The news came late last week that Roberto Firmino, the Brazilian forward who has resided on Merseyside for the past eight years, will be leaving Liverpool at the end of the season. While he has been hampered by injuries over the last year and currently sits out of the starting XI for Liverpool, many fans will be distraught at the fact that the Brazilian will be moving to pastures new come the 2023/24 season.
Despite being signed by Brendan Rodgers in 2015, Roberto ‘Bobby’ Firmino has often been considered the quintessential Klopp player, having featured more regularly in the German’s side than any other squad member. A dogged workhorse who could defend from the front, was quick in transition, clinical and skillful to boot – the striker was essential for the success Liverpool have seen in recent years. His role as a false nine allowed teammates Sadio Mané and Mohammed Salah to capitalise on the wings, and his recurrent selflessness, while often dragging him out of the spotlight, allowed the team to flourish.
There are many things that can be associated with Bobby Firmino, his no-look goals, outlandish and somewhat confusing celebrations, his Si Señor song, his gegenpressing, his technical ability to turn on a dime and his locker of skill moves, just to name a few.
However, I think the one thing that Liverpool fans will associate the most, and therefore miss the most, about Roberto Firmino is not just one particular element of his game, but him in general. Put plainly, Bobby Firmino is a player that has fun.
Millions of young children grow up wanting to be a footballer, but in the grand scheme of things only a handful will ever make it to the big leagues, let alone where Firmino has ended up – namely, winning everything in English football.
In your youth, football is a pastime with friends, you play it to have fun. This is an almost worldwide constant. Wherever you go, you are likely to see young children kicking a ball about in a park. If you’re good enough, you go into youth development schemes, fighting to prove your worth with each year you develop. You’re still young, but you are aware of the pressure that if your performance starts taking a dip, you may lose your spot in the squad, and therefore the chance of being a professional footballer, forever.
The path to top-flight football is also not often linear, with loans and transfers to foreign places paired with the expectation that you will develop as a player. Regardless of whether you feel at home in your new environment or not, you need be performing on the pitch. If you don’t settle into your new residence and start excelling, you are likely to be moved on to be someone else’s problem.
If you do make it to the top level of professional football, then comes the additional weight of expectation from coaches, fans and media, especially in the top leagues in England, where media scrutiny is rife and news publications are notorious for their blunt and reactionary takes on footballers.
Of course, there are inordinately sizeable wages that come with the job, which I can imagine helps massively soften the blow of any media scrutiny or feelings of loneliness or isolation you may face as a professional footballer. Make no mistake, I am sure the life of a footballer is certainly one to envy.
That said, with the pressure from fans, the heartbreak of losing big matches, the struggle to make it to the top in the first place, the knowledge that you’re only as good as your last match and the slumps in form that can drastically affect your future in the game, I can imagine that being a professional footballer isn’t actually always that fun.
I’m not suggesting that footballers don’t have fun playing the sport they’ve dedicated their lives to, but ultimately it is no longer the same game they did for fun as kids. Yes, I can imagine the trophies are a huge high, the bus top parades must be phenomenal, and a last-minute winner is surely one of the best things a person can experience. But while these are all euphoric moments, they are fleeting. The majority of life as a professional footballer is spent striving for these achievements, not celebrating them.
It’s clear to see that top-flight football and having a kickabout with your mates in the park have major differences that go beyond just quality. Once it’s a job, football is not the same entity as it was when you were younger with your friends – it’s your livelihood, your wages, the difference between hundreds of thousands of supporters either loving or loathing you. And football isn’t just for you and your enjoyment anymore, it’s for your family, your supporters, your career, your reputation and your legacy.
So you can’t blame players for prioritising professionalism. When it’s as serious as your employment, the gravitas of missing a chance is suddenly much larger in a Premier League game compared to when you’ve scuffed a shot wide of a jumper in the playground. You can’t just smile it off and rectify it next lunchtime, the faux pas follows you. If you looked like you were just having a bit of fun on the pitch but your team didn’t win as a professional footballer, you can expect pundits to go in for you and your picture to be printed on the back page of the papers the next morning.
Similarly, a goal isn’t just a goal anymore – it’s a financial bonus, a step closer to a predetermined season target, and a claim to your team’s three points. I can imagine that scoring a goal must feel like complete elation, but I’m sure sometimes a player’s overwhelming feeling after they’ve found the net is also just relief.
Even a footballer’s voice is made more professional and devoid of individuality and expression once they make it to the big leagues. By the time players have come up through academy ranks, they have become so media trained that everything, and I do mean everything, seemingly comes down to the three points and focusing on the next match. When I used to work with football media interviews, we had a document of set phrases ready to paste in for subtitling, since every player said basically the same thing week in week out.
And suddenly, when you put it all together, and look at the disparity between how football looked when the players started playing football, and what it looks like when they turn pro, it doesn’t seem that fun anymore. But that’s where Firmino was different. With Roberto Firmino, you still see that youthful joy in his play. With Roberto Firmino, it’s still fun.
