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No Final Whistle: Foreword by Sam Clucas

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“When I was growing up I was obsessed with football. I started playing as soon as I could walk, and by the time I could run I was playing two matches in a day and then heading to the park straight afterwards. At the park I’d have a kickabout with my friends and if none of them were around then I’d be out in my back garden practising on my own.

Wherever I went I took a ball.

By the age of 10 I was lucky enough to sign a contract at the Leicester City academy. My dad drove me three times a week from our home in Lincoln. It took more than an hour to get there and more than an hour to get back.

When Leicester released me at the age of 16 it felt like my world had ended. After being there for six years, Leicester City was all I knew. I had been sure that I was going to make it into their first team.

Being released made me feel like I had let a lot of people down. Those around me had made plenty of sacrifices over the years: taking time off work to get me to matches, driving me to training sessions, buying me new boots, watching me play. It hadn’t been easy or cheap for them. And it had all been for nothing.

But I didn’t let that stop me.

I used that setback as motivation. I wanted to prove wrong all of the people who said that I was too small to be a footballer. I wanted to prove wrong all of the people telling me to give up on my dream.

Most importantly, I wanted to succeed for my parents and those around me who had supported me. I owed it to them and I also owed it to myself after all the sacrifices that had been made to become a professional footballer.

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Sam and Seth playing for Lincolnshire

I signed for a local team called Nettleham. Soon enough I was called up to represent Lincolnshire. That’s where I met Seth. While I’d been released by Leicester, he’d been released by Peterborough United. We played down the left hand side; him at left back and myself at left wing.

From there, he signed a professional contract in Brazil and went on to write a few books, including the one you’re about to read.

And myself? I ended up in the Premier League.

It’s something that I never would have imagined. In the space of four years I went from working in a department store to playing against Arsenal and Manchester United.

Playing in the Premier League is the result of working hard every day, of listening to the advice of those around me. Ultimately, I believed in my ability despite what others said and never settled for what I had. I always wanted to test my ability at the next level, and in the end that desire paid off. I signed for Lincoln City, then Jerez Industrial, Hereford, Mansfield and Chesterfield. I was moving up through the leagues. Then, finally, I reached the top. I got promoted to the Premier League with Hull and won Player of the Year. When Hull were relegated, I returned to the Premier League by signing for Swansea.

The journey proved to myself and all those who doubted me that I was good enough.

All of the sacrifices had been worth it.

If I could say anything to an aspiring footballer it would be to enjoy every second of playing. The percentage of young players who make it professional is very small, so you should have as much fun as you can when on the pitch.

If you always listen to your coaches and teachers and keep trying to improve, though, then you never know what can happen. Even now I’m still improving my own game. Learning never stops.

Ultimately, football is a game of opinions.

You may get told ‘no’ by one person. That doesn’t mean you should give up. The next person may see your potential.

If you enjoy playing and keep on learning and trying to improve then anything is possible.

It’s what No Final Whistle is all about.

It’s what my career has been all about.

And it’s what I’ve proved with my journey to the Premier League.

Anything is possible.”

Pre order No Final Whistle: https://www.waterstones.com/book/9780995586154

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No Final Whistle

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As a young footballer, I was released from academies three times. I also failed four trials with pro clubs. And I wasn’t the only one who experienced such rejection.

Young footballers up and down the country are sold the dream of success. Pristine training facilities, top class coaching, psychologists, nutritionists, club kit, agents. It’s easy to get carried away.

Less than 0.5% of players who sign for an academy at the age of 9 end up making it as a professional footballer.

It’s a statistic that’s close to my heart. I’ve always been fascinated by youth development, and after reading Michael Calvin’s excellent No Hunger in Paradise, I made the decision to write something based on my own experiences.

9780995586154-669x1024The result is No Final a Whistle. Aimed at readers aged 9-13, the story follows young footballer Alfie Bennett as he signs for the famous Borough Academy. Initially overjoyed at the prospect of his new reality, Alfie soon realises that all is not quite as it seems.

Drawing from my experiences of academy football, the book seeks to teach the power of resilience. After all, one person’s opinion is never fact. Just ask Jamie Vardy. Or Harry Kane. Or even Sam Clucas, my old teammate who provides the book’s introduction.

