If Liverpool win the Champions League on Saturday in Kiev, it might just be enough to turn breakout Egyptian star Mohamed Salah from a legitimate Ballon d’Or contender into the favourite. Liverpool’s most important player, though—this season, on Saturday against Real Madrid, and going forward—isn’t Salah. It’s Roberto Firmino.
Firmino will probably never be player of the season in England as Salah was this year. He may not even ever be named Liverpool’s player of the season—at least not while Salah is around. But in his three years at the club, he has grown from cult hero into a player widely acknowledged as, if perhaps not the club’s best, it’s most important.
Salah’s goals might get most of the headlines—and those headlines are deserved—but it’s Firmino who embodies Liverpool FC as envisioned by manager Jürgen Klopp. And it’s Firmino who has become Liverpool’s most important player this season as he leads the line for England and Europe’s most dangerous attack.
He’s less a striker than a grafter who never stops running, a player who will pop up in his own penalty area in stoppage time to make a game-saving tackle. He’s a playmaker as happy to set up a teammate as to score. He’s tireless, tactically astute, unselfish, and willing to do whatever the manager asks for the sake of the team.
He is, in many ways, almost a cliche of the ideals of German football, honed by his years at Hoffenheim before moving to Anfield. Yet at the same time he is wonderfully, unmistakably Brazilian in the way he takes joy in the game with the ball at his feet—at audacious tricks and flips and goals and in finding ways to embarrass opponents.
And, for Liverpool fans, when he follows up a no-look goal with a grinning roundhouse kick of a celebration, he becomes impossible not to love, this slightly mad contradiction of graft and guile, of Germanic efficiency and Brazilian flair. But even as Liverpool fans have fallen in love, in Brazil he remains overlooked and underrated.
While most Brazilian stars established themselves in the national consciousness before leaving for Europe, Firmino departed young and without much of a reputation, and honing his craft at Hoffenheim didn’t do him any favours. Despite being Brazil’s in-form striker this year at the club level, he may not get to start at the World Cup.
If he doesn’t, it will be a shame—for fans of the game and Firmino alike. But Liverpool fans will still love him—for his goals and his graft and his outsized personality on the pitch. And for his decision to sign a new long-term deal this year, removing a release clause that would have given him an easy out to a club like Real Madrid in the summer.
Roberto Firmino is Liverpool’s most important player—the club’s most irreplaceable player—and now he’s committed the best years of his career to completing Jürgen Klopp’s project. If he can manage that, he’ll go down as a club legend—even if he never quite gets the respect he deserves from back home in Brazil or the wider football world.