I don’t want to downplay Firmino’s professionalism. Truth be told, he has been one of the most professional players for Liverpool over the last decade, with very few dips in form and a consistent output. He put in shifts both offensively and defensively, and his tireless work rate and commitment to linking play led to numerous fans labelling him as ‘The System’ for Liverpool.
But the overall impression I get whenever watching Bobby Firmino play is that the man is simply having the time of his life on a football pitch. He looks like he’s still in the park with his friends, practising his skills, playing for fun and wearing a smile on his face. A bodacious skill move or an audacious celebration may fall out of your game while climbing the ranks of professional football, but with Bobby they have remained very much intact.
He hasn’t let the physicality of the Premier League put him off whipping out an outrageous flick here and there – which of course was best utilised during his assist to Mo Salah against Newcastle at Anfield in the 2019/2020 season. Nor has he let the occasion of a European semi-final against Villarreal stop him from producing a cheeky yet magnificent spin to send Roberto Soldado to the shops.
The no-look goals so often associated with the forward may appear cocky or superfluous, but they’re very fun to watch. In fairness, I should note that he’s only ever done it from about 2 metres off the line whenever Liverpool were either already winning or about to go in front, so it’s not like he’s ever misjudged the tone of how such an act might be perceived. But whenever he does it, it reminds you of the football you were playing in your youth. Yes, it is cocky and yes, it is unnecessary, but it’s also wonderful to see a striker having so much fun with a pointless act of showmanship you’d probably expect from a Year 9 during sports day.
And I think one of the things that helps him get away with all of this is that he is also an incredibly good footballer. He may not be as highly regarded as Sadio Mané and Mohammed Salah by many media outlets, and he may not have the records that his two frontline colleagues have accrued, but I have no doubt that his performances over the last eight years will see him go down as a Liverpool legend.
It’s important to note that the skills and tricks never seemed to crop up for the sake of being showy – they are a core part of his game that have made him such a formidable player. What’s more is that he often does so much of the dirty work that he affords himself the right to have a bit of fun. For every highlight clip of Firmino flicking and tricking his way past a player, there are probably two or three highlights from the same game of him closing down a player and tackling them in their own half. And Liverpool fans appreciated that.
He knew when to have fun on a football pitch and when to keep it strictly professional. And of course, if it was time to dig deep and just do the basics right, then he found other ways to keep things light and fun as well.
I can only think of one Roberto Firmino celebration where he wasn’t smiling, and, rather ironically, it’s probably his most famous one – his iconic “one-eye” celebration after the last-minute winner against PSG. However, every other goal he has scored has been celebrated with his signature beaming smile and a puzzling dance move or handshake with a teammate. When performing these bizarre celebrations, Firmino always looked over the moon like he was still just a boy having fun kicking a football around.
What’s more is the fact that he not only celebrates his own goals adorning his signature sparkling smile, but also appears elated when his teammates find the net as well. He became so well-known for celebrating other players’ goals, that he actually had a signature ‘co-celebration’, where he could be seen running over to the goal scorer and karate kicking near their head. Playfully, of course. Over the past eight years, it has certainly come across how much he enjoys helping his team, and I think that has truly resonated with Liverpool fans.
And when the big moments come? He can still be found with the same whimsy and joy on a title platform with a trophy in his hand as he can on the pitch with a ball at his feet. When Liverpool won the Champions League in 2019, Firmino had been subbed off before full-time came around, meaning he was standing pitch side with the rest of the players while waiting for the final whistle. The first thing the Brazilian did to celebrate when the referee blew? A roly poly.
Even his journey to European football is delightfully whimsical and mad. Prior to moving to Liverpool, Firmino spent four years in Hoffenheim, having moved there from Figueirenese in 2011. The Hoffenheim director of football at the time, Lutz Pfannenstiel, admitted that part of the scouting process for him involved finding him on Football Manager. It feels fittingly poetic that his European career was quite literally born out of someone having fun on a video game.
It was clear to see the love for Firmino on March 5 when the Brazilian came off the bench to round off a 7-0 thrashing of archrivals Manchester United. Of course, it was a big occasion, and beating your rivals by such an overwhelming scoreline is obviously going to warrant an elated reaction, but given that he had announced his departure just two days prior, you could see that the emotion on his face was tied to his recent decision to leave.
And the reaction to his goal was similarly emotional. His contribution in a historic match – which would also double up as his final appearance in the Northwest derby – was met by the Liverpool fans as though it was the first of the game. Practically all of his teammates, and unfortunately one wild pitch invader, gathered around him in a wonderful gesture that no doubt conveyed how much he shall be missed.
Of course, Liverpool will miss the goals, the assists, the link-up play, the gegenpressing, the tricks, the touches, the no-look goals and the endless running. But I think most importantly, they’ll miss the man that was always having fun.
By: Martha Franklin / @Franklin_MHP
Featured Image: Michael Regan / Getty Images