I hope you enjoy it…

Pre-order No Final Whistle: https://www.waterstones.com/book/9780995586154

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The Big Screen Debut

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Last week I followed in the footsteps of Vinnie Jones by officially making the transition from football pitch to big screen. The Bromley Boys tells the story of one boy’s obsession with his local non-league side as they battle to stay in the Isthmian League. Based on the book by Dave Roberts, the film features an all star cast. There’s Martine McCutcheon, Alan Davies, Adam Deacon, Brenock O’Connor. And me.

It all started in the October of 2016. I was sitting at my desk, typing away at my computer, when the phone rang.

‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ came the voice on the other end of the line. It was William Sarne, a director of my old futsal team.

‘Well, I’ll be at work’, I replied, ‘but I’m about in the evening.’

‘Do you want to be in a film?’

I imagine other castings are slightly tougher.

The directors needed someone who could kick a football in a straight line. They were due to film a match scene and it’d be my job to dribble round a few defenders and score a couple of goals. It seemed simple enough.

‘Why are they sorting this so late?’ I asked.

‘Séan Garnier was supposed to be doing the role but he’s injured’ came the response. So I’d be a direct replacement for the two-time world freestyle champion. Séan Garnier, with six million global followers, replaced by Seth Burkett, with one thousand global followers – most of whom he went to school with – and no acting qualifications.

Later that evening the phone went again. It was William.

‘Listen, they still want you in the film, but the role you’re supposed to be playing is West Ham’s Bermudan international striker Clyde Best. You don’t know anyone more suitable do you?’

Within an hour, one of my former teammates – Sean Sinclair – was confirmed. The role that was originally going to be played by Séan Garnier was now being split between three of us. Séan would still be appearing in the film – he was flying in from France the next morning – but he couldn’t do any of the football scenes. My former teammate would be doing the dribbling and scoring. And I’d be doing, well, I wasn’t sure what I’d be doing.

The next morning William picked me up at 6.30am. This gave us plenty of time to make the 8am casting call at Crockenhill FC in Kent.

If that wake-up call wasn’t enough of a warning, I soon found out that the life of an actor isn’t so glamorous.

After a lot of waiting around, I was called in to get my costume. For one day only, I was to be a West Ham reserve team player. I was given a claret and blue kit with blacked out Sondico boots. First, however, I was to get changed into a moth-eaten suit to film an entrance scene.

All suited up, I was sent to hair and make-up. The two ladies took one look at me and decided that they didn’t really need to do too much to make me look like I was from the 60s. I’ve never claimed to be at the cutting edge of fashion, but I had hoped my look might pass for something more modern. They didn’t even touch my hair.

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By now it was approaching 10am. The stars were in their caravans and us extras were huddled together in the changing rooms, wondering when something was going to happen.

Eventually, those of us who were West Ham players were shepherded onto a bus. The task was simple. When the bus stopped we had to stand up, walk off and wait next to the bus door while the people with speaking parts said their bits.

If I wasn’t good at getting off a bus before, six takes and sixty minutes ensured that I’d pretty much nailed it by the time we moved on to the next scene: the run out.

I was assigned to lead my West Ham team out of the tunnel while keeping a ball in the air. In contrast, our overweight opponents would amble out to emphasise an obvious difference in footballing ability.

Once again, there were a load of takes, a load of different angles and a lot of waiting around for the cameras to reset.

At 2pm we broke for lunch. The stars took their shepherd’s pie back into their caravans while us extras huddled for space around the radiator in the cramped changing room. Despite our surroundings there was excitement in the air, for we all knew what was happening next: the goals.

With my former teammate now the star of the show, it was my task to provide him the pass. Inspired my Dimitri Payet’s slaloming goal the previous week, my team would roll the ball back to me from the kick-off. I’d take a touch and then hit a diag to my former teammate who’d then take on the whole team and score. He nailed it first time. And second time. And third time.

I watched on like a proud father, my own confidence growing with every pass. Then they asked me to score an overhead kick. After five underwhelming efforts they soon realised their mistake and instead focused on tap-ins and volleys. Happy that I’d had plenty of screen time, I took a backseat and let some of the others – who were actual actors and had actually auditioned – have a go.

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19 months later, having settled into my cinema seat at the world premiere of the Bromley Boys, I wished I hadn’t taken a backseat in the goal scenes.

Up to that point, all of the signs had been good. After the day’s filming, I was taken into the director’s caravan and given £100 for my troubles. Did that make me a semi-professional actor? I was sure it did and spent the evening working out how to get it into my Twitter bio.

A month before the premiere, I was thrilled to spot myself in the trailer. Ok, I was only in the background for half a second, but I figured that meant I’d definitely be in the film.

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On the day of the premiere, Mum and Dad travelled down from Peterborough. They’d never been to a premiere before and weren’t about to pass up the chance to see their boy in a film.

They got there early, and when I arrived an hour before the start time with my girlfriend I was surprised. I hadn’t expected it to be such a big event. There were people everywhere. The bar was buzzing. The stars were mingling with the crowd. And when Mum spotted Martine McCutcheon I thought she was going to faint with excitement.

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We walked through to the cinema room and found 1,000 seats awaiting us. All had been sold.

The film started and within 10 minutes I’d made an appearance. Pride filled me as I watched myself walk off the bus in my period outfit and stand majestically next to the door. The camera showed me in the background for at least five seconds as Branock O’Connor asked the West Ham manager whether ‘anyone good’ was going to be playing in the game. Cheeky sod.

Then, the run out scene. Now I really was in the background. All of those takes had been discarded. As the camera focused on Bromley’s rag-tag team, us West Ham players could just about be made out running on to the pitch. You couldn’t even tell that I was doing kick-ups. But not to worry, for now was my real star moment. The pass. I was sure it’d win me an Oscar.

I watched on, and on, and on. Awaiting the pass that never came. Instead the camera showed Sean Sinclair majestically control a lofted pass before turning and dribbling past the entire Bromley team. His goal was shown, then another of his goals, then a different actor’s goal. And then the scene was over, and with that my involvement in the film. £100 of payment for 10 hours of standing around and five seconds of peripheral screen time. To be honest, I was buzzing.

My girlfriend soon brought me back to Earth. ‘When are you in the film?’ she asked.

I reckon she was just too invested in the storyline to spot me. I don’t blame her. The film was good. Having spent a number of years playing non-league football, the characterisation was absolutely spot on. Dave Roberts’ book is brilliant, and the film truly does it justice thanks to some great acting, especially by Jamie Foreman.

As the end credits rolled, the crowd stood up to applaud. So many people had played a small part in bringing the film to life. I was proud to have been one of those people. And now it was out there, ready to be judged by the public. I guess the next step is just to wait for that Oscar…

Watch the trailer here

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The Realities of Writing

It always makes me laugh when students ask to see my Ferrari. At almost every school I’ve been in to, I get that same question. “What car do you drive?” They’ve done the maths. Played football. Published author. He must be minted. Imagine their horror, then, when they clap eyes on my 2001 Ford Fiesta, bought off a mate for £145. “Don’t worry” I tell the pupils. “It’s great in the winter. The heater is broken so it’s always on full blast. Bit of a problem in summer, mind”.

Still, they don’t seem too put off. They must still see value in my books. Well, that’s if the number of times I’ve been asked to sign a book ‘To eBay user’ is anything to go by. Little do they realise that the ones without my signature are probably worth more…

It wasn’t always this way. I finished my first manuscript at the age of 18. Bright eyed and relentlessly positive, I sent it off to tens of publishers. It was good. Not great, but good enough to provoke interest. Or so I thought. Every single publisher rejected it.

Several rewrites later, I managed to get the book into a position where a few publishers did finally show interest. One in particular caught my eye. Ian Ridley was an award winning journalist who had had several very successful books published. More recently he’d started his own publishing company, with his first project being Mark Halsey’s autobiography. I knew that the opportunity to learn from Ian would be invaluable.

I’m proud to say that Ian has gone on to become a true mentor to me. His support has been amazing and he helped make my first book, The Boy in Brazil, a success.

As far as I’m concerned it was a success, anyway. Those more critical could point to a number of factors. For starters, it took us nearly two years to pay back the cost of actually printing the book.

My deal with Ian was that he would take the risk – and it was a risk; I was a 22 year old kid and nobody had a clue who I was – on publishing my book. He’d edit it, pay for all the production costs, enter it for awards, take care of the marketing and pretty much be on hand 24/7 for advice. All I had to do was write the thing. Once the book royalties had paid back the costs associated with all of this then I’d begin to get paid, with profits split 50/50.

I never expected to make my millions, but I was hoping we might have recouped those costs a little quicker. Having been released just before the 2014 World Cup, Ian managed to get the book into most of the major newspapers, and we also made appearances on the BBC and TalkSport.

