‘Everton Never Saw My Best… That Is One Of My Biggest Regrets’
Brazilian Rodrigo joined Everton on a one-year loan in 2002 but a serious knee problem limited the forward to only four substitute appearances.
In an interview originally published in the Club’s matchday programme for this month’s meeting with Tottenham Hotspur, Rodrigo talks about the overwhelming disappointment of never showing his talent at Goodison Park, regret over an ‘immature’ decision to leave, support from Chairman Bill Kenwright, a flirtation with management and surfing big swells.
Juliano Rodrigo’s union with Everton nearly two decades ago began as something of a blind date.
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the relationship would be short-lived and the parting of the ways acrimonious. The player holds up his hands as the sole guilty party in an unhappy split.
Rodrigo regrets not sticking around longer, ticks off his younger self for not having another crack with Everton after one season on loan ruined by a serious knee injury.
“Today, I am much more mature and have experienced a lot in life,” says Rodrigo, who joined Everton on loan from Botafogo in summer 2002.
“I feel bad because I would choose differently and not leave Everton before I made it happen for me at the Club.
“I would persist, even if it would take more time.
“Everton offered a permanent deal but with a salary reduction.
“At that time, I had offers from the biggest clubs in Brazil: Sao Paulo, Corinthians, Flamengo.
“I said, ‘Okay, I will follow my own way’.
“It was a very naïve, immature reaction.”
The suave forward with a tinderbox left foot and dashing good looks arrived at Goodison Park a wholly unknown quantity.
We see next to nothing of Botafogo or Atletico Mineiro in today’s ever-decreasing football world, so what chance Evertonians nearly two decades ago being clued up on a former kingpin of those clubs?
Rodrigo, too, entered the deal sight unseen. Everton receive a decent billing in Brazil today as employers of two of the country’s highest-profile players in Richarlison and Allan.
Asked what he knew of Everton prior to joining as a 25-year-old, Rodrigo answers succinctly.
On both sides, however, there was well-founded optimism over the potential for a mutually beneficial coming together.
Rodrigo top-scored for Brazilian Serie A team Botafogo in 2000 and 2001 and maintained an impressive strike rate on loan with Atletico Mineiro the season prior to signing for Everton.
The lone red flag came in the form of what Rodrigo calls a “partial right knee injury”, sustained at Mineiro, which forced the player’s withdrawal from the Brazil squad that would win the 2002 World Cup.
“I scored 13 goals in 23 games for Atletico Mineiro and was flying,” says Rodrigo.
“My name was being talked about. Originally, I was going to Middlesbrough but my agent, Lee Payne, arranged a meeting with [manager] David Moyes at Everton.
“I felt really excited right from our first discussions – and that there was no limit to my potential with Everton.
“It was going to be a pleasure.
“This is why I have a strange feeling about my time at Everton.
“I had this injury soon after I came and it changed everything in my career.
“It was hard for me that I couldn’t play how I did in my whole life before that point.”
Rodrigo sends two videos after this interview to stand up his assertion over a marvellous talent that was snuffed out in England by that blasted knee.
“Talk is cheap,” asserts Rodrigo, “when you can see what was there, it is more interesting.”
Sure enough, there he is in the black and white of his two former teams in Rio, Botafogo and Mineiro, scoring a pic n mix of breathtaking goals.
I felt really excited right from our first discussions – and that there was no limit to my potential with Everton. It was going to be a pleasure.
There is subtlety and brute force in the shooting from both feet and forceful and fast running with and without the ball.
“I was a very strong shooter,” says Rodrigo.
“I used both feet and controlled the pace of games with my technical skills.
“I could be aggressive in the one moment that makes the difference, the strike on goal.
“It was a big regret for me I couldn’t show these things at Everton.”
Rodrigo had a comfortable upbringing in Santos, home to Pele for most of an iconic playing career and a city that “lives and breathes football”.
The young playmaker was captivated by the sport but progress was more steady than speedy.
He made a senior first-team debut for Portuguesa Santista – the Sao Paulo club where a knee-high Neymar first pulled on a pair of boots – at the age of 20, some years after a coach pushed down hard on the player’s buttons.
