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Champions League final: Will Real Madrid's Rodrygo haunt Liverpool?

Rodrygo
Rodrygo broke Manchester City hearts in the semi-final

Elano was working as Santos assistant coach in early 2017 when he heard how much Liverpool were willing to pay for the club’s new wonderkid Rodrygo. He was not impressed at all.

“I went to the board and said, ‘No, no, we can’t let him leave for this,'” the former Manchester City midfielder tells BBC Sport.

“It was a 3m euro offer only and the talks were already at an advanced stage. It was pretty much a done deal. They had a verbal agreement but I insisted, ‘We can’t do this’.

“He was just 16 years old back then and, although the team had high hopes for him, it was not clear yet when he would be playing for the senior side. So I went to Rodrygo and told him, ‘We will promote you soon. You have my word.’

“A little while after, I ended up taking charge as a caretaker manager and so, much sooner than expected, I could do what I had promised him. I brought him to train with us and gave him his first minutes as a professional footballer.”

Ultimately, Rodrygo agreed to sign a new contract and stayed with the Brazilian giants for another season.

In mid-2018, however, he finally left Santos, but not for Liverpool.

Instead, he signed for Real Madrid after the Spaniards came knocking with a 45m euro bid.

Now, when both teams meet in Paris for the Champions League final on Saturday, the forward will be on the opposing side of long-time admirer Jurgen Klopp.

Rodrygo has proved crucial on Real’s epic journey to the Stade de France, scoring five goals, including two goals in just over a minute in stoppage time in the 3-1 comeback win over Manchester City in arguably the greatest semi-final in history.

Such is the hype around the 21-year-old this season that he has been dubbed ‘Mr Champions’.

It remains to be seen whether he will return to haunt Liverpool.

Rodrygo plays futsal as a boy
Rodrygo started out in Santos’s futsal team before moving through the age groups

Recognition at a younger age than Neymar

The softly spoken and down-to-earth Rodrygo is no stranger to the limelight despite his tender years.

At 11, he became the youngest Brazilian player to sign with Nike, beating the previous record of 13 that belonged to Neymar, another Vila Belmiro product.

That same year, Rodrygo gave his first interview and was invited to join Pele and other legends when Santos celebrated their centenary anniversary.

He has never let fame get to his head, though, with much of the credit going to his parents.

A second-tier right-back for most of his life, his father Eric Goes dreamed about sharing the pitch with Rodrygo, but could not fulfil it, so retired in 2016 to focus on his son’s career.

“Rodrygo never worried about being like Neymar or any other player from Santos,” says Elano, who has made a promising start as a manager back home.

“He wanted to write his own story and we all knew the potential for that was there. Perhaps people who don’t know him can’t tell that, but he has a strong character. That’s key for any athlete’s success.

“He was made for the big stages. He doesn’t feel the pressure. He was still going to school when he scored his first goal in the Copa Libertadores. It’s not every day that you see something like that happening.”

Rodrygo pictured with Neymar
Rodrygo and Neymar are two of Santos’s most famous products

Real Madrid deal was sealed in Liverpool

Rodrygo is enjoying his best season for Real and, after winning La Liga and the Spanish Super Cup, wants to finish it with the Champions League trophy.

Playing against Liverpool will be extra special not only because he almost signed for them, but because the whole operation that led him to the Bernabeu took place in the English city too.

In 2018, Santos’ then president Jose Carlos Peres was in Liverpool with the Brazil team and, on the eve of a World Cup warm-up match against Croatia, Real sporting director Juni Calafat got in touch asking him if they could meet in a Starbucks cafe next to their hotel.

Once Peres arrived, Calafat pulled his tablet out and made a video call to president Florentino Perez. The whole conversation did not last more than half an hour. It was clear money would not be an issue to sign Rodrygo this time.

The following day, they watched the Brazil game together in a box at Anfield and finalised the paperwork for a deal that would be officially announced a week later.

Despite interest from Paris St-Germain, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, Rodrygo was never in doubt about his decision. He had watched Real beat Liverpool 3-1 in the Champions League final that year and had made his mind up.

They have not won it since. It is now up to ‘Mr Champions’ and company to change that in Paris.

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