With all of the media coverage, I envisaged the book everywhere: plastered all over WH Smiths, on the front table in Waterstones, in the hands of commuters up and down the country. Yet when I strolled into my local Waterstones they’d never heard of it. “But I’m local”, I protested. “Can’t you support it?”
“Sorry”, came the reply. “You’re just not a big enough name.”

Well that was one way to bring me down to Earth with a bump. Fortunately there was still Amazon. Glorious, capitalist, tax-avoiding Amazon, where my book even troubled the top 1,000 bestsellers at one point. With the focus on online sales, we managed to shift 150 copies in the first month. Not bad, but still a long way short of paying off the costs of printing. Especially when we’d exhausted pretty much all media interest.

By month three, sales had fallen dramatically. The World Cup was over. There was a new season to look forward to, and a whole new series of books released. A profit had never looked further off.

Yet all was not lost. Though online sales were underwhelming, I was managing to sell a steady stream of books through friends, contacts and social media. It worked out much better to sell them myself than through other places. If we sold a book through Amazon for £10, Amazon would take £5 and Ian would take £5. If I sold a book myself, all £10 went to Ian. One personal sale was the equivalent of two online sales. If we ever entered a profit it meant I’d be getting £5 to keep from each personal sale.

Determined to at least break even, I tried everything I could think of to shift books. With Ian’s support I put on several book launches, spoke in schools, held signings, even set up a table at the side of a groundhoppers’ football event. If I sold just one book it was worth it.

We started to gather momentum. Reviews came in. Independent bookshops began to stock the book. Foyles ordered some in. Amazon made the eBook version an ‘Editor’s Pick’. And then, the ultimate recognition: the book was shortlisted for Football Book of the Year at the British Sport Book Awards. As far as I was concerned, we’d made it.

It took another year of hard work to break even. Four years on, we’ve even made a bit of a profit. Yet we’re still far from done. There are 700 copies of The Boy in Brazil in the spare room of my parents’ house. There are 150 copies under the bed in my flat. Until they’re all sold, I need to keep on putting in the legwork and thinking of new ways to get the book out there.

People often tell me they’re thinking of writing a book. My advice to them is always the same. Do it. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Just make sure you’re willing to put in the work after the actual writing. And don’t expect to make your millions.

Check out the finished product: http://amzn.to/2yCSZ2l

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Welcome

Thanks for clicking onto my website. Feel free to take a look around.

Having played professional football in Brazil, I now dedicate my time to writing and speaking in schools. I’ve had three books published and am currently working on a fourth.

I’m always open to new opportunities. If you have something of interest, give me a shout.

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The Boy in Brazil, Chapter Three

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Sorriso didn’t exist until 1985. Created out of cleared rainforest in central Brazil, it soon attracted numerous people who were not only enticed by the cheap land on offer, but also the cheerful city name. ‘Sorriso’ translated as ‘smile’, though the name selection was not intentional. In fact, it was a reference to the Italian immigrants who only cultivated rice in the area. ‘So riso’ means ‘only rice’ but the words ended up being merged to form the final name of the city.

 

The terrain of the area was exceptional for cultivating crops, some of the flattest and most fertile land in Brazil. Over the years, it had specialised in the production of soybean, and developed to become the national capital of agribusiness. It was now the biggest producer of soybean in the World, which is how many of the 70,000 Sorriso residents came to make their riches.

Deep in the heart of Brazil, and South America, Sorriso was some 1,500 miles from Rio and the same from Manaus in the Amazon forest to the North (where England, it would turn out, would play Italy in their opening game of the 2014 World Cup finals). Whereas Salvador was located next to beautiful long, golden beaches, Sorriso could not have been further from the coast. Indeed, it would take a two-day car drive to get to the nearest beach.

The club, Sorriso Esporte Clube, had both a youth team and a full-time professional senior team, their Mato Grosso state leagues running parallel from late January to April. From May to December, the national leagues took place in but featured only the top ranked 100 clubs, the top 20 clubs comprising such giants as as Flamengo and Fluminense from Rio and Corinthians and Palmeiras from Sao Paulo forming Serie A.

That meant another 700 professional clubs in the country left with no fixtures between May and December, so states often organised their own cups for part of this time. The Mato Grosso cup took place between September and April. SEC were ranked 264th in the country by the Confederacao Brasileira de Futebol – the Brazilian equivalent of the Football Association. In status, it was probably around the same level as the Conference in England.

