whether it was 3-0 or 15-0, we’d still to this day get excited about that goal. Hopefully one day we can go back there and recreate it, whether it’s for the same team or a different team.”
The way Brazil talks with such enthusiasm about an occasion which for many would be mentally scarring, losing 4-1 on the biggest day of the women’s football calendar, but the England forward’s excitement whilst recalling the moment is a timely reminder of what football is about. “For me, I feel more pressure with the under-19s or 20s, more so than playing in the first team. We were just classed as the babies, there was no pressure on us, we go out and have a laugh and play with our best mates at the highest level. It’s incredible to think we have so much time left in the game and what could happen in the future.”
Brazil adds: “With England it’s different, we thrive off that pressure. We’re a very good group and people expect a lot of us.”
With the first half of the domestic season on a break for the European Championships in Netherlands, the youngsters sat back, watched and waited for their own Euro’s to start the day after the main event was concluded. At the same time, Brazil’s life and career was about to take an unexpected twist, as an offer from Serie A champions Fiorentina arrived.
“I found out Fiorentina were interested during our Euros,” she says. “I was there to do a job so we didn’t go into detail about anything until after the tournament. It was a big decision, the thing that turned me was that in my head I’m 25, I feel like I need to do it all now. I sat down with my parents and my dad said to me, ‘You’re so young, the experience you could get from a year abroad, the new language, the new experience.’ He didn’t say not to take it, but don’t not consider it.”
So Brazil did think about it. She confesses it felt like a long time, but that it was probably around a week before she made her decision and informed Birmingham of her choice to take the offer. “It was horrible,” Brazil recalls. “It was possibly one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, and that’s not me being cliched. Marc is a very supportive guy, he still messages me now to make sure I’m alright, we’re in contact and I watch every Blues game that I can.
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“It was hard to leave the team and leave Marc because he was very good with me, if I’d not played in those games I might not have ended up where I am now.”
Off to Florence it was, and a new challenge to keep Fiorentina at the top of the Italian game and the experience of her first Champions League campaign. With the Florence side and rivals Brescia the two regulars in the Champions League spots available, the competition has been ramped up by the introduction of Juventus to the league, and Brazil’s side now sit third behind their two rivals in the race for the title and European football.
“I do feel like I’m settling into it more now, it’s just the matter of playing more. Age to me isn’t a reason as to why we shouldn’t play, everyone wants to play 90 minutes every game. It’s made me a stronger, more independent person which I enjoy because I don’t have to rely on my parents, I can rely on myself. I’m glad I made the decision I made.”
Brazil doesn’t give the impression her move to Italy is a long-term thing, but accepts moving to a new league and new experiences has given her more of an idea of what she wants to do in the future. “I guess I take things day my day, but being here has made me have a little plan in my head,” she says. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but if there was an opportunity to go elsewhere in Europe or back to England, then I would consider it.
“As much as I love Italy, I’ve come here to learn the technical side of the game. Once I’ve done that and developed that, I do see myself moving on elsewhere. I’m not 100 percent sure where and that’s what’s exciting about the future.”
Despite the lack of minutes, Brazil is now finding her feet with her new team. The forward scored her first league goal last month against Sassuolo, before scoring last week in the Champions League against one of the best teams in Europe – Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg.
Coming off the pitch, Brazil was greeted by a tonne of messages from friends, teammates and journalists back home, as well as the official UEFA Women’s Champions League account. “It is very surreal at times,” she laughs. “But I appreciate it all, when I go on Twitter and see all the support, even from the Birmingham fans, I’ll appreciate that forever. It’s lovely seeing that people are following you, it was just another game but the Wolfsburg match was definitely one I’ll never forget, I can’t just class that as another game.”
Brazil will miss Fiorentina’s big clash against Juventus in December, but she’s hoping to get back down to business and earn more minutes in the new year, and she’s under no illusions about the fact she made the right choice to move abroad. “I always said it would be short-term, I don’t know how short-term, but short-term. But I know I’ve made the right decision, I’m not just learning how to play football, but a new language and growing as a person every day. I’m even learning how to cook, my parents will never believe that I’m learning to cook.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty