Ricardo Pereira is one of the most talked about defenders in world football at the moment, and rightly so. He has started the season in the same fashion as the last campaign, putting in a string of incredible performances for Leicester City and has firmly established himself as an integral part of Brendan Rodgers’ side, who at the time of writing, find themselves sitting 2nd in the Premier League table. I caught up with the mercurial defender and spoke with him on his career so far, touching on what it means to play in the Premier League for Leicester, his aims for the future both at club and international level and everything in between.
Ricardo was born in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city that is completely dominated by football. In Lisbon, a plethora of footballers come through the doors of either Seixal or Alcochete, SL Benfica and Sporting CP’s respective academies. Ricardo belonged to the latter, playing for the green and white lions at youth level. After a short stint for Naval he found himself in Guimarães, playing for Vitória Sport Clube, a historic club and the side for whom he would go on to make his professional debut.
“Playing in the Primeira Liga was my first dream, my first objective. When I made my debut for Vitória, it was…a dream come true. When you are young, you are just thinking about (playing football in) your home country. That is what you want.” Ricardo’s time at Vitória is something that he remembers with great fondness, when asked of his career highlight so far, he immediately recalled Vitória’s historic Taça de Portugal triumph in 2012/13, (along with winning the Primeira Liga with FC Porto) as one of the greatest moments in his career. Vitória faced Lisbon giants SL Benfica in the final and found themselves 1-0 down with 10 minutes to go. Vitória, who throughout their history had never won either of the major domestic honours (Taça de Portugal or Taça da Liga), looked once again like they’d be finishing as runners-up. That was until Soudani scored an equaliser for the Conquistadores, a glimmer of hope had appeared. With the game hanging finely in the balance and with 8 minutes to go, Vitória found a winner, the scorer? Ricardo Pereira. Vitória won 2-1 and both Ricardo and his club had won their first ever Taça.Embed from Getty Images
“That was my first trophy, my first honour as a footballer and it was in my first year as a professional footballer. Scoring the 2nd goal (in the final) was just…incredible. That is definitely one of the biggest moments in my career.”
A move to Porto followed for Ricardo but initially, he did not find playing time easy to come by. His first and second season was a mixture of substitute appearances, appearances for FC Porto B and time spent on the bench. In search of playing time he demonstrated his ambition by agreeing to go on loan to Claude Puel’s OGC Nice in France. He credits his move to Ligue 1 for playing a huge role in his development as a footballer, originally a right-winger, Nice gave him a chance to play week in, week out as a right-back.
“My move to Nice was motivated by my desire to be important, I wanted to play regularly. I wasn’t playing too much at Porto and I knew getting more playing time wouldn’t be possible at that moment in time if I stayed . When the opportunity came about to go to Nice, I was very interested. I also had a friend who played there the year before and when I asked about it, he told me it is a great place to play football and that I would enjoy my time there. It was a very important time for me, I played in nearly every game that I was fit to play in and by going to a different country, it really helped me to grow and develop”.Embed from Getty Images
Ricardo, in his new-found defensive role, utilised his time in France to further understand the game from a defender’s point of view, an experience that he is thankful for and that would come in handy in his later move to Leicester City.
“The main thing I wanted to work on and develop was for sure my defensive ability. I feel like my time in Nice allowed me to become a better defender, I was allowed to learn things from a defensive point of view that I didn’t (previously) know.”
His performances for Nice, in which he helped the club to 3rd and 2nd place finishes, meant that when he returned to Porto he was now ready to be a starter and soon became one of the first names on the team sheet at the Estádio do Dragão.
“Coming back to Porto was important for me, I wanted to return and be successful, to be important to the team.”
Ricardo in his final season at FC Porto managed to win the title, snatching the Primeira Liga trophy out of the hands of bitter rivals Benfica, ending a dry spell that saw Benfica lift the league title for 4 consecutive years. As Ricardo began to talk about that season, I could see just how much it meant to him.
“Nobody was expecting us to win the title that season, you know? We had a lot of new players at the club and also players who were just like me, returning to the club from loans. Winning the Primeira Liga is definitely a career highlight, that was simply amazing. We celebrated that title at least 3 times, the first time we celebrated was because Benfica I think lost at home? [Benfica lost 3-2 at the Estádio da Luz to Tondela] And in our next game we beat Marítimo away from home, then we needed just the 1 point with a few games to go. Then the next week, Benfica played Sporting away and drew and we knew we were to become champions. It was one of the greatest moments for the city, the celebrations were amazing. 4 years without a title and we had done it.”Embed from Getty Images
After establishing himself as one of the best right-backs in Europe, Ricardo began to receive attention from clubs all over the world, it was Leicester City of the Premier League that managed to secure the right-back’s signature.
“Coming to the Premier League is what every player would like to achieve, after playing in the Primeira Liga, my next objective was always England, the Premier League, which for me is the highest level. When I heard Leicester were interested things began to move forward, I spoke to Adrién (Silva) who was here and I also knew the coach at the time [Claude Puel managed Ricardo at OGC Nice], that is very important I think, to get the opinions of people you know. I could see that Leicester really wanted me and I decided to move, I believe it was the right move for me.”
Since his move to Leicester, he has performed consistently at a high level, earning plaudits and accolades along the way, he scooped both of Leicester’s major honours at their awards ceremony, taking home both Player and Players’ Player of the Year. His success at the club has also led him to inevitably becoming a huge hit with the Leicester fanbase, who see in Ricardo the epitomisation of hard-work, talent and humility.
