“It was the best thing I’d seen in my life.” Filipe Luis is not talking about the scenes when Atlético Madrid finally won a derby after 14 humiliating years, at last beating Real Madrid and in a cup final at the Bernabéu too. He’s not talking about the quarter of a million fans filling the streets when they claimed an impossible league title. And he’s not talking about the 80,000 Madrileños who descended upon Lisbon or packed Milan. Those nights still haunt him, after all.
He is not talking about the Europa League finals, although Atlético won those; about lifting the Copa América at the Maracanã; going to the World Cup with Brazil having overcome the “biggest challenge of my career”, a battle for fitness so hard, so emotional Netflix wanted to make a film about it; or the wild celebrations when his current team, Flamengo, “probably the most demanding club on earth”, won the Libertadores after 38 years with two goals in two dramatic minutes, the country’s first double winners since Pelé led Santos. And he’s not talking about parading the Premier League trophy with Chelsea either, although this did happen in London.
This time, he’s not even talking about football, but he will and in striking, sincere depth. Instead, the former Chelsea defender and resident of Peterborough Road, Fulham, is talking about the time he met Michael Caine. Not a lot of people know that, so it’s a good place to begin a long chat with the footballer fascinated by astrophysics and, most of all, by film.
Filipe Luis rattles off his favourite movies with the speed of a man who has thought about it many times (Interstellar, Shawshank Redemption and Josey Wales The Outlaw), insists cinema “moulded my personality”, and lights up at mention of Vinny Jones. He’s obsessed with Clint Eastwood, grew up trying to talk like him, begged contacts to arrange a meeting and now optimistically says “maybe through The Guardian …” So how about it, Clint? But he did meet his other big screen idol.
“Royal Albert Hall, the premier of Interstellar,” he explains. “Cesc invited me because I love Christopher Nolan. I even walked the red carpet, although no one knew who I was. Nolan was there. Steven Hawking. Kip Thorne, the physicist. Jessica Chastain. Hans Zimmer. And I was in a box with Thierry Henry, Michael Caine and the president of Warner Europe. I couldn’t believe it. There was a talk, then the film with a live orchestra and it was fantastic, the best thing I’d seen in my life.”
His best moment that year, certainly. Film was one thing, football another. Wanted by Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Filipe Luis instead went to London to replace Ashely Cole, an attacking left-back signed for a generation, but within a year he had gone. He had started nine Premier League games.
Something had been wrong from the start. “I haven’t told anyone this but the first game I knocked on [José] Mourinho’s door,” he says. “‘Can I talk to you?’ ‘Come in.’ ‘Why did you bring me here? You took me from a place I was happy, where I played every week. You signed me to play. And the first day against Burnley I’m on the bench. Why not leave me at Atlético? Why bring me here not to play?’ He said he didn’t think I was playing well and [César] Azpilicueta was, that he didn’t feel as secure with me. I had to win my place; I couldn’t expect to be first choice on reputation.
“And looking back, he was right.”
Filipe Luis admits he struggled physically and had difficulties adapting to the style in pre-season. His analysis of the differences between Chelsea and Atlético, of systems, personalities and his place within them is detailed and nuanced, although he admits understanding that too late. Ultimately, though, it was simple. He recalls telling Mourinho “I can play like Azpilicueta” – and a fascinating explanation of stopping Lionel Messi reveals a commitment to defensive duties – but Azpilicueta was already doing Azpilicueta.
“He played so well he never gave me a chance,” Filipe Luis says. “Mourinho rotated so I did get chances but I didn’t start big games because the team was playing perfectly. We had great players. Eden Hazard, Fàbregas, Diego Costa. Alongside Neymar, Eden’s the best I’ve played with. He’s up there with Messi, winning games alone. He didn’t run to defend much, didn’t train well, and five minutes before games he’d be playing Mario Kart in the dressing room. He trained and warmed up laces untied. But he’d go out and no one could take the ball. He’d dribble three or four. If opponents got too close, he’d just pull away, so powerful.
“Miel [honey]. Watching him enjoy football …” Filipe Luis smiles just thinking about it. “So intelligent: one-two, combine, go alone; assist, score, everything. Maybe he lacks the ambition to say ‘I’ll be the world’s best’, because he could be. For talent, the best. Cesc had an extraordinary season too. And Costa. Then the defence was incredible. John Terry’s one of the best captains I’ve had. Even the bench: Oscar, Obi Mikel, Mohamed Salah, [André] Schürrle, Kurt Zouma, [Didier] Drogba, Loïc Rémy. Some team.
“My best moment was December-January; I’d adapted and was playing well. We knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup but I didn’t play the final. I decided I wanted to leave. I played every game: against all the smaller teams, the two semis, and when I didn’t play the final, I felt …” He does air quotes. “…‘betrayed’, for want of a better word.”
Did Mourinho apologise? “No, we won,” he shoots back, smiling. “Out of respect, I thought I should have played but he picked a team to win and we won. So I have no right to say anything and he has no need to say anything. Mourinho’s tremendously competitive, which is what makes him great. The team fit together without me. And he didn’t abandon me: he always sent Rui Faria to talk to me and I never went 10 games without playing. It might look like we fell out but I admire him. I won the league with him. But he didn’t get the best out of me, just as he didn’t with Salah.”
Not that anyone could see Salah being this good, right? Wrong. “I suffered Salah in training, pfff,” Filipe Luis says. “When he went Fiorentina, I said: ‘Why are you going, Momo? This is Chelsea.’ And he said: ‘I need to play.’ I thought: ‘This kid’s good.’ He never went for money or to win more; he went to show he could play. In training he was like Messi. Really, like Messi. Ask anyone.”
Soon Filipe Luis followed Salah out. “These days I exchange messages with Simeone as a friend, but back then every time I got a message from him …” He pulls a terrified face, laughing. “It was stressful. He messaged that January asking me to come back then and I said no: we were going to win the league. But we kept talking. Juventus and PSG made offers but I only wanted to go to Atlético.
“At the end I messaged Marina [Granovskaia] saying sorry I couldn’t show you my best but thanks for believing in me. I didn’t want to work for Mourinho another year. But I tell you: it wasn’t just Mourinho’s fault. I just knew that with Cholo I’d be the old Filipe Luis again. Later he said: ‘See, you only play well for me; you had to come back to play well again.’ And it’s true. He knew every centimetre of my brain. I had no doubts about going back.”
Together they had reached a Champions league final, after all. Reunited, they did so again. “Before the 2014 final I received 200 messages, every friend I’ve ever had. So much pressure. I didn’t know what it was to play a European Cup final, what I was up against. It was one my best games but I got cramp from the tension. I was too focused. On 80 minutes I couldn’t take any more. I go off, it’s 1-0, hard to watch: Madrid creating chances, equalising in the last minute, us losing. On the bus arriving home I saw what it meant. “It was horrible to lose the final. Horrible. But I knew I would get another chance. At Chelsea or somewhere else, but somewhere.”
Two years later, having gone to London and back, that chance came but in another final against Real fate was cruel again. “I prepared better, never answered a single message, and lasted 90 minutes,” he laughs. “In the second half of extra time cramp came again and we lost on penalties. I cried a lot. I had the feeling this time there wouldn’t be another chance.”
He stops. “But, mark my words: I will have another opportunity – as a coach.
“I could see that cup so close, so beautiful, so shiny, and I wanted so much to grab it, but it wasn’t to be. That’s made me stronger. I went through the worst thing a player can: I lost two Champions League finals. Played two, lost two. Few things can affect me now. It still hurts. Sometimes I dream about that final. It’s a trauma. Now my goal is to see Atlético lift it. I don’t have to be there. I’d like to, but I just want them to win it.”
