x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

City can be bigger than Real

It is never easy being tagged the new Pele, Ronaldo or Kaka. Expectations are high, the pressure immense.

Robinho is focused firmly on setting Manchester City on the road to becoming one of the world's leading teams.
Robinho is focused firmly on setting Manchester City on the road to becoming one of the world's leading teams.

It is never easy being tagged the new Pele, Ronaldo or Kaka. Expectations are high, the pressure immense. Some are inspired to conquer, while some just crumble. Wonderfully talented though Robinho may be, the jury remains out on him as he seeks a suitable home for his skills. He has always been flattered by comparisons with the Brazilian greats, whose paths he aspires to emulate, but he is his own man and eager to shape his own destiny.

That, he fully believes, will ultimately result in him being the best footballer in the world and part of the best team. What is more, the forward is convinced he can achieve both of those targets at the English Premier League side Manchester City. While some doubters have poured scorn on the ambitions of the Eastlands club since their takeover by a Sheikh Mansour-led consortium from Abu Dhabi, perhaps jealous of the financial muscle they now enjoy. Robinho is sure he has come at the start of something special - and wants to leave as one of the club's all-time greats.

Critics have mentioned money after his British record Dh177m move from Real on Sep 1. But while his salary might be lucrative, he was hardly being paid peanuts during his three years in Spain with Real Madrid. Now 24, the man born as Robson de Souza wants to play, not watch from the bench or stands. Already an icon, Robinho wants to be part of folklore, to be worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the legendary three-time World Cup winner Pele, his mentor at first club Santos.

"It is not easy to be compared to other players. Pele is incomparable, the king of football," he says. "You will never get anyone like him, but I hope to get as much success as him, if not more. "When I was younger I loved watching Ronaldo and Djalminha [the former Deportivo La Coruna playmaker] play, and there are a lot of other players I admire and respect in Brazil, such as Ronaldinho and Kaka.

"But my main inspiration is just looking at the ball and playing - it is all I need. I don't take after any single player. "I came to Manchester City because I see them growing and getting bigger. Can they be as big as Real Madrid? Yes, I hope so. "I hope to play here for many years. I hope to make history at the club and become one of the great heroes of Manchester City." He has a glint in his eye as he says this, the smile broadening as he delivers the words.

He oozes confidence, a touch of arrogance too, but maybe that is what is required to be the best player in the modern game. He believes in his ability. The son of a sewer worker, he rose up from Parque Bitaru, a poor neighbourhood of Sao Vicente in Santos, to achieve footballing fame amid a crime-ridden background. "Playing futsal [indoor football] as a child helped me a lot," he says. "A lot of the moves and things I do on the pitch are things I learnt from futsal when I used to do that.

"I just love playing football and even when I go back to Brazil on holiday I still love playing. "It was always my main aim to become a footballer and I worked hard because it is difficult with so much competition. "In Brazil there are so many good players, some even better than me. I took my chance when I had it. When I was 18, I was handed my debut for Santos and I took my chance in the first team.

"For me, the beautiful thing about football is scoring goals and dribbling, taking on players: that's what I like to do." Cynics say he has yet to fulfil the potential that had Europe's biggest clubs battling to sign him from Santos in 2005. He chose Madrid and seemed to have the perfect stage, but as Real struggled to recapture their glory days, he barely got on the pitch. With fellow Brazilian Vanderlei Luxemburgo ousted as coach, Fabio Capello, now the England manager, came in and wanted to see more steel than style as he called time on the Galacticos era, where the club had signed superstars like Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham without much thought for how they would play together.

It was not something the Real fans enjoyed and, despite winning the Primera Liga title in 2007, Capello was dismissed by the club's president Ramon Calderon as his style of play was not believed to be entertaining enough. Robinho was still a bit-part player under Bernd Schuster in last season's triumph, but he has grown on and off the pitch. The titillating tricks are still part of his repertoire, but he has become more of a team player, and it is something noticed by his new club.

The Manchester City manager, Mark Hughes, has encouraged his attacking instincts and boundless energy, but welcomed his awareness and link-up play with teammates. Often berated in the past for a playboy lifestyle, Robinho has matured. Fatherhood has been a key factor with his son Robson Junior turning one next month. But like a child himself, he has always craved an environment where he feels wanted, where he has the support of those around him. That was not the case at Real, who tried to swap him for the Manchester United winger Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer, prompting an angry and disillusioned Robinho to force a transfer out of the Bernabeu.

