It seems almost cruel to even allude to it now, given the jarring disappointments that have characterised the intervening months. The 13th of April, 2014. The moments before Liverpool took to the field against Manchester City. Until then, everything had seemed like a beautiful dream from which one fully expected to awaken. The high-scoring victories, the new ebullient chants, the heroes emerging -- this was the very stuff of that mystical hinterland of sleep, that preternatural realm in which fantasy seemed real. Sure, some fans had nervously floated the possibility of Liverpool staying at the summit of the English game's elite division right to the death, but until the magic that was to come on that day had settled over Anfield, not many truly believed.
Before the kick-off, the Liverpool manager was busy trying to imbue his players with that very belief. Brendan Rodgers has been maligned by a steadily growing army of critics for some of his approaches to motivation, but on that day, within the confines of the Anfield home dressing room, he hit gold with a deliberately emotive technique he'd been using. The manager, a man with a keen sense of melodrama, had taken to using the almost comically manipulative ruse of reading letters from the players' mothers before each match, in a nakedly ambitious bid to eke every last ounce of passion and pride from his charges. On that day, it was the turn of Philippe Coutinho to hear the loving thoughts of his own mama.
"I was so anxious for it to be my turn, for the manager to read the letter from my mum," recalls Liverpool's magical unicorn of a player, in an extended interview with CNN. "I waited and waited for it. The manager had spoken to the mothers of every player in the team. He’d been reading a message before every game for months and finally my turn had come. At first, I didn’t know that the manager would be reading a letter from her, then he mentioned her name and I was really overwhelmed. It said she loved me, is proud of me, is always with me and missing me. There was more, but those are just the words I needed to hear. It filled me up. The other players were also really moved because every week, regardless of whose mother it was with the message, we were all inspired and emotional. We were getting really strong, powerful words and it pushed us so much."
Coutinho's urgent, prompting performance and stunningly dramatic winning strike bore testament to the truth of his words. The player and his teammates were a driven bunch on the day and the ground rocked with a confident optimism some of us have not seen since the halcyon days of Kenny Dalglish's first reign as Anfield supremo. "We're gonna win the league," we sang, intoxicated by hope and knowing for the first time that it was really possible, as the captain, straining with passion, reinforced that idea on the pitch. Sadly, the nightmarish denouement to the campaign permanently shattered the Romanticism in many souls.
In what has generally been a soul-sapping season for Liverpool devotees, very few highlights have emerged, but if one man has enhanced his standing with the Anfield faithful, it is Coutinho. His nomination for PFA Player of the Year was just reward for a campaign in which he has been the team's outstanding (Sorry, that word's broken now, isn't it?) performer and he has proved himself to be capable of driving the side and pulling the strings in midfield. There is a palpable buzz when the Brazilian gets on the ball, not only because he has learned to score wonder goals where once he had patented some sort of disappointingly dragged far-post effort, but because he possesses the outrageous skill and vision to try a trick or a pass that will remain with you forever.
This season has seen him perfect an outlandish piece of skill this scribbler has inventively dubbed 'The Coutinho,' a marvellous move whereby the diminutive number 10 lofts the ball over the head of an opponent, eliminating them from the game and allowing himself the freedom to progress, pass or shoot. It is all a world away from the urban futsal of his youth and the gifted attacker seems a grounded sort, grateful for the opportunities his talent have presented him and appreciative of the adoration of Liverpool fans.
"I could have never imagined, when playing on that concrete pitch, that I would be appreciated at a club like Liverpool and be the footballer I am today," he insists. "But there is still a lot for me to learn and do. It is so hard to define what that [the support] means to me. It is a very unique and special feeling. It’s incredible when I hear the song, and it is touching that there are people who connect with you. I had goosebumps the first time I saw the flag with my face on it because I was really not expecting it. It was a cool surprise, and I want to thank the fans for the effort even to write ‘O Mágico’ [The Magician] in Portuguese."
On the topic of the childhood ambition to be a footballer in a country almost defined by its passion for the game, Coutinho is very interesting, citing the constant effort necessary to complement any talent and unwittingly highlighting the inner steel he himself possesses.
"It's a shared feeling among boys in Brazil, because it's like a factory," the once curly-haired maestro suggests. "You have to give everything because there's an endless supply of talent and the factory is always full. It is constantly in the back of your mind that there are millions of kids trying to do the same thing. But what I knew is it wasn't just about the skill or the technique, you have to be really strong mentally and be very determined to make it. Most of the youngsters I grew up playing with do not have a career in the game now. Sometimes people think it is easy to be a footballer but it is hard work that never stops."
Wary and insightful type that you are, dear reader, you will have cynically pegged this offering as a shameless attempt at feel-good fluff, featuring as it does, the saccharine delights of a mother's love, a rags to riches tale and the only real oasis of beauty in an ugly campaign. You'd be dead right. Being a Liverpool fan is not the most pleasant of fates just now. Doubt, annoyance, frustration and anxiety have mixed together in a troublingly potent cocktail which has turned some folk into pretty mean drunks. In Philippe Coutinho, we have a crisp summer morning of a footballer, with the ability to cause the hangover of this season to fade away. That's worth a few words any day.
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