Finally I was getting on a plane to see and experience all this for myself. I flew via Lisbon to Brasilia, where I felt lost as I searched the airport – so big, so foreign – for my internal flight to Cuiaba, the nearest airport to Sorriso. This was not ideal considering that, after the Brazilians had taken so long to get us through passport control, I was left with just 45 minutes to catch my connecting flight.

It suddenly occurred to me that I had never been in an airport on my own before, let alone in a foreign country on the other side of the World. I suddenly felt my youthfulness, how exposed I was to anyone who could quite easily take advantage of me.

 

My fearful expression must have been evident as I was approached by a Swedish man. He was a gymnastics coach, and was in Brazil to improve his own coaching knowledge, having previously worked with the United States gymnastics team. He had been to Brazil regularly and was comfortable in the airport. He kindly pushed me in the direction of the line for my connecting flight. In another kind twist of fate, the queue wasn’t too long, just tediously slow moving.

After a frustrating wait I made it to the front where I was brusquely informed that I was in the wrong queue. The airport attendant directed me to the actual queue I needed to be in. I was sweating quite heavily now, my heart bouncing around my chest. I had 15 minutes left until take-off. Terrible thoughts flooded my head – what if I missed the flight? I’d lose my contract with Sorriso. I’d be stuck in Brazil, unable to afford a flight home. What was that film? Oh yes, The Terminal.

I needn’t have worried. I was in Brazil after all. I reached the gate with two minutes to spare after being fast-tracked through the correct queue. The flight took off half-an-hour late, which I was coming to learn was actually pretty good when it came to Brazilian timing. It was only when I was in the air that I realised I had no clue who was picking me up or how I was actually getting to Sorriso.

The question, whilst troubling, was not as disturbing as the flight. I’d never been in an aeroplane that vibrated so much. It was like we were going through permanent turbulence. Overwhelming relief flooded through me when the wheels touched down in Cuiaba. I stepped out of the potential death-trap into torrential rain, a lovely feeling in the oppressive heat.

The airport building was a lot less intimidating than the one in Brasilia. It was tiny, more like a reception area in a hotel. There was just one carousel, and my suitcase was the first to appear. Optimistic, I collected it and headed to where I hoped Emerson would meet me. A man approached me.

‘Michel?’
‘No, Seth’, I replied. ‘No, no, Michel’.

‘You, Sorriso?’ I asked, desperately trying hand gestures. He nodded, before telling me in broken English that he was picking up a Michel from Portugal. I think that was what he meant anyway.

‘No. Me. Seth. Sorriso. Play futebol.’ I was getting frantic. This appeared to be the man who was supposed to be taking me. It just a shame that he wasn’t aware of it. He excused himself and embarked on a long, long phone call. My heart was doing somersaults. After about 20 minutes he nodded to tell me that I could jump in with him. We just had to wait for Michel.

Finally, a muscular teenager around six feet tall stepped into the airport reception. What was most striking about him was not his black curly hair, but more his choice of attire. Michel was obviously proud of his body, and had made a conscious effort to emphasise his bulging arms by donning a bright pink vest, together with tight jeans and running trainers.

Undeterred by his episode with me, the man approached Michel with a forceful, outstretched hand and a smile. This was definitely the boy he was supposed to be picking up. He motioned for both of us to follow him into a small, white 1980s Fiat Punto. I still wasn’t sure that this was who was supposed to be picking me up, but I was too tired to care and grateful to have some company.

I sat in the back and attempted to make sense of the conversation that the man and Michel were having. It appeared that he was the chairman of Sorriso and had invested a great deal of money into the club. He really should have put a bit of money aside to invest in his car, whose age was no secret thanks to the excessive rust.

The Chairman seemed a self-important man. He talked loudly and took little notice of what Michel was saying. He was on the phone for most of the journey. I had decided to sit behind Michel. Although the Chairman had seemingly played football in the past – he claimed to have played for Corinthians, though I was sceptical – he had developed a pot belly which was out of proportion to the rest of his body. His car seat was tilted quite far back, giving his stomach just enough room to fit under the steering wheel. I guessed him to be around 40 years old but had no Portuguese to ask him any questions.

 

As a break from the self-importance, the man stopped the car and paid for a buffet for the three of us. It was here that I was able to talk to Michel, who I discovered was a goalkeeper, one of Anderson’s players, and who had previously played in Brazil for Emerson. Michel had a friendly, gentle demeanour and was softly spoken.