He wanted to move to Chelsea, the London side beaten by United in the Champions League final, but after a very public spat with Real ended up making a sudden move to Manchester following City's takeover. It ended a difficult time in his life and career, and those who know him say that if Robinho is happy off the pitch, he will produce his best on it. "Absolutely. My happiness off the field is important," he says.

"I try to bring my joy on to the pitch. When I am feeling good outside then it makes my dribbling more successful and I score more goals." He is enjoying the adulation of the City fans, saying they treat him like a "black Diego Maradona", but what has also helped is the posse of Brazilians around him. There are plenty of his compatriots in the Premier League, particularly the north of England, with Elano, Jo and Glauber at City, and Anderson, Rodrigo Possebon and Fabio and Rafael da Silva at their local rivals United.

Throw in Lucas and Fabio Aurelio at Liverpool - and Geovanni at Hull - and there is one big festa when they meet up. Brazilian food, such as rice, beans and eggs with meat, is on the menu and football the topic of conversation. Does he contribute with the cooking? "No, s***," he laughs, giving the thumbs down and showing he has picked up some footballer's English already. When it comes to Robson Junior, he is much more adept and involved, not leaving duties like nappy changing to his fiancée Vivian.

"Yes, I help out with everything, I am very proud," he says. "It has changed me a lot. I am always thinking about my son and dedicate all my goals to him. "I do the [thumb sucking] celebration for him... but my wife is a bit jealous now as I used to celebrate for her." Robinho dotes on his family. He almost quit the game in 2004 when his mother, Marina da Silva Souza, was kidnapped from her home by gunmen and held for six weeks.

He paid a US$75,000 (Dh276,000) ransom and returned to playing for Santos in order to earn his big move to Real. "When something like that happens, you learn to give a lot more value to people you love and to your family," he says. "I have really learnt the value of my family a lot more. It is the most important thing in life." His father, Gilvan, is now playing a greater part in his life, tasked with his future after taking over from Wagner Ribiero as his representative. It was Ribiero who engineered his transfers to and from Real.

With a fresh start in England, Robinho is trying to move forward. Following a superb hat-trick against Stoke, he set his sights high - very high - with a target of 30 goals for City this season. But although he has been among the goals right away in the Premier League, he is not satisfied. "I always can improve. Where? Everything needs to improve," he says. "Shooting with my right foot, shooting with my left, scoring with my head. I know I can do better.

"But I am playing well and the players are helping me. "I was extremely happy to score the three goals [against Stoke], but the most important thing was the win for the team. "There is a long way to go in this championship and hopefully I can score more and better will come. "I am in a very good phase and hope this will continue. The best form of my career? Maybe. "I am enjoying it and my aim is to become the best player in the world. I hope I can do that here."

With City looking to strengthen the side in the January transfer window with more quality, the prospect of having Fifa's world player of the year Kaka alongside would undoubtedly raise his game even more. The pair form a devastating partnership for Brazil and Robinho would relish the AC Milan man's arrival at Eastlands. "He is a great player and a great person," he says. "Kaka is fantastic and has so much ability. He is strong, intelligent and fast. Obviously I hope I can play with him here. If Kaka or any other great player wants to come here, the door is open.

"It's great when we have players like that mentioned with the club. Obviously we love it, and the ambition of the owners. All the players are hoping to make this club the best in the world. "I also think more of the top players will come to England. The Premier League is more physical, but more beautiful and we still get great goals and have great moments. "I think this is tougher than the Spanish league, but I like the way football is played here."

That is something he might whisper to Ronaldo when they come face to face for the Manchester derby in two weeks' time. While Real are still keen on the Portuguese winger, who is already repeating his impressive form of last season, this will be the perfect chance for Robinho to prove a point. While reluctant to stir up any ill-feeling, he knows how memorable victory at Eastlands would be. "Manchester United are an excellent team. They won the Premier League and Champions League last season, but football is 11 against 11 and nothing is certain," he adds.

"I have not met Cristiano Ronaldo yet, everyone knows he is a fantastic player. But United are not just Ronaldo, they have players like Wayne Rooney, Nani and lots of others who are very good. "I know all about the rivalry in the city and what this game means to the supporters, and I hope we can win." The blue half of Manchester will be hoping so too. It would go a long way in showing Robinho and City are a force to be reckoned with, for now and the future.

akhan@thenational.ae

We have a Manchester City shirt signed by Robinho to give away. To be in with a chance of winning, simply tell us which club City signed the Brazilian forward from in the summer: A: Atletico Madrid B: Real Madrid C: Al Jazira Text your answer to 3538 or visit www.thenational.ae/robinho