“It is important i think, being recognised and admired by a fanbase, especially by a fanbase in a different country than yours is a sign that you are doing well and that they [the supporters] like your work. It motivates you to be a better player, you want to do better for them.”
Brendan Rodgers and his Leicester City side have been phenomenal this season, amassing 26 points after just 12 games and it is clear Ricardo is enjoying his work at the King Power.
“[Playing under Brendan Rodgers] is very good, I think you can see that from the outside. Since he became manager, the team has changed for the better, I think we are playing better and we are playing more as a team and we are enjoying our football. We have a different way of playing and we know what we are doing and need to do. It is also not just 1, 2 or 3 players but it is everybody, those who aren’t [starting], they come in and they make the difference and that is important for the group. As a group it is important to have concentration, to be aware that it is a very long season and we need to keep going every single game because if we don’t, things can change, especially here [in England] where every match is difficult, we have to keep pushing.”Embed from Getty Images
“Our aim is to improve on last year in the league and I think we have the quality to do that, I think last year in the “small” games we had some difficulties and in the Premier League it is so important that in those games [Against the teams outside the top 6] where you believe you should win, the home games also, you have to win here in England. I think we can do something good this year, we know it will be difficult because not only do the teams from the top 6 have quality, there are many other teams that have players with real quality so it will be a tough season, but I think we can achieve something.”
As he spoke about the Premier League, he conveyed to me just how challenging it can be to perform consistently against some of the best footballers in the world, especially as a defender, something Ricardo does each week to a very high standard. A testament to the competitiveness of the league is that when I quizzed him on who the most difficult player he has came up against is, he gave two answers, both of whom he faced in the Premier League.
“There are so many difficult opponents, it is not easy to pick, especially playing as a right-back! I think one has to be [Eden] Hazard, it is difficult to play against him because he is so unpredictable, he is very agile, and he protects the ball very well. [Raheem] Sterling too, he is very strong, and he likes to go inside and then goes outside which makes it very difficult to defend against.”Embed from Getty Images
Leicester at the time of writing, sit 2nd in the premier league, with a Carabao cup quarter-final against Marco Silva’s Everton FC to contend with. A quarter-final presents Ricardo and his Leicester team-mates a chance to move one step closer to winning domestic silverware, something the 26-year old is keen to do with the Foxes.
“We know that being in the quarter-final, we are just two steps away from the final, but we know that we have a difficult game, playing Everton away, a good team with good fans. But it is just one game and we know that we have a chance, especially if we can play the way we have been playing and give our best.”
As well as playing well at club level, playing and performing at a high level for the Portuguese national team (A Seleção) is something that Ricardo is targeting. He spoke to me about the importance of playing for your country and what it meant to be given his first call-up in 2015.
“That was a very, very good moment. I remember I was in bed and I received a call from a number I didn’t recognise, and I said “No I’m not going to answer it.” It was already quite late at night, I think it was around 10pm so I decided to ignore it, but my girlfriend at the time said, “No pick it up! You don’t know who it could be!”, so I answered it and it turned out to be the news that I had been called up to the national team. I thought wow, I wasn’t expecting it. I think somebody had got injured? I think maybe Fabio Coentrão, and I was called up to replace him. I didn’t play [Ricardo was an unused substitute in Belgrade as his side beat Serbia 2-1], but the experience of being called up and just being with the team was so special.”
Ricardo would later go on to be called up for the 2018 FIFA World Cup squad. Portugal reached the round of 16, before being eliminated by Uruguay, a game in which Ricardo started.
“[The World Cup] It was just incredible…incredible. It is just different, you know? When you are there you see people from all over the world, different nationalities in the streets. It is one of those things I think you have to just be there to truly understand. It was a great experience”. Having that experience again is something Ricardo is passionate about. At the time of writing, he has 5 senior appearances for his country thus far. Right-back is a position that the Seleção have an embarrassment of riches. Ricardo, João Cancelo [Manchester City], Nélson Semedo [FC Barcelona] and Cédric Soares have to compete with each other simply to get their name into the Portugal squad, so it is a testament to the calibre of player he is and the performances he has been producing to have been called up to Fernando Santos’ two most recent Portugal squads.Embed from Getty Images
Playing for the national side means he can mix it with some of the best players in the world. When I asked him who the best player he has ever played with was, at both club or international level, I knew there would only be one answer!
“That is an easy question (pause) You don’t want to guess?!” [With Cristiano] It is just…its different. You know when you see him on television, you think “yes that’s Ronaldo, he is very, very good” but when you train with him every day and you see the small things he does, the small details, you know that his success is not by accident. The way he works, the way he trains and the things he does, that is how he is who he is.”Embed from Getty Images
Playing for his nation, especially at major tournaments, is something that is of great importance to Ricardo, this was evident in how he spoke about pulling on the red and green of Portugal.
“It means a lot to me (playing for the Seleção), my biggest target is just to play more than I have done. If I keep working hard here (in Leicester) and I am given an opportunity, I want to show my quality.”
I have no doubt that further club and international success awaits Ricardo, his progression has been great to see and long may it continue. It feels as though Leicester are once again on the cusp of something magnificent and while it may be early in the season, there is a good vibe around the club and you get the feeling that every member of the squad is pulling in the right direction, Ricardo included.
Interview conducted, transcribed and edited by Aaron Barton for Próxima Jornada