As we move towards the end of May, the footballing world also moves towards resumption. Bundesliga football is back in Germany, Liga NOS will return on the 3rd of June and La Liga is likely to be back around the 8th of June. Aaron Barton spoke to Sevilla and Portugal international Rony Lopes in an open and frank discussion that covers all things from football’s COVID-enforced hiatus, his career beginnings, this season, the toughest of his life so far, as well as everything in between.
The last ball to be kicked in La Liga was on Tuesday 10th March, as Eibar hosted Real Sociedad, the San Sebastian side taking the last 3 points on offer for over 2 months. That was 75 days ago (at the time of writing) and during that time Spain has endured one of the toughest times due to COVID-19 of all European countries. Lockdown regulations were strict, travel was essential only and people couldn’t even leave to exercise. I asked Rony about how he has found lockdown so far:
“It’s been crazy, nobody has ever lived this before, you know? I could only go out to go to the supermarket, and then for the rest of the day, I stayed at home.” I could hear the melancholy in his voice as he described his experiences. The Portuguese have a beautiful term, saudades, that doesn’t directly translate into English. It is a kind of longing for something or someone. A feeling of deep melancholy, this is what I could sense in Rony’s words when he described his absence from football. His tone then completely changed when we began discussing the return of Sevilla training.
“It’s been so good to feel the ball, to feel the pitch again, even if it is individual training. It feels so good to return because it’s been too long. Too long being at home.”
With socially distanced training ongoing, Lopetegui’s men are gearing up for a mid-June return to La Liga. The Spanish president has announced that football can resume from the 8th and in the previous week La Liga president Javier Tebas announced that he is aiming for the 12th of June.
A major fear has been the sharpness and fitness of the players, given that they haven’t been able to train in a setting that replicates a match-day.
“It’s difficult, but I think it (Tebas’ estimated date) allows us the time to get back fit because the players have been really responsible with training at home, that is really important. I think the players will be ready.”
I wanted to go back to the very beginning and find out what motivated Rony to make decisions he made, one of those choosing to play for the Portugal National Team (A Seleção). Lopes, who joined Sevilla in the summer from AS Monaco is like Deco and Pepe who came before him, in that he is Brazilian. Born in Belém, Brazil in 1995, he lived there before moving to Portugal, aged 4.
“I have always had and still have a Brazillian part of me. The food, the music and both of my parents speak Brazillian Portuguese with a Brazillian accent. Growing up I loved Santos because of Robinho and Diego. Brazil will always be a part of me, but in terms of football and everything in my life, I lived in Portugal longer and I am more Portuguese than Brazillian for sure.”
One thing from Brazil that has stuck with Lopes throughout his life in Europe is his name, the name of his idol. Born Marcos Lopes, he adopted the nickname ‘Rony’ at a young age because of his love for Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.
“He (Ronaldo) was my idol, I always wore his shirt for training as a kid. He has been my idol and will be forever, he was…simply unbelievable.”
“My Portuguese club is Benfica…it has a very special place in my heart”
Rony’s career started in Seixal, the world-famous SL Benfica academy that continues to produce top talent after top talent. After 5 years at Benfica, Rony decided to move. At just 16 years of age, the safer option for Rony would be to go to another Primeira Liga side or drop into the Portuguese second-tier or even move back to Brazil. But no, instead he wanted to move to England and to Manchester City, who were at the dawn of their modern dominance. The move was a huge challenge for someone so young.
“I like challenges (laughs) and that was a good challenge for me! To become a professional at SL Benfica at that time, it was difficult, there was hardly any youngsters in the first-team and I knew that even if I stayed there for maybe 2/3 more years? It would be very difficult to break through to the first team. My Portuguese club is Benfica, I played their 5 years and it has a very special place in my heart, very special for me. but I really respect the other sides in Portugal also. When I had the chance to move to England, I spoke to family and we decided it was a good opportunity for me and my family. In my opinion, it was a very good move. I learned a lot in England.”
It was in England where he was able to mix it with world-class talents at club level and learn from these players every day. When I asked him who the two best players he’s played with are, he encountered both at City.
“There are a lot of players that really impressed me, one was David Silva, in training he didn’t lose one ball! Also, Sergio Aguero, in training he didn’t really do much but in the game, wow, unbelievable.”
