Héber: from partnering Firmino in Brazil to replacing David Villa in NYC | Football
Héber didn’t have to think twice. He had received a phone call from Srecko Juricic, sporting director of Croatian club HNK Rijeka, who told him that New York City FC were preparing to make a bid. “I said I’d go,” recalls the Brazilian forward. “The scout from New York City went to Rijeka and showed me the project. It was an easy decision.” Six months on, it is not one he regrets. Héber has scored 14 goals in 17 starts in MLS, including a spectacular late winner against local rivals New York Red Bulls in August, and confirmed himself as this season’s breakthrough star.
Héber’s move to the US is is just the latest step in a winding and sometimes difficult career that has taken him from the Amazon to New York via the Brazilian lower leagues and the outer reaches of European football. He seems delighted with his new club. “The league is really good, the infrastructure is great, the stadium is always full,” he says.
He is equally proud of the path he has taken to get there. Héber grew up Vilhena, a city in the northern Brazilian state of Rondônia. Wedged between Amazonas and the border with Bolivia, it is not a footballing hotbed. “Very few manage to make a living playing football there,” he says. “There is a lot of talent, but few appear on the Brazilian or world stages because it is a long way from the centres like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
“I have friends who play there. They play the state championship and it only last three months. Then two teams qualify for the fourth division of the Brazilian [national] championship. Those players can play a bit longer. But after it’s finished a lot do other jobs. I’ve a friend who’s a taxi driver, another who sells clothes.”
Fortunately for him, Héber’s ability was spotted early and he was whisked away to Santa Catarina. “In 2006, a club was founded in my town, Clube Atlético Rondoniense. A businessman built a training centre for the people in the town. He would send the players who stood out to teams in the rest of Brazil for trials. I ended up going to Figueirense and being approved.”
It is common for clubs in the south of Brazil, where the economy is stronger, to cherry-pick young players from the rest of the country. “I was 15 and being away from my mum, dad and siblings was not easy. The cold was one of the things that got to me most. But I soon made friends and that helps you get over it.”
He played in an exceptional youth team alongside Roberto Firmino, who “played as an attacking midfielder – a No10.” Like Héber, Firmino was from a distant part of the country, Maceió, on the northeastern coast. But he was quick to make an impression. “I remember his first training session. He scored with two bicycle kicks. We were asking ourselves: ‘Who’s this lad?’ He was quick, technical and had a real will to win. His quality was absurd, immense. He was indescribable.”
Despite his personality on the pitch, Firmino was extremely shy off it. “Our coach was calling him Alberto for a week,” Héber laughs. “‘Alberto, Alberto.’ And he wouldn’t tell the coach his name was Roberto. It was only after we went up to the coach and said, ‘Hemerson Maria, his name’s not Alberto, it’s Roberto!’, that he started calling him by the right name.”
The pair graduated to the Figueirense first team together in 2010 and led them to promotion. Firmino left for Hoffenheim in 2011, but Héber stayed and was the team’s top scorer in the Santa Catarina state league before featuring in the Brazilian top flight for the first time. “We had the best season in the history of the club,” he says. “And in 2012, I was going really well in the state championship again. Then I broke the fibula and the tibia of my left leg.”
After a long spell out – “I was lucky that my mum and dad came and spent three months with me. That gave me the strength to get better,” he says – he managed to regain his fitness. But a new coach had arrived and brought new players into the team. Héber was sent to train alone and then loaned out to a club in the third division. The next two years were a struggle as he moved from club to club. “It was really difficult to deal with. One year I was one of the best players in the team, the next I was forgotten. Only the people who were by my side – or people who have had an injury like that – know how difficult it is to get back to the top.”
Then, in 2015, an agent called with an offer from Armenian side, Alashkert, who were preparing to play in the Europa League qualifiers. “I said: ‘Fine, let’s go.’ But I’d never heard of Armenia. I couldn’t have pointed to it on a map. At the beginning, the other players wouldn’t look me in the face, they wouldn’t pass me the ball.”
But things changed after he scored his first goal in the Europa League. “After that, they all started treating me really well. I had a friend called Dusko Dukic, a Serbian, who was like an older brother. When I arrived, I hadn’t taken any dollars, so he’d take me everywhere and pay for me. We communicated through Google Translate. It was with him that I learned my first words of English.
“Armenia was a crazy experience. We trained in the stadium where we played. The dressing room was tiny and precarious. We had to take our kit home to wash. Sometimes we’d go into the dressing room at half-time and you’d smell cigarette smoke. When you looked across, the coach was in his little corner smoking. And the players would smoke after the game. Sometimes I looked around and thought: ‘My God, what am I doing here, at the end of the Earth?’ Especially in the winter. It was the first time I’d seen snow. But then I’d think: ‘No, you can’t give up. Better things will come.’ I learned a lot. But it’s one of the places that I’ve lived that I don’t miss so much,” he admits with a chuckle.
After one season – in which Alaskert won the league and he picked up the prizes for top scorer and best player – Héber moved to Croatian club Slaven Belupo. “Croatia is a different level of professionalism,” he says. “The club was good, well structured. Then I went to Rijeka, which is a city by the sea, with beaches, a bigger place with more people. They were reigning champions of Croatia at the time. The year I arrived, we played the Europa League group stage. We played Milan, AEK and Austria Vienna.”
He enjoyed the club’s intense rivalry with Dinamo Zagreb and, like he has in New York, he used the biggest games as a chance to ingratiate himself with the club’s fans. “The one I remember is a game we won 3-1 and I scored two goals,” he says. “But we lost a few too, because Dinamo really dominate Croatian football.”
Then the biggest move of his career appeared out of the blue. When New York City manager Domènec Torrent needed a centre-forward to replace David Villa, he went through reams of scouting reports and Héber’s stats caught his eye. The signing has proved inspired, with Héber scoring 14 goals in his 20 games in MLS so far.
Despite his immediate success, Héber is quick to deflect praise. “We’ve got a good coach and a good team, which makes it easier for the attackers. Maxi Moralez is the assist maker. He’s got the most in the league. He’s a really intelligent player, who would play at any club in the country, if not the world.” Like a lot of MLS squads, City have a strong Latin American contingent. “Our team has one Paraguayan, two Argentinians, a Peruvian and a Costa Rican, as well as me. That really helped me adapt here. I’m even starting to learn a bit of Spanish.”
Héber is enjoying himself in New York. “We play every game in front of a full house. The average attendance is 22,000. Not a lot of clubs in Brazil have that.” And the atmosphere for the Hudson River derby against the Red Bulls was even better, especially when he scored the winner. “It was great, because it was a six-pointer. It was important for us in the league and as it’s a derby. It’s always good to score in derbies.” That victory helped the club secure a place in the playoffs but, after coming this far, Héber is not content to stop there. “We’re looking at the title. Our team is good enough to win it.”