Douglas Luiz smiles and extends the index finger on his left hand, proudly displaying the tattoo of his father’s moustache. “When I was playing in Vasco’s youth team I used to always raise this finger in tribute to my father,” explains the Aston Villa and Brazil midfielder. His father, Edmilson Soares, has always had such elegant facial hair that he is known simply as Bigode (“Moustache”) throughout Nova Holanda, the favela in Rio de Janeiro where the player grew up in a two-room house with his parents and three brothers.
Douglas Luiz’s tattoos are important to him. He has another commemorating his first goal for Vasco, whom he joined aged 14, and another that he translates as: “I am from the favela and I have made it.” This is a key message.
“Obviously there is good and bad in every community but I think the favelas should be more valued because what makes a community good is the people who live there,” says the 22-year-old. “They should have opportunities. Unfortunately in Brazil the people who live in the favelas are treated very differently to the people who live outside. That needs to improve.
“For example, if two people go for the same job with the same CV but one has an address in the favela and the other lives in an affluent area of Rio de Janeiro, then the employer is likely to give the job to the person from the affluent area. Without reason. And then the person from the favela is left confused as to why they didn’t get the job. This is the reality we face. I’m proud to be from the favela. I’ve become an example for many youngsters there. They can use me to achieve their objectives and once they have done that, I hope we can pray for the people who said it wouldn’t be possible for us. We believe in God and we also believe everyone is equal regardless of whatever skin colour they may have.
“I’m happy because I’ve proved we can make it and we can achieve our dreams. Clubs have rejected me in the past, I didn’t have the financial conditions to support myself, but now I’m here. You could say the worst part is over but I want to stay here and get to the top.”
No one who has watched Douglas Luiz since he has been allowed to play in the Premier League doubts his ability. The player whom Manchester City signed from Vasco four years ago but could not use because they were denied a work permit despite submitting video evidence of his qualities to the Home Office has become the linchpin of Villa’s midfield since his £15m purchase in July 2019. It took him a few matches to adapt to the speed of the game in England but now he looks at home, playing with a level of control that makes one understand why his holding midfield role is known in Brazil as “volante”, which also means “steering wheel”.
“I have a good long pass, I’m good at marking, I have dribbling skills and I’m a good out-ball,” Douglas Luiz replies without pretence when asked to describe his qualities. “At Villa part of my role is to close spaces to allow our full-backs to have more space. But I’m only 22 so there’s still a lot to learn, a lot of maturing to do. It’s up to me to keep fighting and asking for help from the manager and the older players.”
He says the spirit of solidarity that Dean Smith has fostered within a Villa squad that has undergone plenty of personnel changes in the past year and a half is one big reason why a team that avoided relegation last season will travel to Anfield on Saturday hoping for a win that would bring them closer to European qualification. “We’re a close-knit group and we all want to help each other,” he says. “That has been part of our transformation from last season. We trusted before the start of this season that if we could start well, we would push on. After we went unbeaten in our first four matches we knew we could reach the level we deserved to be.”
One of those first four matches was against Liverpool. It yielded an extraordinary result that was not even the highlight of an unforgettable week for Douglas Luiz. Six days after playing in the 7-2 win over Jürgen Klopp’s team he hooked up with Roberto Firmino and made his first start for Brazil, a 5-0 win over Bolivia. His country’s manager, Tite, has praised Douglas Luiz’s ability to link defence and attack, hailing him as “both the bow and the arrow”.
With Brazil and Villa his role often involves giving high-class service to an exquisite talent, although that will not be the case owing to Jack Grealish’s shin injury.
“Neymar is the best player in the world and beyond comparison,” says Douglas Luiz when invited to compare his most celebrated Brazil teammate with his most celebrated clubmate. “But certainly Jack is on the right trajectory and he has what it takes to be an absolute great. I’m in a very lucky position because I get to play with them both. I’m very grateful for that.”
Recently Douglas Luiz has been starting for his country instead of Fabinho, and many in Brazil are billing Saturday’s match as a significant duel between the Villa player and his Liverpool counterpart.
“We have competition between us for places but it is a respectful competition, a gentleman’s competition,” says Douglas Luiz. “I’m not going to go into the game thinking: ‘Oh, Tite is watching so I have to be better than this opponent or do this or that.’ I just try to do my best; I’m not about backstabbing anyone. I support all the players in the national team. Whether I play for Brazil with Fabinho or [Real Madrid’s] Casemiro or the manager chooses another combination, I will always just do my best and if I’m left out of the team, I’ll wait my turn and make sure I try to take it when it comes again. That is what I do. I have always been calm. I have always battled.”