‘When you’re that young, you don’t really know how important things like that are. I just loved playing football’ recalls Romario Vieira.
He was referring to his time at Benfica’s Academy, where he played until the age of thirteen. Along with his twin Ronaldo, the two played or trialled at three of Europe’s most illustrious academies. Benfica, Manchester City, and Leeds United.
Yet their story thereafter settled very little. Rising through the ranks at Leeds, to Italy, international football, injury and non-league. The two have encountered every football lesson imaginable. First Time Finish spoke to Romario about the pair’s careers thus far.
The Road to Leeds
The life of a footballer can not be called normal or typical. Pulled from education early, forced to leave home as teenagers, and given superstar status from just sixteen. Even by these standards, Romario and Ronaldo Vieira bucked any sense of normality for young players.
The twins were born in Guinea-Bissau in 1998, but were raised in Portugal where they joined Benfica’s ranks. ‘We left for England, really in search for a better life for my parents’ recalls Romario on the family’s move to England in 2011.
‘Although I don’t remember it too well, I think every young player needs to play at an academy. Training every day, teaching young players the basics. It was a good experience’.
Ronaldo would join Leeds United as a scholar after impressing whilst playing for York College and the i2i Academy. Months into his first full season with the club, Romario would be signed by the club too.
‘We had previously been at Leeds before. They had watched us and said we were not ready. Then they came to watch us play at York College for a couple games. I was having growing pains in my knees at the time, but they signed Ronny as a one year scholar. I would sign in my second year at college’.
2016 would see Ronaldo make his first team debut. With Romario joining that same year, the dye was cast for the twins to take Elland Road by storm.
The Vieiras at Leeds United
Ronaldo was fast tracked into the first team in 2016, under manager Steve Evans and then Garry Monk.
‘That year I was in the under twenty-threes. For me that year is about development. For those first six months that never really happened.’
‘After that, they brought in Carlos Corberán, now first team coach of Huddersfield Town. He is the real deal. He taught and improved me more in six months than the previous coach. Really good tactically but also in how he engaged with us players. The best coach I’ve worked with I would say.’
Whilst Romario was finding his feet in the youth ranks, Ronaldo had become a first team regular. Paired with Liam Bridcutt at the heart of Leeds’ midfield, and would be named Young Player of the Year by the club. At only eighteen he had made himself indisposable, and offered hope and youthful energy amidst manager turnover. However it was this turnover that would block brother Romario’s path to join him in the first team.
‘Once Paul Heckingbottom came in and replaced Thomas Christiansen, opportunities weren’t there for me.’
Christiansen had named Romario on the bench for the last two games of his tenure. Heckingbottom’s arrival saw Romario not feature in the first team squad again however.
‘I was put back into the under twenty threes. It was a different story for any youngster that played under Christiansen.’
Heckingbottom would be replaced by Marcelo Bielsa in the summer of 2018. Yet as Leeds would embark on a golden modern age, the Vieira brothers would face very different challenges away from the club.
Ronaldo was awarded the number eight shirt at the end of the 2017/18 season. This was a sign of intent from the club, that moving into a new realm would have at least one Vieira at its’ helm.
Europe was watching, after being named on a twenty man shortlist for Europe’s most exciting youngsters. However Vieira’s European move was to come even sooner than expected according to brother Romario.
‘He had just played a pre-season game in Spain and he got a call saying “Can you be at the airport by eleven o’clock tonight? The club have accepted a bid from Sampdoria.”
‘I don’t think they wanted to sell him, but they needed the money. They got seven million for him and spent seven million on Patrick Bamford.’
With young English based players now frequently seeking opportunities, Ronaldo Vieira’s move to Sampdoria was at the time a rare occurrence. Yet he would not be alone in leaving Leeds that summer.
‘I sat down with my agent, and we decided to run down the last year of my contract. They offered me an extra year with a further optional year, and I think they though it was about the money for me. Truly though I wanted to be playing senior football and get that experience.’
‘If they were going to give me opportunities, or just give me a chance when I deserve a chance, then I would have stayed.’
A Vieira in Europe
‘I think he has dealt with the move really well. To go over there on his own, adapt to the culture, the language and the people is really hard. Being black and African also doesn’t help over there’
‘He’s done well, he’s enjoyed it. We moved a lot as kids, so that adaptation isn’t really a problem for us.’
Despite playing over forty times in the league for Sampdoria, Vieira was sent on loan to Hellas Verona in summer 2020.
