At the age of 10, Felipe Monteiro gave up playing football. As a child, he didn’t like the biggest sport in his country, Brazil. He quit, deciding to play basketball and volleyball instead. 

Currently Atlético Madrid’s first-choice central defender, he didn’t return to football until he was 17. A late developer, turning professional at the age of 20. “At the age of 18 I thought that football wasn’t for me,” he tells Diario AS. I hadn’t gotten anything from it. I was getting older and I had to start making a living and I wanted to work and not depend on my parents.”

Rejected at trials at over a dozen clubs, he began delivering mushrooms to restaurants in São Paulo for his father-in-law. When some of his current team-mates were already making a name for themselves in the game, he was waking up at 3 am, to ensure the mushrooms arrived in time to demanding restaurant owners across Brazil’s most populous city. Now, 11 years on, Felipe is 30, in his prime, and playing the best football of his life.

Just as he was about to quit again, as he did at 10, the opportunity arose. His team at the time – União Mogi are based in Mogi das Cruzes, the area of São Paulo where he grew up. A team-mate at União Mogi sent a DVD of the defender’s performances to Bragantino. Bragantino were in the Brazilian Second Division and after being impressed by what they saw on the DVD, they signed Felipe. He made his professional debut at 22.

Just a year later, Brazilian giants, Corinthians came calling and the defender made his debut in the Brazilian First Division, aged 23. Still raw, having received no formal academy training –  Corinthians unearthed a hidden gem. His enormous potential began to shine through. Coached by current Brazil head coach Tite, every day was a school day – learning and at the same time winning, lifting the Brazilian championship in 2015.

Felipe had no academy development years, instead, he learnt on the job, it wasn’t too late to. “They were two and a half years of learning and coaching (at Corinthians), to get to where I am today.” Tite – who went on the manage the Brazil national team – decided to call up his former defender for his international debut in 2018. Felipe played for 45 minutes for Brazil versus el Salvador on 11 September 2018 in the United States.

Strong performances in South America put him on Porto’s radar. An €8.2m move saw him join the Portuguese side for the 2016-17 season. Porto won a Primeira Liga title in 2018 and Felipe was named as one of five Porto players in the Team of the Year. The move to Portugal was helped initially by the language – speaking Portuguese ensured a smooth transition, and he went on to become one of the captains at the club. The intensity of the training sessions under head coach Sérgio Conçeiçao were similar to Diego Simeone’s at Atlético Madrid. 

The departure of Atlético legend Diego Godín in the summer of 2019 meant Simeone needed a new leader at the heart of his defence. It was to be a huge challenge for any defender to take over from Godín – one of the finest centre-backs of his generation.

Aggressive in the air and a threat going forward from set-pieces, which he attributes to his time playing basketball, Atlético set their sights on Felipe.

A fee of €20m was enough for both clubs to reach an agreement. Porto shook hands on a deal with Atleti; Mexican midfielder Hector Herrera also left for the Spanish capital. An ever-present at the heart of the defence, playing every minute since 19 October against Valencia. Felipe has only missed out once since then, through suspension, in a game against Granada on 8 February, after picking up five yellow cards in the league. 

Quick, commanding and good on the ball – he also has pitched in with two goals this season, receiving plaudits for his spectacular front flip celebration. Being Brazilian – he’s a fan of playing it out from the back. Slotting in as the left-sided centre-back, although right-footed, he likes to pass out with both feet, often coming inside on his right foot to play long.

Now the leader at the back, he has shown maturity by bringing along fellow Brazilian defender Lodi, who is nine years his junior. The pair have a great understanding, which is strengthened further by speaking the same language. 

Nine years have passed since turning professional. In those nine years, the 30-year-old hasn’t picked up a single injury, in a total of 277 games. Playing 2,792 minutes this season – the fourth highest at Atlético – he has featured alongside Mario Hermoso 16 times, Stefan Savic 13 times and José María Giménez 10 times.

Of the four central defenders at Los Rojiblancos’ disposal – Felipe has featured the most in all competitions, with 31 appearances to Giménez’s 16, Savic’s 19 and Hermoso’s 20. It can be argued that he has been the club’s best signing of the 2019 summer window, along with English international Kieran Trippier.

From knocking out the European champions Liverpool at Anfield in March, Felipe has come a long way from selling mushrooms in Brazil.

Kieran Quaile