From tragedy to AC Milan, eating McDonalds everyday and Bundesliga stardom. This is Giovane Elber’s story.
Londrina is known simply as little London in Portuguese. It is a small city in the Southern region of Brazil separated by three rivers.
It’s a quiet town. Full of serenity. Giovane Elber would have never thought he’d see something so horrific in a place he called home.
He had spent every minute of his childhood playing on the streets with his friend, Lello. The pair of them were like Siamese twins. They were inseparable. It was a sort of ethereal connection.
They’d walk the streets barefoot. They’d walk to class together and played on the fields of Londrina until it was so dark you couldn’t see. They were just average Brazilian boys. Lello wasn’t a gifted player. But it didn’t stop the pair of them from dreaming. They’d look up to stars like Pele, Jairzinho and Zico and they would imagine what it would be like to play for Brazil. To wear the yellow shirt and hear the roar of the Maraccana.
Until one night.
As the sun ended its plummet in the distant horizon, everything was the same. Lello and Giovane parted ways just like they had done everyday for as long as they could remember.
The next time Giovane saw Lello things were completely different however. His friend was sprawled on the floor and he had his guts coming out with a pool of blood around him.
‘The arms and legs were angled strangely, all around him there was blood and other liquids that I had never seen before. A bus had run over him.’ Giovane Elber recalled the memory to 11 Freunde.
The tragedy left an indelible mark in Giovane Elber’s mindset. It taught him the fragility of life and just how quickly it can be taken.
Giovane never grew up thinking he would be a footballer. He dreamt. But Londrina was not a football paradise. Players rarely reached stardom. He had intended to become a banker and pursued an apprenticeship.
At 16, Giovane was still working in construction when the president of Londrina begged him to leave it behind and join the youth team.
Giovane gave in. Somewhere inside of him the kid still dreamt of becoming a professional.
It didn’t take long for Londrina’s president to be proved right.
Giovane excelled in the youth ranks. He’d weave past players with ease and he’d score goals for fun.
Soon people in Brazil started to take notice too.
Rubbing shoulders with greats
At 18, Giovane Elber received a call up to the Brazilian U20 national team to compete at the World Cup.
The kid from Londrina knew it was his chance to impress and he did exactly that. He scored four goals in the tournament and led Brazil to the final.
That caught peoples’ attention.
‘When I got home, the president of Londrina said; “Pack your suitcase, tomorrow we are flying to Milan,’ Elber recalled to 11Freunde.
In the early 1990s A.C. Milan were the best team in Europe. They had won the European Cup consecutively between 1988-1990. The Italian giants paid £1 million for Giovane Elber.
Giovane went from little Londrina to sharing a dressing room with the greats. Players like Ruud Gullit and Franco Baresi. It was the stuff of dreams.
Back to reality
Things never worked out for him in Milan. In that environment with word-class players in every position, it was hard to breakthrough. Giovane Elber wasn’t ready. The competition was too intense.
He would be loaned out to Grasshoppers in Switzerland.
Things might have been going well on the pitch, with Giovane scoring goals for fun, but the language barrier held him back. He felt isolated and alone and had a depressive episode.
‘I never left my apartment except for training. I was always at home and cried,’ Is how Giovane once remembered his time in Zurich.
His diet was a problem too. Giovane was too shy to speak German so he would eat his dinner at a local McDonalds instead.
‘In Zurich I couldn’t go to a restaurant because I couldn’t order in German. That’s why I went to McDonald’s every day. The word” Burger” I knew.’
When Giovane consulted with his coach about his woes. He gave him a strange instruction.
It was that simple. Gradually Giovane Elber learnt the language too. German wasn’t so difficult.
He caught the attention of Stuttgart and the Bundesliga outfit brought him away from Zurich.
The Bundesliga was quicker than the Swiss division, but Giovane came alive in Germany.
He liked the hustle and bustle nature of it. Giovane Elber could run around for days.
Just like every Brazilian, he had a touch of magic about him too. He mesmerised his opponents with clever tricks and flicks. His overhead kick against Bayern got people off their seats.
41 Bundesliga goals in three years was enough for Bayern Munich to come calling in 1997.
In Munich he found a second home. The Bayern fans loved Giovane Elber.
He scored back-heels and overhead kicks in Munich. Over 100 in total. Goals in the Champions League and the Bundesliga were frequent.
Giovane wasn’t your average footballer. He was a feisty character on the pitch and he was never afraid to speak his mind.
He once placed red tape over his mouth whilst playing for Stuttgart in the second half of the game because the referee had warned him to keep his mouth shut. He played like that for over half an hour until he got sent off for elbowing his opponent.
He also celebrated a goal by using a large Bayern Munich crest on the side of the field as a blanket and burrowing himself inside it.
Sadly, Giovane Elber was never recognised by Brazil. He missed out on the 1998 and 2002 World Cup. Granted he vested for a spot against the likes of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
But still it’s hard to believe they never found a place for him. Especially with an impressive record of 7 goals in 15 games.
A character with a humble beginning, Giovane Elber is rarely talked about but during his time in Germany he was one of the leading stars of the Bundesliga.
Bayern fans love him to this day. They talk of his goals and antics and they smile remembering a true Brazilian hero.