Lopes was part of the U21 team at Manchester City, playing under Patrick Vieira and was a huge success for the youth side, captaining the 21’s in the 13/14 season and scoring 6 goals and getting 7 assists in 16 matches. However, first-team football was on Rony’s agenda and it was becoming clear that the pathway to the City first-team was nigh on impossible.
“It was very hard (to leave) but my coach at the time was Patrick Vieira and we spoke a lot. He thought it would be good for me to go somewhere and learn. He told me that the gap at City between the U21s and first team was just too big and that I needed to play in between.”
Rony first left on loan for Lille, before being signed permanently from City by AS Monaco.
“I always check to see if anybody takes my record!”
He may have left Manchester without making a Premier League appearance but Rony ensured that his name was etched in the club’s history forever. On the 7th of January 2013, with Manchester City 2-0 up against Watford, Lopes came on to replace David Silva in the 88th minute. just a few minutes after coming home, he scored the 3rd and final goal in the tie, becoming Manchester City’s youngest ever goalscorer at 17 years and 8 days old, a record that still stands today (At the time of writing).
“I won’t lie, (laughs) I like to have this record! I really like to have my name in the club’s history. I always check to see if anybody takes my record but luckily, not yet! It is still mine.”
“Lille helped me a lot with my development, the coach (René Girard) put a lot of trust in me, which is really what I needed.” Rony was starting most Ligue 1 games until he got injured, a thigh injury put him out for 11 matches.
“If I didn’t get injured I think I’d of played all of the games. But I missed 2 or 3 months because of injury. It could have been a very good season.”
A season in France, even with the injury, was enough for AS Monaco to declare their interest in Rony and purchase him from Manchester City, before loaning him back to Lille for another season.
“It felt very good (to move to Monaco), Luis Campos had been following me for a couple of years already and then the opportunity came to go.”
By the time the 17/18 season arrived, Rony was deemed ready for Monaco action. He had been developing well at Lille and joined up with the Ligue 1 champions as they attempted to defend their title. The 17/18 season would go on to be Rony’s best season yet, both personally and statistically. He played in all 38 Ligue 1 games, 6 domestic cup games and all 5 of Monaco’s Champions League games, scoring 17 goals and amassing 12 assists in total.
” It (17/18) actually started very badly for me, I missed the U21 Euros and that was a very hard moment for me. But it gave me a full chance to do a pre-season, that season then went on to be my best season so far. I played all of the Ligue 1 games, I was in every single game! I like to believe that shows what I can do with game time and when the coach trusts me. Even at the start of this season, it was difficult to get the trust of the coach because the coach took me off a few times around half-time, but then I started scoring goals and he couldn’t take me out.”
Rony recounts with pinpoint accuracy his goals and assists tally from that season, an indication that he takes his individual performance very seriously.
“Getting goals and assists is what I want to do, its what I play for. I remember there was a game at Bordeaux it was 1-1, I looked at the bench and a player was getting ready to come on, and in the next 2 minutes I scored a goal and the coach didn’t take me out. After the game, he spoke to me and said: ‘You were lucky that you scored or I’d of taken you out, you saw your friend was getting ready to come in and you decided to score a goal!'”
AS Monaco had another fantastic campaign but unfortunately could not keep the silverware from PSG’s clutches. They finished 2nd in Ligue 1 and were also beaten in both the Coupe De La Ligue and the Supercup by PSG.
The following season was a tumultuous one. Monaco lost João Moutinho, Fabinho, Rachid Ghezzal and Thomas Lemar and started the season poorly. The instability reached board level as Leonardo Jardim was sacked and replaced with Thierry Henry, who was then sacked and replaced on a caretaker basis by Franck Passi before Leonardo Jardim once again took over.
“I believe Thierry Henry was really unlucky”
Wow, this was a very tough season for me individually, I was supposed to be out for maybe, 4 weeks? I ended up staying out injured for 4 months! I was having arguments with the medical staff at the club. Also, as a team, it was so difficult, we weren’t getting results and Leonardo Jardim was fired. Thierry Henry came, and what I saw was a very, very good coach. I believe he was really unlucky. When he came, I think we had about 15 injured players! He only really had the young players to play with and when he got all of the injured players back fit, then they fired him. I think it was unfair, he wasn’t given the opportunity to show his work. When he had the chance to show what he could do, it was already too late.”
This would be Rony’s last season in France. He sealed a transfer late in the window to join Spanish giants Sevilla but this season has not gone to plan. He has played just 87 minutes in La Liga but has played in 7 of Sevilla’s 8 Europa League games. He is yet to find the back of the net for his new club.