Feeling well-fed and watered, I dropped into a deep sleep back in the Punto, which was frequently slowed by bouts of astonishingly heavy showers. We even had to come to a halt a couple of times to wait for the apocalyptic rain to relent. Anderson had told me that the journey would take ‘a few’ hours. I believed him – Sorriso is in the same state as Cuiaba after all. I had neglected to take into account that Mato Grosso, like many of the other Brazilian states, covered a vast area in a country seven times bigger than the United Kingdom.

After eight hours of driving on dusty, pot-holed roads, with views of nothing more than expansive fields of crops, punctuated by a settlement every now and again, we came to a small city. We drove through a dusty favela at the edge of an industrial estate, filled with box houses created from whatever materials the owners could find. On the edge of the favela we stopped at what appeared to be a garage, I presumed to fill up with petrol. It turned out that ‘Casa dos Filtros’ – literally ‘House of Filters’ and indeed a former garage – was my new home.

The Chairman gestured for us to get our suitcases and follow him and tentatively I obeyed. Casa dos Filtros had a big up-and-over front door and a corrugated iron roof. The door led into a large communal area and kitchen. There was a long bench running from one wall to the other, and a television opposite this. I wondered why there was a toilet brush on the table. The house was empty. It was late afternoon and the team was presumably training.

We were taken to a room on the left, where the Chairman told us to leave our suitcases. The room was a little bigger than my one at home – but this one I had to share with five Brazilians (or four and Michel). Three bunk beds were shoved around the perimeter of the room, leaving an area of about four square metres in the middle. The windows had bars covering them, though one of the windows had a bar missing.

The most notable object in the room was the large air conditioning box in the top corner of the room, which had been turned up to full in the absence of the residents. It felt like a refrigerator in there. Quotes, printed on paper in large font, were pinned to the walls of the room and I wished that I knew what they meant. A couple were clearly marked as being Biblical and I suspect the others were motivational.

 

The concrete bathroom was a collection of shared, open showers, three toilets with no doors and a urinal under a washing line. Shower curtains hung limply where the toilet doors should have been in a vain attempt to preserve the user’s dignity, though one toilet lacked a curtain and was utterly exposed. This same toilet was missing a toilet brush, and I couldn’t help but think the brush on the dining room table was in the wrong place.

And was that brush needed in that toilet. Flies were hovering around what the last user had deposited on the seat and the other two toilets had urine covering the floor. Deciding that this was the lesser of two evils I carefully tiptoed in to relieve myself. It seemed my personal hygiene was rapidly about to go downhill. We got back into the Chairman’s car and headed across town.

The beautiful scenery that was so overwhelming in Salvador was absent from the Sorriso area. Instead there were miles and miles of plain, boring soybean fields, stretching as far as the eye could see. There remained uncleared patches of rainforest around the outskirts of the city and not until you got 10 minutes out of the place was there much more foliage, replete with tropical birds of all colours of the rainbow.

The city of Sorriso itself, however, was rather plain. Nice, but not exactly inspiring. Like many of the newly built areas, such as the notoriously bland Brasilia, it was a bit too manufactured, almost perfectly square. At the centre were two parks, filled with ice-cream vendors, cafes/diners known locally as luncheonettes and benches, along with the newly built shopping centre, cinema and television studios complex, providing the social hub of the city. When the football stadium and churches weren’t open of course.

The Chairman parked his car at the Estadio Egidio Jose Preima, home of Sorriso Esporte Clube, and we walked through the entrance to see our new team being put through their paces by Emerson.

 

The stadium had been built on the edge of the city, and it looked out on to gentle rolling hills punctuated by the odd house. There was only one large concrete, terraced stand, with no seats as such, than ran the length of one side of the ground and which I was told could accommodate around 5,000 people. A roof spanned across thirty metres at its centre but the rest of the ground was open. From the stand, the handful of supporters watching the training session could see the impressive view. The substitute benches were opposite the stand, but the changing rooms were hidden by the hill.

We entered the ground at the centre of the stand, coming out at the halfway line. A commentary box sat above the walkway, with the message ‘Obrigado por prestigiar o esporte’ – thank you for honouring the sport – painted across it. A large wired fence, combined with a running track, separated the stand from the pitch. I could just imagine the fans jumping on this fence, going crazy as I scored yet another match winner for their beloved team.

Closer inspection of the pitch put my daydream into jeopardy, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to play on it. There was a distinct lack of grass. Where there was grass it was knee high, wispy rather than thick but knee high nevertheless. There were dusty patches of earth dotted all around. The only areas that had grass at an acceptable height were the penalty areas.