“There was a specific moment when I realised I had a real possibility of playing professionally,” says Rodrigo.
“I was 13 or 14 and met a coach who would go on to produce a lot of talents including Neymar, Robinho, Diego (former Werder Bremen and Brazil midfielder).
“He said to me, ‘You won’t be a professional. You come from a family that already provides you with everything, you won’t pay the price’.
“At that time, I was the best player from my age group.
“I realised he was challenging me mentally and I always work very intensely for my passions in life.”
Rodrigo would have a few more erroneous perceptions to correct. He topped a poll designed to identify Brazil’s most attractive footballer in 2001, the sort of thing that led to murmurs about a player distracted by off-field pursuits.
Rodrigo, an unwitting participant in the competition, crushed those accusations under a weight of goals.
It is widely believed today that he uses the name Rodrigo Beckham on social media as a nod to a flash existence. The moniker was in fact chosen to obtain an Instagram blue tick.
Rodrigo employed his resolve to overcome an indifferent loan with top-division Guarani in 1997, joining Gama in Serie B for a prolific season that culminated in promotion.
“It felt like mission accomplished, we got into Serie A and I was the top striker,” says Rodrigo.
“That was when I arrived, when I was born into soccer.”
Rodrigo evolved over the following three seasons and was given the opportunity to cure his despondency at missing the 2002 World Cup when Everton expressed an interest.
Moyes took the player to the Club’s Austrian pre-season camp before, back in England, Rodrigo showed enough in a 56-minute outing against Shrewsbury Town for the manager to sanction a loan arrangement four days later.
Rodrigo scored a penalty at Wrexham in another friendly before a competitive debut on the opening day of 2002/03 – the South American replacing Li Tie five minutes before Tomas Radzinski struck an 81st-minute equaliser to secure a 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park.
“I don’t remember too much about my performance, only that I came on for a short period and we scored to equalise,” says Rodrigo.
“But I clearly recall the atmosphere, it was supreme.
“Goodison Park was like a temple. It was such a shame for me I didn’t have the chance to play there more.
“Everything when I arrived at Everton was very special for me.
“It was a very rich experience, with a completely different way of playing.
“I already spoke some English. I could understand everything and always found a way to express what I wanted to say.”
Curiosity over the new recruit – who brought his own physiotherapist and a personal assistant to Merseyside – was intensified by Rodrigo’s nationality, with the English game embarking on a more cosmopolitan era.
Rodrigo was the first of six Brazilians to play for Everton. Prior to his arrival, only eight men from the country had performed in the Premier League. At last count, close to 100 Brazilians have featured in the competition.
Rodrigo’s first session at the Club’s old Bellefield training ground was “very competitive… your teammates want to confront and test you”.
“But everyone was friendly,” continues Rodrigo. “Kevin Campbell, what a nice guy, and others like Radzinski and [Alessandro] Pistone and Duncan Ferguson.
“The first time on the grass with the ball, exchanging passes, was very interesting. The quality was high.”
Rodrigo singles out midfielder Thomas Gravesen for praise – “his delivery of the ball was incredible” – and reverentially recalls the iron-lunged Chinese Li Tie.
“Wow, that guy could run,” he says.
Rodrigo barely had a chance to demonstrate the skill and endurance he admired in others before the training accident that grounded a career ready for take-off.
I clearly recall the atmosphere, it was supreme. Goodison Park was like a temple. It was such a shame for me I didn’t have the chance to play there more.
He made three more substitute appearances – in a home game against Birmingham City and matches at Manchester City and Southampton – and, according to Moyes, “was just about ready to make a start”.
“I was feeling so good and enjoying myself,” confirms Rodrigo.
“My relations with the group when we trained and played were excellent and I was very excited about what could happen.”
Explaining the incident that scuppered the player, Moyes said: “We were having a small-sided game and the keeper threw the ball out to him and he went to control with his chest.
“He turned at the same time and his knee went from under him.”
The image in Rodrigo’s mind’s eye is more simplistic: “I jumped and when I landed, I completely ruptured my ACL,” he says.
“I immediately knew it was serious because of the pain.”