‘It is a good move for him. It seems like a good environment for him to be in right now. The manager really counts on him, whereas at Sampdoria, [Claudio] Ranieri wasn’t really doing that.’
At Verona the young midfielder appears to have found his perfect environment.
A Vieira on the road to recovery
Whilst Ronaldo departed Leeds in 2018, to a foreign bid, Romario was tasked with finding that experience he so craved.
‘Doncaster were due to be in touch after I ran my contract down. At the time their manager was Grant McCann (now Hull City manager). So I went there on trial, played three and scored two. League One standard was going to be good for me.’
‘I was going to sign on the Saturday, and sit out of a friendly on the Friday. Then I got called up to the team on the Friday for that friendly as someone pulled out. I played and hurt my ankle, and failed the medical. Passed on everything but the ankle with a chipped bone. So I couldn’t sign.’
‘I was given injections but they didn’t want to sign me without having surgery. It was so disappointing.’
*Both Romario and the club agreed at the time to not make injury public*
Romario was faced with the dilemma that many players face when encountering injury. To pursue surgery and take time out, or to battle on and get your foot in the door. He chose the latter.
‘I decided to go for another trial, despite my ankle. I went to Notts County, but I just couldn’t play. Me and my agent got the surgery booked. That took three or four months of recovery.’
‘I then went to Gateshead for a trial. That was my first training session after my ankle surgery and injured the meniscus in my right knee. I had that surgery and it took me a year to recovery.’
For a player of any standing or ability to suffer two surgery requiring injuries in a year is devastating. Yet for Romario Vieira to suffer them after leaving Leeds, at the tender age of only twenty one was disastrous luck.
‘I had to do all my own rehab at home as I didn’t have a club. It was difficult as I couldn’t be at a club every day to recover, so it took a year to recover, a lot longer than normal.’
One Step Back, Two Forward
After all the setbacks and injury, Romario now finds himself back at the club he played at before Leeds; Tadcaster Albion.
‘A lot of things go through your mind. I couldn’t remember how to walk, didn’t think I would be able to run again.’
‘The plan is to just get back playing like my old self. Get confident again in my football. Even before going back to Taddy, I signed for Gateshead properly this time. But I just didn’t feel like myself, so I spoke to the manager and we decided to not go through with the move.’
Again, after seemingly being back on the road, the bravery for a young player to admit he is not ready to an employer is extraordinary. This article is hopefully painting the picture that these are not your ordinary pair of brothers.
‘When you leave home, and things don’t go right for you, it’s always good to go back home. Find happiness, then go again.’
It is unsurprising therefore that Romario is refusing to get ahead of himself.
‘Even if Man City or Chelsea came in for me, right now, I would say no. I know that’s extreme and unlikely but I know myself. I know my capabilities and believe in myself, so I’m sure that opportunities will come in the future.’
From being born in Guinea-Bissau, growing up in Portugal, and later England, the twins are eligible to play for all three.
Ronaldo has already turned out for England at youth level, scoring on his under twenty one debut in 2018. His brother however already has a full international cap for Guinea-Bissau.
‘It taught me a lot, and brought back memories of my childhood. I was at Leeds at the time, negotiating my contract when I got called up.’
‘My agent said that I had nothing to lose. Its only a friendly, so if Portugal or England were to ever call me up I could still play for them.’
Keeping all options open, and taking every opportunity is not new thing for the Vieiras. Many players might have snubbed the call up, with eyes on England or Portugal instead. Never ones to shirk experience, his international bow with Guinea -Bissau added further experience to his burgeoning CV.
The Vieira Name
Yet the Vieira brothers have both forename and surname encumbered with football history. Romario and Ronaldo were two of the game’s greatest forwards, whilst Patrick Vieira is North London royalty. It is safe to say they bare more similarities with the Frenchman as players.
‘If you had a midfield three, me and Ronny together with a creative midfielder, that would be the perfect midfield’
‘He will read your passes, is physical and will press you. I am always ratting about and recovering the ball, giving the ball to others and more of a box-to-box type.’
‘After all the things that have happened, I still see myself as a top player and abilities to play for Portugal and England. I have surprised myself with my mental strength and staying positive. Never giving up.’
Shared experience, with a shared dogged mindedness and revelling in new challenges. Romario and Ronaldo Vieira are like few other players, let alone brothers. Their stories demonstrate fortitude and resilience in the face of difficulty, and that exciting opportunities will always wait for you around the corner.