Antony: Manchester United’s £80m man who grew up in Sao Paulo’s ‘Little Hell’

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Antony played for Ajax under now Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag
Antony played for Ajax under now Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag

Early in 2019, Antony could have chosen to go with Sao Paulo’s first team on a US pre-season tour and feature against the likes of Eintracht Frankfurt and Ajax. He didn’t and that drastically changed his career forever.

Despite training with the senior squad in the previous months, the young winger did not hesitate when the board came up with the idea of sending him back instead to the under-20 team for the Copa Sao Paulo, Brazil’s premier youth competition.

He would then announce himself to the footballing world, scoring four goals and providing six assists in the title-winning campaign.

When he returned to the first team, Antony’s reputation within the club was no longer the same. He was not just another talented graduate anymore. He was the real deal.

“That was a turning point for him,” former Sao Paulo executive director Alexandre Passaro tells BBC Sport. “Unlike other kids that refused to go back to the youth side and saw it as a demerit, he accepted it right away, even if it meant missing out on a trip that most of the players were looking forward to.

“He has always been a very humble lad and didn’t care about that, only about how he could improve his performances. He would shine that season and become the player that we all admire now.

“Soon, Ajax were asking about him. They had offered €3m for him in 2018 and were willing to pay much more to take him to Amsterdam this time. We would end up selling him in the beginning of 2020, but making sure that we included a 20 per cent profit clause because we knew he would reach a high level.”

Passaro couldn’t have been more right.

Antony would hit the ground running for Ajax, contributing to 47 goals in all competitions and, after two seasons, convincing Manchester United to pay an initial fee of £80.75m, with a further £4.25m in add-ons, to secure his services.

The 22-year-old has become the fourth most expensive signing in Premier League history, only behind Paul Pogba’s move to United, Chelsea’s signing of Romelu Lukaku and Manchester City’s deal for Jack Grealish.

It’s much more than he could have ever envisaged when he decided to skip a trip to the US in order to get more playing minutes.

“Real pressure was when I lived in a favela”

That Antony has got this far is testimony to his dedication and perseverance.

Having grown up in a favela called Inferninho (which translates as Little Hell), one of the most dangerous zones of Osasco, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, he would often see drug dealers, criminals running from the police and people getting killed near his house.

Unsurprisingly, after witnessing all that, nothing really scares him anymore. Not even the hunger that he had to endure early in his life while trying to make it as a footballer. Whenever he’s asked about pressure in his career, the Brazil international can’t help but to smile.

“Real pressure was when I lived in a favela and left for school at nine in the morning not sure whether I would be able to eat again until nine in the night. That’s some pressure. Otherwise, we can all adapt,” he said.

In his rise to the top, he has never forgotten about those who were with him since those days.

“We renewed his contract a few times at Sao Paulo and every single time he brought his entire family to the signature – his mother, his father, his brother, his sister, everyone. It was always about the family,” recalls Passaro.

Antony and Neymar are expected to be team mates at the World Cup for Brazil in November
Antony and Neymar are expected to be team-mates at the World Cup for Brazil in November

“No, let the kid dribble and do his own thing!”

A much stronger footballer now, having gained seven kilos of muscle mass during the pandemic, Antony is set to be included in Brazil’s squad for the World Cup in November.

Hailed by the Selecao boss Tite for his “velvet feet”, he has also won over Neymar with his pace and dribbling skills. The PSG superstar even defended him during a South American qualifier when the winger was asked to pass the ball more. “No, let the kid dribble and do his own thing!” Neymar reacted on the pitch.

Antony has a similar confidence in the United manager Erik ten Hag after the pair worked together for two seasons at Ajax and he credits the Dutchman for his transformation into a much more clinical player.

They will have to conquer Old Trafford now to justify the price tag that made the Brazilian United’s second most expensive signing.

“It may seem like he’s just a 22-year-old boy, that things are moving too fast for him and he doesn’t have much experience. But I can tell you one thing: every coach that works with him doesn’t want to let him go. It has happened with Ten Hag, but with other coaches in Brazil like Andre Jardine and Tite,” Passaro says.

“They have a different perception of Antony because they know the phenomenon that he is in the daily work, the absurd things that he does with the ball, how talented he is.

“He’s the kind of player that delivers what you need and gives you no trouble. It would obviously be highly unlikely that a team like Manchester City or Tottenham paid the same money for him, but Ten Hag knows what he’s getting.”

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