Long before Brazil’s infamous 7-1 drubbing by Germany at the 2014 World Cup, another six-goal defeat almost stopped David Luiz’s development dead in its tracks.
As the veteran defender prepares to face Benfica, his first European club, with Arsenal in the Europa League last 32 on Thursday, he might reflect on how that 6-0 defeat by Criciuma in 2006 changed his future and set him on the path to success in Portugal.
“The boat only passes once and David has missed it because you were not focused. Now it’s gone,” began an angry Mauro Fernandes as he addressed a packed dressing room in Salvador.
The day before, his side Vitoria had been thrashed 6-0 away to Criciuma in the Brazilian third tier. David Luiz looked devastated as he listened to those words. It was not just the humiliating defeat, but what the result meant for his future. With an agreement already in place to join Anderlecht at the end of the season, he had been informed that a delegation from the Belgian club had travelled all the way from Brussels to have a final look at him.
It was a complete disaster. Even the opposition goalkeeper found the back of the net that afternoon. So it was hardly a surprise when the deal was called off.
“We never heard back from Anderlecht afterwards,” recalls Sinval Vieira, who worked as Vitoria sporting director. Luiz feared he would never again have the chance to play in Europe.
“We all knew it was a matter of time, though. David was just 19 years old, had been the breakout star of the tournament and was very highly rated,” says Fernandes.
And then, three months later, on the very last day of the 2007 winter transfer window, he finally got his move abroad.
He signed for Benfica on loan and never looked back. Over the four years he spent at the Luz stadium, he forged a strong bond with the Portuguese giants, becoming a fan favourite and winning the country’s player of the year award in 2010.
Such was his impact that team legend and vice-president Rui Costa still refers to him as “his godson” while head coach Jorge Jesus regularly calls him to offer advice.
In Rome on Thursday night Luiz will have to put any feelings about Benfica aside in order to make sure Arsenal take a step towards the next round of the Europa League.
Uneasy beginnings at Benfica
Luiz’s career trajectory could have all been very different. Anderlecht were not the first team to come knocking for him.
“The previous season, Real Madrid made an offer for David, too, but we turned it down because we needed him to make it back to the second division. They wanted him for their Castilla side [the reserve team],” says Vieira.
As it was, Luiz was still pretty much unknown when Benfica introduced him as the kid who would fill the gap left by central defender Ricardo Rocha, who had moved to Tottenham. It took him a month to make his debut, but when he did, he did not exactly go unnoticed.
Ten minutes after coming off the bench in a Uefa Cup tie at Paris St-Germain, he saw a 1-0 lead turn into a 2-1 deficit. At half-time, the only thought that crossed his mind was that he would be sent straight back to Brazil. Manager Fernando Santos even asked if he preferred to be substituted. Ultimately, however, he survived the Parc de Princes nightmare – and Benfica progressed on aggregate.
However, things didn’t go exactly smoothly off the pitch either. Struggling to adjust to life in Lisbon, Luiz decided to bring over some childhood friends.
A little while later, Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira called him to his office and asked whether he celebrated his birthday every day. “Let’s see what I have here. Monday, 11pm, 25 cheeseburgers. Tuesday, 10pm…” Vieira read from his notes.
As it turned out, Luiz and his buddies had been going to McDonald’s every night – they just never imagined the club would find out. “This is Benfica. Are you joking with us?” Vieira asked him.
After that episode, the Brazilian quickly got what playing for Benfica meant. (And he didn’t eat another burger for a year.)
“I remember how difficult his decision to go to Chelsea was,” says former international Nuno Gomes, who witnessed Luiz’s transformation from “an introvert” to “a natural entertainer” in the dressing room.
“He was perfectly adapted to Lisbon and the club. You may even say that he was already a Portuguese – he understood our culture, shared our habits.”
Brazilian striker Derlei was another who was at Benfica when Luiz first arrived.
“One night he, his agent Giuliano Bertolucci and I had dinner in the restaurant. I noticed David had no clue who I was, so Giuliano talked a bit about me, explaining that I had already won the Champions League and other trophies,” says the former striker, who won the Champions League and Uefa Cup with Porto and also played for Sporting Lisbon.
“At some point, David turned to me with a smile and said, ‘That’s very nice, man, congratulations. One day, I hope to be able to conquer all that, too.’ We can all agree that he didn’t do too bad, right?”
After league titles in Portugal, England and France, as well as Europa League and Champions League honours with Chelsea, that’s an assessment few would argue with. But beyond that, he remains a footballer who divides opinion like almost no other.
“He has always been leadership material, enjoyed being in the spotlight, didn’t run away from interviews and controversies,” says one of his earliest mentors, Joao Paulo Sampaio, the man who converted him into a centre-back.
“But that obviously comes at a price – when he makes a mistake, it draws more attention, too, especially in the world we live in today. It can take years to build a decent reputation, but only a second to destroy it. David has experienced it all.”
Despite some high-profile errors that have led to fierce criticism from fans and pundits, Luiz has been impressive of late for Arsenal and saw manager Mikel Arteta hailing his influence recently, calling him “a joy to work with”.
At Chelsea, where he won every major domestic and European title in six and a half seasons across two spells, Luiz still has far more supporters than detractors.
Once described by Gary Neville as a PlayStation player controlled by a kid in the crowd, he has managed to overcome any reputation he might have for erratic displays, and could be heading for his 10th season in the Premier League. He’s reportedly set to be offered another one-year contract extension at Arsenal.
Not bad for someone whose career was almost defined by a 6-0 thrashing nearly 15 years ago. It hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the game’s most influential defenders.