Rodrigo opted for treatment from his national team doctor.
“Today, I am 45 and would do a lot of things differently,” he continues.
“I would not have the operation in Brazil.
“I stayed for a couple of months after surgery to continue my rehab and progress was not so good.
“It was a worrying time, a very hard experience to live.
“My football was going so well, I didn’t need such an injury at that time.
“It causes you a bad feeling. You know you have so much to develop and deliver but you are hurt.”
Chairman Bill Kenwright, confides Rodrigo, provided uplifting support.
“He talked to me and understood how I was feeling, my frustration about the injury and rehabilitation process,” says Rodrigo.
“I liked him a lot, I liked his personality. He gave me a lot of confidence.”
The angst over a ponderous healing process was partially responsible for Rodrigo’s muddled judgement when deliberating over his future in summer 2003.
He played a game on trial for Leeds United at York City but ultimately returned to Brazil with Corinthians.
“I was full of questions in my head about how I could perform when I was recovering,” says Rodrigo.
“Everything was happening so slowly for me.
He [Kenwright] talked to me and understood how I was feeling, my frustration about the injury and rehabilitation process. I liked him a lot, I liked his personality. He gave me a lot of confidence.
“I didn’t know when I left England but the worst was yet to come.
“My range of movement was limited, I couldn’t completely extend my knee, nor fully bend it back.
“I started to have an imbalance and a lot of muscle problems. I had calf and hamstring injuries.
“My mentality started to suffer, I was thinking, ‘Why am I having injury after injury?’
“I didn’t know but my operation hadn’t been so good.
“I went to see a different doctor and he told me I needed another surgery.”
The second operation enabled Rodrigo to continue playing but, at 27, he’d been stripped of the assets that in 2002 led majestic Brazil 1970 World Cup-winning forward Jairzinho to declare: “Whoever gets Rodrigo will be very lucky. He possesses a good shot and is a fine dribbler and very fast.
“He has a good left foot and is very talented.”
Rodrigo was “not in my best condition but a little bit better” after leaving Corinthians for Juventude in 2005 but his stay at the new club was brief. “I had a problem with the coach,” he sighs, “we had different opinions about the relationship between coach and players.”
The player would bounce between another five clubs in four years – “a gypsy life” Rodrigo didn’t enjoy – before accepting a unique challenge with Red Bull Brasil in 2010.
Rodrigo combined playing with a role as technical consultant at the small Sao Paulo club, creating the intriguing dynamic of a player hiring his own manager.
“I contracted the coach and many players, working from my house… it was interesting,” deadpans Rodrigo.
He subsequently acquired a diploma in sports management after a gentle prod from a parent about organising life post-football.
“I said, ‘Okay, mum, I will do it for you’,” says Rodrigo, who devotes part of an “intense” schedule today to assisting a friend operating a football agency in Sao Paulo.
“I do many things,” continues Rodrigo. “I worked in financial trades. Surfing is one of my biggest passions and I surfed the big swell in Nazare in Portugal.
“I like to travel and be with my friends.
“One of the richest treasures we have in life is our relations.
“I try to flow in my experiences.
“I have a boy, Davi, he is eight and such a love in my life. He lives with his mum but we see each other almost every day.”
My mentality started to suffer, I was thinking, ‘Why am I having injury after injury?’ I didn’t know but my operation hadn’t been so good.
Rodrigo was fleetingly tempted back into frontline football seven years ago. He re-joined Rio team Boavista – where Rodrigo had two playing spells – as assistant manager.
In March 2015, with Boavista staring at the drop from the highest league in the Rio State Championship, Rodrigo was bumped up to the top job.
Boavista rallied to reach a relegation play-off, which they won 5-0 over two legs.
“I never wanted to be a manager but the owner was a long-time friend and asked me to do it,” says Rodrigo.
“I told him I didn’t have the experience but he said, ‘You just don’t know that you know how to do it – go for it’.
“I enjoyed it and continued the next season but we argued about salaries and he recruited someone in my place.”
That saying about better the devil you know is open to question, then. With more fortune and patience, the partnership between Rodrigo and Everton might have worked out just fine.