“It was the best thing I’d seen in my life.” Filipe Luis is not talking about the scenes when Atlético Madrid finally won a derby after 14 humiliating years, at last beating Real Madrid and in a cup final at the Bernabéu too. He’s not talking about the quarter of a million fans filling the streets when they claimed an impossible league title. And he’s not talking about the 80,000 Madrileños who descended upon Lisbon or packed Milan. Those nights still haunt him, after all.
He is not talking about the Europa League finals, although Atlético won those; about lifting the Copa América at the Maracanã; going to the World Cup with Brazil having overcome the “biggest challenge of my career”, a battle for fitness so hard, so emotional Netflix wanted to make a film about it; or the wild celebrations when his current team, Flamengo, “probably the most demanding club on earth”, won the Libertadores after 38 years with two goals in two dramatic minutes, the country’s first double winners since Pelé led Santos. And he’s not talking about parading the Premier League trophy with Chelsea either, although this did happen in London.
This time, he’s not even talking about football, but he will and in striking, sincere depth. Instead, the former Chelsea defender and resident of Peterborough Road, Fulham, is talking about the time he met Michael Caine. Not a lot of people know that, so it’s a good place to begin a long chat with the footballer fascinated by astrophysics and, most of all, by film.
Filipe Luis rattles off his favourite movies with the speed of a man who has thought about it many times (Interstellar, Shawshank Redemption and Josey Wales The Outlaw), insists cinema “moulded my personality”, and lights up at mention of Vinny Jones. He’s obsessed with Clint Eastwood, grew up trying to talk like him, begged contacts to arrange a meeting and now optimistically says “maybe through The Guardian …” So how about it, Clint? But he did meet his other big screen idol.
“Royal Albert Hall, the premier of Interstellar,” he explains. “Cesc invited me because I love Christopher Nolan. I even walked the red carpet, although no one knew who I was. Nolan was there. Steven Hawking. Kip Thorne, the physicist. Jessica Chastain. Hans Zimmer. And I was in a box with Thierry Henry, Michael Caine and the president of Warner Europe. I couldn’t believe it. There was a talk, then the film with a live orchestra and it was fantastic, the best thing I’d seen in my life.”
His best moment that year, certainly. Film was one thing, football another. Wanted by Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Filipe Luis instead went to London to replace Ashely Cole, an attacking left-back signed for a generation, but within a year he had gone. He had started nine Premier League games.
Something had been wrong from the start. “I haven’t told anyone this but the first game I knocked on [José] Mourinho’s door,” he says. “‘Can I talk to you?’ ‘Come in.’ ‘Why did you bring me here? You took me from a place I was happy, where I played every week. You signed me to play. And the first day against Burnley I’m on the bench. Why not leave me at Atlético? Why bring me here not to play?’ He said he didn’t think I was playing well and [César] Azpilicueta was, that he didn’t feel as secure with me. I had to win my place; I couldn’t expect to be first choice on reputation.
“And looking back, he was right.”
Filipe Luis admits he struggled physically and had difficulties adapting to the style in pre-season. His analysis of the differences between Chelsea and Atlético, of systems, personalities and his place within them is detailed and nuanced, although he admits understanding that too late. Ultimately, though, it was simple. He recalls telling Mourinho “I can play like Azpilicueta” – and a fascinating explanation of stopping Lionel Messi reveals a commitment to defensive duties – but Azpilicueta was already doing Azpilicueta.
“He played so well he never gave me a chance,” Filipe Luis says. “Mourinho rotated so I did get chances but I didn’t start big games because the team was playing perfectly. We had great players. Eden Hazard, Fàbregas, Diego Costa. Alongside Neymar, Eden’s the best I’ve played with. He’s up there with Messi, winning games alone. He didn’t run to defend much, didn’t train well, and five minutes before games he’d be playing Mario Kart in the dressing room. He trained and warmed up laces untied. But he’d go out and no one could take the ball. He’d dribble three or four. If opponents got too close, he’d just pull away, so powerful.
“Miel [honey]. Watching him enjoy football …” Filipe Luis smiles just thinking about it. “So intelligent: one-two, combine, go alone; assist, score, everything. Maybe he lacks the ambition to say ‘I’ll be the world’s best’, because he could be. For talent, the best. Cesc had an extraordinary season too. And Costa. Then the defence was incredible. John Terry’s one of the best captains I’ve had. Even the bench: Oscar, Obi Mikel, Mohamed Salah, [André] Schürrle, Kurt Zouma, [Didier] Drogba, Loïc Rémy. Some team.
“My best moment was December-January; I’d adapted and was playing well. We knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup but I didn’t play the final. I decided I wanted to leave. I played every game: against all the smaller teams, the two semis, and when I didn’t play the final, I felt …” He does air quotes. “…‘betrayed’, for want of a better word.”
Did Mourinho apologise? “No, we won,” he shoots back, smiling. “Out of respect, I thought I should have played but he picked a team to win and we won. So I have no right to say anything and he has no need to say anything. Mourinho’s tremendously competitive, which is what makes him great. The team fit together without me. And he didn’t abandon me: he always sent Rui Faria to talk to me and I never went 10 games without playing. It might look like we fell out but I admire him. I won the league with him. But he didn’t get the best out of me, just as he didn’t with Salah.”
Not that anyone could see Salah being this good, right? Wrong. “I suffered Salah in training, pfff,” Filipe Luis says. “When he went Fiorentina, I said: ‘Why are you going, Momo? This is Chelsea.’ And he said: ‘I need to play.’ I thought: ‘This kid’s good.’ He never went for money or to win more; he went to show he could play. In training he was like Messi. Really, like Messi. Ask anyone.” continue reading