“This season…it has been a strange season. I didn’t do any pre-season with the club and I didn’t think it (the move) was going to happen. They wanted me before the season started but then, there were some problems with the transfer, so I thought “Okay, I’ll stay at Monaco”, then the first day of the season arrives in France and my agent called and said, “Rony, pack your stuff if you want to go to Sevilla, we are going tomorrow”. I wanted to go, I believed it was a very good opportunity for me, I will be able to play Europa League and in one of the best leagues in the world, for one of the top 5 teams, also the sporting director was really interested in me.”
“I am becoming stronger, mentally stronger.“
“Then when I arrived at Sevilla it was very difficult to me, they played with a different rhythm than I was used to and they play with very high intensity, so it took me around 3 weeks to get used to it. Then I felt I was ready to play. The coach (Julen Lopetegui) gave me my first opportunity, I played 10 minutes in one game and then I got a chance in the starting 11 in the Europa League, I played a good game and I thought “okay, now I’ll play a little bit more and improve” but then in the next game, I wasn’t taken to the game and I didn’t know what was going on. Then in the Europa League, I started the match and again I wasn’t in the squad in the league for the next game. I thought this was really strange and it’s not really my fault, when I play I am doing my job, when I play I can’t do better because I haven’t played for one month. I can’t then go and play and have the game of my life, I need opportunities. I think I have taken the opportunities when he gave me them, but I haven’t really had many.”
As Rony spoke you could hear the frustration in his voice but what was clear to me is that he didn’t sound dejected nor exhausted, but instead, he sounded motivated and aware that life is full of obstacles and learning curves which in turn make us better people.
“I have improved a lot this season, I have learned a lot also, so for me, even if I am not playing a lot, I still think it’s a positive season because I have learned so much. I spoke to my parents about it and I said I have to be positive and take positives from it, okay I don’t play a lot at the moment but I am becoming stronger, mentally stronger. Next season if I stay here or go somewhere else, I will be better and much stronger because of this season. If I just think about the fact I’m not playing, I will get frustrated and won’t take anything from it, it won’t change anything, I can’t think like that.”
“I strongly believe that if I am at a good club and I am playing consistently, then I will be called up to the national team”
With so much competition at international level and A Seleção enjoying their most successful period ever (2 trophies in 3 years), game-time at club level is crucial to securing a spot with the Portugal national team.
After playing for Portugal through the various youth levels, it was the 2017/18 season when he made his international debut. Following his top performances for AS Monaco, Fernando Santos called him up for the friendlies against Saudi Arabia and the USA, making his debut in the latter.
He didn’t make the 2018 World Cup squad but was again back in Seleção action 3 months after the tournament, playing 22 minutes against Croatia in a friendly. That was a year and a half ago and it was Rony’s last involvement for Portugal, who is still eligible to represent Brazil given he has only played friendlies for Portugal.
“The national team, it is one of my goals, 100%. I want to be an important player for the national team, I strongly believe that if I am at a good club and I am playing consistently, then I will be called up to the national team, I really believe that. That is what I work for.”
This self-belief isn’t founded on hope alone, the last time Rony had a consistent run of games was the 17/18 season and that was when he was selected. He knows that if he plays at club level, there is always a chance.
His aim is clearly to play football. Whether that be through breaking into the Sevilla starting XI or moving to another club to achieve this. You can tell he really cares about the game by the way he speaks and how he conveys his thoughts and opinions. When I asked what the perfect type of opponent for him is, he showed his sense of humour also. “The perfect opponent for me? I would prefer it if they are slow! (laughs). I like to go 1 v 1 with lots of space to run into behind. It is difficult if you play against someone that is very tight to you, that try not to give you any time to think with the ball. I think a lot of full-backs now can do both (attacking and defending), some of them are better at attacking than they are at defending but many players can defend very well but also are great at attacking. It is difficult when you are up against someone like that, you have to work every day in training to get better, to beat them. I think if you look at a team like Liverpool, they are the team with the best-full backs in the whole world. They can run back and forward for the entire game, 90′ up and down and that is very, very difficult to do.”
With the return of La Liga edging ever closer, Rony could be in line for more chances at Sevilla and with these, comes the opportunity to show both the coach and the supporters, exactly what he can do.
- Aaron Barton (@AaronBartonUK)
Thank you to Rony Lopes for his time.