There were 31 players training and I would find out they were all ages from 13 to 18. That was the way here, it seemed; if they were good enough and strong enough, they could compete with players more senior. Emerson had them playing a match, and he bounced over to me and Michel, who would take the squad up to 33, of whom 28 would end up going to the Copa Sao Paolo.

‘Ah, Sefi!’ he said, approaching me first, firmly shaking my hand with a broad beam across his face, showing his pearl white teeth. I noted the England cap he was wearing, presumably for my benefit. Emerson cut a porcine figure, stocky if not fat. His calf muscles were not far off the girth of my torso.

Emerson had been a good player, also a left back, and had played at a high standard, with Bahia of Salvador in the 1980s. Lots of people recognised him and he enjoyed the fame.

 

He had even been capped by Brazil at Under 23 level, and had accumulated enough money from his long spell in the Brazilian top flight to drive around in the biggest, shiniest, whitest Range Rover I’d ever seen. The healthy tan that he sported blended in perfectly with his bleached blonde hair, taking the attention away from his snout-like nose. His smile was infectious, his voice booming and his personality endearing. I immediately felt welcome.

Back in Casa dos Filtros my teammates stared at me inquisitively. They had never met an English boy before. They introduced themselves before dinner, but were unsure of how to build conversation. I had learned a few words in Salvador, and I tested one out to try and befriend them.

‘Pinto,’ I said – a slang word for penis – and they roared approving laughs. Suddenly they were jabbering at me from all angles, encouraging me to say more rude words in Portuguese. I acted the parrot, copying all that I heard to the delight of my onlookers.

Lucas, who I would find out was a defender, was especially vocal in encouraging me to say phrases. Although he was of slight build, he had a mean face. At some stage in his life he had decided that his curly hair gave off the wrong impression, of being soft, and he had covered his arms with tattoos to try and alter the perception. Despite this he couldn’t have been more hospitable, and he really eased my transition into the house. Unfortunately he couldn’t get a grasp of my name.

‘Jeff?’ he wondered…‘Jeffy? Sefi?’ Sefi would do, at least that had an S in it. I had encountered this problem in Salvador. It seemed that Brazilians just couldn’t pronounce my name.

After my little show, the Chairman arrived and encouraged me to go along to a local game with some of my teammates. Andrei was Sorriso’s star striker, and was one of the few players who actually lived in the city. On top of this he could speak a little English. Chandler and Viniscius – the team’s central defenders and two of my new roommates – joined us.

Viniscius had the same sort of porky frame as Emerson and also had a little pig tail growing out of the back of his head to complete the illusion. He appeared loud and confident. Chandler was taller, quieter and quite obviously very fashion conscious, perhaps more so

 

than Viniscius. Rumour had it that he had served a prison sentence, though nobody knew for what. Perhaps Viniscius put the rumour round himself to frighten us, or me at least.

Andrei drove us to the stadium I had been at just a few hours before, and I took my seat alongside a few hundred other spectators. I was informed that I was at a game where the teams were competing to be the best amateur team in Sorriso. Andrei pointed out the No. 8 for the team in blue and white. ‘Watch him… He very good.’

Apparently the No. 8 had had trials with Portsmouth but I didn’t really get the chance to assess his performance as quite quickly he managed to get himself sent off for what the referee deemed an unacceptable shoulder barge. The No. 8 subsequently deemed it unacceptable that the referee should send him off for such an innocuous tickle of his opponent’s shoulder, and reacted by pushing the referee several times. The referee eventually fell to the ground, sparking havoc. Both teams piled in, with punches being thrown everywhere. In the corner of my eye I made out the linesman from the far touchline. He was hitting one of the players with his flag. Someone tried to stop him and he turned around and jabbed them in the midriff with his flag. The referee, now back on his feet, was helplessly tooting his whistle. Nobody was listening.

Somehow the madness fizzled out, and the No. 8 was ejected from the pitch. The game re-started only to stop a matter of minutes later. The No. 8 had re-emerged with a beer in his hand, still wearing his match shorts but nothing else. Carrying his beer in one hand, his boot bag in the other, he embarked on in an infuriatingly slow walk across the pitch and prevented any play for another two minutes.

Welcome, Sefi Burkett (and they would have some fun with my surname too), to the wonderful world of Brazilian football.