How about this year? Atlético are strong. Three points clear, Simeone has done it again, building a whole new team: only Koke and José María Giménez remain from 2014. “His achievement was to come to a team four points off relegation and make them Europa League winners, turn them into the monstrous team it is now,” Filipe Luis says. “That has one name only: Diego Simeone; 120 players have been though and whoever it was, whatever happened to them, the team keeps fighting. I left, Juanfran left, Costa, Godín, Gabi, and they’re still there. An enormous achievement.
“When Simeone arrived, the first thought was: ‘Here comes a club idol, but…” Filipe Luis shrugs. “‘Just another one.’ But Cholo doesn’t waste time. Ever. He’ll never say: ‘Let’s have fun today.’ No, no. He’s always thinking about the next game. Take Atlético-Chelsea now: he’ll be analysing every detail and training, training, training, training. That first month we got more confident by the game, we could see him changing us. I was a left back lacking confidence in December and the best in the world in January. One month.
“Take my word for it: it’s not easy to play for Cholo. He has zero sentimentality. None. He never finds himself thinking: ‘Oh, what a pity, poor guy.’ He decides what he has to decide to win. This year Atlético have Luis Suárez so Costa – who’s given Simeone 120 goals, every trophy – sits on the bench and ends up leaving. No heart. Bench. That’s it. Simeone has got the best from everyone for nine years and hopefully many more.
“It’s a pity to see Costa go,” Filipe Luis continues. “And I’d love him here. No doubt Cholo would have liked both. But leaving Costa or Suárez out? Buah! That can’t be easy. And you can’t chain them down.”
Discussing the current team carries conversation to Kieran Trippier, who he rates among the world’s five best full-backs. There is, he says, a reason the Englishman played every single minute. Until, that was, the ban for breaking FA gambling rules which means he misses this tie. “Look,” Filipe Luis says, “I want to talk about this, I’m glad you asked. They tell players you can’t bet on anything. Nothing. And you can’t tell anybody anything. You just can’t. So, he gets punished. Fine. That’s one thing …
“But there’s another. My brother is addicted to gambling sites and lost a lot of money. I see his daily fight against betting, trying to escape this cursed thing. I don’t want footballers involved at all – at all – because it’s an addiction that destroys families. There’s no limit, just someone at home who can’t stop: hiding away, borrowing money to keep gambling because that’s all they know. And in football, doors are opened as if it was normal: [it’s like] claiming smoking won’t hurt you. It’s on shirts. Instead of analysis, at half time the TV talks about odds: on corners, shots, cards. How can that be? Whoever wants to bet, do it. But it shouldn’t be encouraged like this, telling kids to risk their money.”
There’s a pause. “I hope people understand that opinion; it’s just that I’ve experienced this.”
Opinion offered and understood, he moves on to Tuesday’s game. Again, the analysis is deep, virtually a full technical report. He anticipates Chelsea – “a spectacular team, a very complete squad” – having more possession, and describes Thiago Silva as the man who “fixes your defence” simply by being on the pitch. With two more signings, and fans back, theirs is a team to win next year’s Premier League. “I hope so, because Chelsea isn’t an easy place when you don’t win.”
Not that he wants them to win this tie, he admits; Atlético have a historic debt to collect, an exorcism pending. “I dream of them winning the Champions League and will do anything to help,” he says. Maybe as manager one day. He has started his badges, the doors are open to develop at his former club, and he has learnt from many men. He mentions Jorge Jesús, Tite, Miguel Ángel Lotina, but it’s Simeone who most inspires him, convinced that this is his calling.
Not acting, then?
Filipe Luis laughs. “I don’t have the talent. They only thing I do well is football.
“I’ll coach, I’m sure. But I want to play another year at least, as long as my body allows. Because there’s nothing better. Nothing. Nothing. I wouldn’t swap playing for anything in the world. Not coach, not the owner of Apple or Amazon, nothing. Being a footballer is the best. And it doesn’t matter what division. The best thing you can do is play and I’ll never stop, wherever I am. If that’s England, Sunday League. Believe me, one day you’ll find me playing in a park somewhere, happy.”
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