Hunched over video-game consoles in darkened bedrooms, thousands of young Brazilians play games like FIFA and imagine following in the footsteps of Neymar or Ronaldinho.
Few imagine making the journey in the other direction, but Wendell Lira might change that.
The 27-year-old striker recently made the unprecedented decision to quit professional soccer and take up its video-game equivalent. After ten years spent bouncing around various leagues in Brazil, now he hopes esports can take him around the world.
"All the things I didn't achieve in soccer, I can try to achieve in virtual soccer," Lira told VICE Sports. "I've been lucky enough to have a career in soccer, and now I can have a career in video games."
Lira grew up in the baking hot city of Goiania, in Brazil's midwestern rural heartlands, dreaming of a pro soccer career like so many of his friends. For a while, he succeeded; in 2006, he was even the target of a nearly $2 million bid from Italian giants AC Milan. (Goiás, his club at the time, turned down the offer.)
Just last year, he achieved the most notable success of his career, earning FIFA's Puskás Award, which is given annually to the player with the best goal scored anywhere in the world; previous winners include Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Neymar, and James Rodriguez. Lira's ticket to this exclusive club came while he was playing for Goianesia, a modest club a few hours drive from his hometown. In the 28th minute of the Goiás state championship against Atletico Goianiense in March, he ran onto a floated pass into the penalty area, spun 360 degrees under the flight of the ball, and then launched into an almost horizontal scissors kick to smash a shot past Márcio in the opposition goal.
"I couldn't really see what happened because everything moved so quickly," Lira said. "At the time I didn't know if it was a great goal or not, though I had an idea it was pretty good. And then I started getting messages from people saying I'd scored a golaço."
The effort was stunning enough to push Lira past his fellow finalists Leo Messi and Italy's Alessandro Florenzi, and earned him a trip to the Ballon D'Or ceremony in Zurich last January, where he received his award from legendary Japanese midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata. In a video from the event, he appears almost in a daze, wiping tears from his eyes.
"It was an incredible day," Lira said. "To win a prize like that, and become part of soccer history, and meet people like Cristiano Ronaldo. I have to thank God for giving me the opportunity."
The excitement continued when Lira returned home to Goiania, where the suddenly world-famous striker was barraged by constant requests for interviews and media appearances.Yet fame is often fleeting in soccer, particularly in the hard-knock world of the Brazilian lower divisions, and Lira's moment did not last long. He had played for seven teams in seven years before arriving at unfashionable Goianesia. Even the Puskas prize did not dramatically change his fortunes.
Following a couple of injury-plagued seasons, Lira decided to retire earlier this year after an unsuccessful spell at another Goiania team, Villa Nova.
"My biggest reason for giving up football was the injuries," he told Vice Sports. "They stopped me from playing at a high level, and I wanted to finish at a good time for me."
Rather than ponder what might have been, however, Lira saw retirement as a chance to pursue another long-held passion.
"I started playing soccer in the streets when I was a kid," he told VICE Sports. "Back then I played Superstar Soccer on the Nintendo all the time, too. It's pretty old, but I still play it now sometimes."
Even after becoming a professional soccer player he would play video soccer after training sessions, and soon graduated to FIFA Soccer on the PlayStation. He credits some of his success as a professional to the hours he spent gaming—and vice versa.
"Playing video games has been really important for my soccer career," he said. "It teaches you reflexes, and how to improvise quickly, because it's so fast. It helped me a lot.... Soccer has helped me play video games, too. Lots of stuff I do on FIFA today I learnt from playing soccer, like tactics and formations."
He put that knowledge to good use on the night of the Puskás Award in Zurich. He may not have known it at the time, but the last great moment of his old career was to become the first great moment of his new one, as he thrashed Abdulaziz Alshehri, a 25-year-old from Saudi Arabia and the reigning FIFA Interactive World Cup champion at the time, in an exhibition match, 6-1.
The transition to a pro-gaming career hasn't been quite so easy, however. Lira didn't qualify for this year's FIFA Interactive World Cup, the game's most prestigious tournament, but is already hard at work training for the 2017 edition.
"If you ask any teenager if they want to get paid for playing video games, they'll say yes," he said. "I want to work and play at the same time.... I don't have any regrets."
Lira hopes to earn money through competition prizes as well as sponsors; his YouTube channel, where he broadcasts streams and shares tips with fans on everything from FIFA Soccer to Brazilian fantasy soccer, has more than 127,000 subscribers. He believes professional gaming can be as financially lucrative as his soccer career—if not more so. That should not be hard in Brazil, where even the country's top clubs are in debt. A recent report by the Itaú bank suggested that 27 of the biggest teams owed a total of $1.1 billion in taxes alone; player wages are frequently paid late or not at all.
The situation is worse at the lower levels, at least in part because of the structure of the country's soccer calendar. Clubs play in local state leagues for the first half of the year, with the biggest teams going on to play in the national championship between May and December. Players from smaller state league clubs that do not qualify for the national tournament must either seek a new team or spend the next seven months without soccer—and, more to the point, a salary. According to Bom Senso FC (Common Sense FC), a protest group formed by current and former professionals to demand better working conditions, more than 20,000 professional soccer players in Brazil find themselves unemployed in the second half of each year.
"Being a soccer player here in Brazil is really difficult," said Lira, telling VICE Sports that he earned just $1,500 a month at Vila Nova, his last club. "There are lots of players who can't make a living. People think it's all about glory, that everyone is like Neymar, but there's so much that people don't know."
Felipe Carvalho, Lira's agent and the director of sports consulting company GECAF Sports, envisions big things for his client. He believes that Lira could be a star in esports given his unique background.
"He's very charismatic, and has had a strong brand within soccer since his breakout year in 2006, and especially after he reached his peak by winning the Puskás Prize," said Carvalho, who admitted that virtual soccer was a "new area" for his company and an emerging market in Brazil.
Today, Lira remains torn on whether he prefers playing on a virtual pitch or being on the field himself. As someone who has experienced more lows than highs in the sports world, though, he believes that video game success is in some ways more accessible.
"Lots of people want to play professional football and can't, because they don't get the chance," he said. "But with video games, you don't have that."
Brazilians will always play FIFA imagining themselves as the next great player for the Seleção. Perhaps there's room for at least a few of them to try and become the next Wendell Lira, too.
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