Fabio Aurelio: action replay
Liverpool's Brazilian full-back played under his manager, Rafael Benitez, when Valencia ended a 31-year wait for La Liga glory. He tells Ian Herbert how Anfield can learn from that experience in their 19th season of agony
He's the player who doesn't get mobbed when he's strolling with his family along Otterspool Promenade on the banks of the Mersey – his son's well-established Scouse accent giving the lie to any impression that dad might be a Brazilian international and Liverpool full-back. Fabio Aurelio's presence hardly screams "superstar" either, as he arrives on a bitter autumnal day at a school in the south of the city. No Rolex the size of a brick, no Latin American personality, just jeans as modest as the shoes and, as he moves around a sports hall filled with children whose troubles put football into its proper context, a slight sense that he is pleased to have received the invitation.
Appearances can be deceptive, of course. Though the Kop end has not been known to yearn for a "team of Fabios" – the song it reserves for one James Carragher, who lines up alongside him – Aurelio is the man perhaps best placed to answer the Premier League's most burning question: does Rafael Benitez truly have what it takes to deliver the title to Liverpool in May, 19 years after they last won one?
Aurelio is not among the knot of Spanish speakers like Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, whom you will find in fast, animated conversation with Benitez at airports during Liverpool's Champions League journeys, but he has watched him at close quarters for longer than any player. It is seven years since Benitez made Aurelio one of his first signings at Valencia and so convinced was the Liverpool manager by what he had to offer that within two years of arriving at Anfield he had shipped him over here, too. It means that Aurelio has seen the changes in Benitez since he arrived at the Mestalla, fresh from having taken modest Tenerife into Liga 1. It also furnishes him with first-hand experience of the Liverpool manager's two titles at Valencia. Can he do it again?
Aurelio's answer is yes, of course. But in the 29-year-old's recollections of how Benitez secured Valencia's legendary 2000-01 La Liga title, a pinnacle the club had waited 31 years for, he has grounds for observing that Liverpool would be served well by other teams setting the pace. "We were running from the back in 2001 and that was good for us," Aurelio recalls. "Nobody is expecting you to fight for the title so you don't have the pressure that the teams at the top of the table have – to win every game. If you're top, you have to win, or otherwise you come down one position, or two positions. That was good for us at Valencia and maybe there are lessons for us now, at Liverpool."
Benitez was a different individual – less calm, more authoritative – back then. "He needed to show authority and was more authoritative as he was coming from a lowly team to a top team that hadn't won the league for so long. I clearly see him here as calmer."
Benitez was more determined to intrude in aspects of the Valencia players' lives where he was not always wanted – his insistence that they eat their rice plain, rather than seasoned with vegetables was a source of controversy in the rice-producing environs of Valencia. But for all that intensity, unwelcome at times, Aurelio presents the events of a freezing night in the shadow of Barcelona's Montjuic mountain, in December 2001, as evidence that Benitez will also show grace under pressure if and when the pips start to squeak for Liverpool, this spring.
"We were playing the local side, Espanyol," he recalls, "and there were question marks because the team wasn't very good and we found ourselves losing 2-0." He is actually understating it. Benitez faced the sack if the side he had just taken over lost, having battled through a snowstorm to reach the stadium late. Aurelio insists Benitez said nothing particularly memorable at half-time – "there was no shouting, nothing special I remember apart from, 'You can go out and do it" – but the events of the 45 minutes which followed changed everything. "We won 3-2 and everybody remembers that, because after that we went up and away and won the league," Aurelio says. "The pressure on him [Benitez] was amazing and if you've overcome that maybe you can overcome anything."
Just as Benitez – the man who bluntly told Aurelio when he arrived from Sao Paulo's Morumbi stadium that he must put aside his Brazilian wing-back instincts and learn to defend better – has faced undoubted tribulations on Merseyside, Aurelio has struggled too, his development stunted by two hateful injuries. Such was the force of the Achilles tendon snap he suffered in a Champions League game against PSV Eindhoven in April last year that video replays show him looking behind him to discover the source of what he believed had hit him. It was the end of his season and, having re-established himself as Liverpool's first-choice left-back, he also found the last campaign ended prematurely by a torn abductor muscle in that fateful Champions League semi-final first leg with Chelsea at Anfield. "They've been some of my hardest times in the game," says Aurelio, whose 2003-4 campaign with Valencia was also cut short – by a broken leg.
He has borne these troubles with the kind of forbearance and good nature which make him one of Liverpool's most receptive players when it comes to events like the recent launch of the club's "Respect 4 All" disability coaching centre in south Liverpool. The centre, for children aged 12 to 16 of all nationalities and ethnicities with learning and physical disabilities and visual impairments, has recently received €140,000 of funding from the Premier League and Professional Footballers' Association Community Fund, and was being supported through the Premier League's "Creating Chances" programme.
Aurelio weaves around the hall, joining in with wheelchair football, football for the visually impaired, who use a ball which emits a noise, and takes up a place in a goal as a queue of children with learning difficulties prepare to test him out. "It can be difficult just when your children have a small cold," says Aurelio, reflecting on it all. "To see the problems these children have come through is a tribute to those who have worked with them."
The importance of Aurelio's family, who are settled in Woolton, to the south of the city, is all the greater because of the personal tragedy he encountered as he was preparing to leave Brazil to make his way in Europe. His father, Mario, died in a car crash in March 2000, which meant he never lived to see his son – then aged 20 – play in the Olympics for Emerson Leao's Brazil side that year, nor enjoy his success at the Mestalla.
"It had always been a dream for my father to see me playing for a European club. There have been many times things I have wished he could have seen," he reflects.
At least Aurelio's development, making his debut for Sao Paulo in 1997, aged 17, helped him buy Mario, a plastics worker, a better home before he died. The absence of cash certainly made for long bus trips home from the Morumbi. "I had a godfather, Jose du Prado, who was the one who helped me and my family a lot and my parents did all that they could," he says.
Visits to Brazil are limited to the close season, though Aurelio's mother, Neide, is in Europe more often, either to see him, or his sister, who is married to Real Betis' Brazilian midfielder Edu. Aurelio and his wife, Elaine, married three months before his father died and, though adapting to a European life took them time, he finds his Spanish-born children – Fabio, seven next month, and two-year-old Victoria – take everything in their stride. "They amaze me," he says.
With one year left on his contract, Aurelio hopes he can continue a career on Merseyside which has not always demonstrated the attacking wing play and eye for the spectacular goal – a spectacular volley brought his only goal for Liverpool at Bolton last March –which Benitez has always seen in him.
For now, the key is to remember the lessons of 2001, he believes. "The fans here are amazing but it is a long way if you are fighting for the title. We know the pressure we have because of the time Liverpool has waited, but we have to keep our feet on the floor as we are doing now – and wait."