bundesliga

Philippe Coutinho’s journey: from Brazil to Bayern Munich via Inter Milan, Liverpool and Barcelona

Philippe Coutinho and wife Aine are already in their sixth footballing destination – Coutinho has previously played for Vasco da Gama, Inter Milan, Espanyol, Liverpool and Barcelona – but the 27-year-old Brazilian magician is settling in quickly in Bavaria with Bayern Munich.

For Coutinho, family and happiness go hand in hand. Almost literally. The Bayern man's tattoos adorn his arms and torso, the majority of which are dedicated to those who have helped him get where he is today.

"The ones related to family are my most important," explained the Brazil international. "I have the name of my daughter, my other daughter, the name of my wife, the initials of my brothers and the names of my parents. I need to get a tattoo of the name of my daughter, Esmeralda, here - she's eight months old."

'Here' is Munich, the city to providing the backdrop to the latest chapter in Coutinho's life, the width of the Atlantic Ocean and then some from where it all began. The Bavarian capital's hustle and bustle makes it look like a village compared to Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian mega-opolis where on 12 June 1992, Coutinho was born, the youngest of three sons to Jose Carlos Correia, an architect, and Esmerelda Coutinho.

With the towering Favela da Mangueira on one side and unappetising industrial warehouses on the other in Rio's northern Rocha district, it was a neighbourhood shorn of the glitz of the Copacabana. For Coutinho, it was the perfect training ground when - at the age of six - he followed in the footsteps of his elder brothers, Cristiano and Leandro, out to the concrete football pitch where he first kicked a ball.

"They were always with a ball like most children in the country, and of course, I wanted to be like them," explained Coutinho, whose initial steps were taken in the suffocating confines of futsal, not football, chiselling the raw potential to allow him to conjure something in the most confined spaces that still serves him well today.

Philippe Coutinho was always destined to be a Brazilian star, even from his youngest days. - imago sportfotodienst

"In Brazil, we always play on the streets. Anything could be used as a ball - a can, a bottle - so we were always playing. I started playing futsal when I was six. I played futsal until I was 13, but when I was 11 I started playing football too. I played both for two years and then at 13, 14, I just focussed on football."

It was only the insistence of a friend's grandmother that convinced his father to sign Philippe up to a local football academy. Before too long, scouts from Vasco da Gama had seen enough and invited the timid but spectacularly talented youngster for a trial.

"I was crying and I didn't want to play because I was shy," he remembers of the open day where he sought refuge alongside his dad in the stands while the other kids warmed up. "I was new to the group, everyone knew each other so I was feeling a little uncomfortable and embarrassed," he said.

"After a short while and some motivation, I was fine. When I actually started to play, it was all normal and natural. I wasn't shy anymore, I was enjoying it."

The Vasco da Gama scouts were happy too: they realised they had managed to pick the diamond needle from the almost infinite haystack their football-crazed nation provides.

Though he flourished in Vasco's youth system, the unassuming Coutinho was still plagued by self-doubt, pondering his place in the dog-eat-dog world of professional football. An end to the 'imposter syndrome' came in the form of international recognition.

"I first thought to myself, 'Okay, you can actually be a professional' when I got called up to the Brazil Under-14 squad," reveals Coutinho.

"I was selected out of so many really talented players, so it was a way of showing me that this could be a career, that I could make it, that I was good at it. At that point I realised I had to start thinking about the game more seriously."

Coutinho began to show Europe what he was capable of back with Inter Milan. - 2011 AFP

He abandoned futsal, and his football career continued on its upward trajectory. After being named Brazil's 2007/08 Young Player of the Year - an award that like the Kenyan marathon champion is basically akin to being the planet's top fledgling talent - Inter Milan bought Coutinho for just €4 million, immediately loaning him back to Vasco for two years until he could officially make the trans-Atlantic switch when he reached 18.

"Coutinho is the future of Inter," said Massimo Moratti - the man who had brought one of Coutinho's idols, Ronaldo, to the San Siro - at the teenage Brazilian's official unveiling alongside new boss Rafael Benitez in the wake of the Nerazzurri's treble win of 2010.

Initially, Benitez found a place in his 4-2-3-1 for the new signing, but Coutinho's lightweight 5'6" frame was not yet ready for the rigours of Serie A football, nevermind the massive off-the-pitch change the move had meant.

Coutinho came up against the best opponents in world football with Inter Milan, even his future employers, Bayern Munich. - imago sportfotodienst

"It was the hardest point of my career because it was the first time I had been away from home and I had to start proving myself from scratch," said Coutinho, who was initially joined by his parents and his then-girlfriend now-wife Aine in Italy.

"It was also tough having to play with people who were already established professional footballers where I had just started out. I had only just started at Vasco and had recently turned professional. It was a difficult period. My parents and my wife, she was my girlfriend at the time, also came with me. And they certainly helped me a lot.

"It would have been impossible if I'd been alone. We face other difficulties too. Sometimes you don’t have a very good year. People talk about you a lot and you have to stay mentally strong. That’s not easy. My family are very supportive and helped me to stay mentally strong in those difficult periods.”

The turbulent times at Inter did not help. Coutinho had no fewer than four coaches before, in January 2012, he was sent to Barcelona for the first time in his career, but it was in the colours of Espanyol he would play in the city at first, and he studiously applied the lessons of his Inter pain.

Coutinho continued to gain experience in European football while on loan at Espanyol. - imago sportfotodienst

"Because of the difficulties in Italy, I found it easier to adapt in Spain during my Espanyol loan," he explained. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Coutinho scored five times in 16 competitive appearances, and convinced the now-Tottenham Hotspur coach of his qualities.

"Philippe is a Brazilian player and, as it happens with most Brazilians, he has a special magic in his feet," said Pochettino. "Aside from the magic that he has, he also has an amazing work-rate... What's important about him is he is a good lad, a good kid - a great, humble person. It is really clear to me is that Coutinho is a really responsible player - really dedicated and responsible to his own players."

Coutinho did return to Inter, but they were more than happy to sell him to Liverpool in January 2013. Just 20, Coutinho was at a crossroads, but the move to Anfield would be the making of the legend of O Magico, the Magician.

Coutinho (l.) learned from Liverpool legends such as Steven Gerrard (r.) in his time in the English Premier League. - 2013 Getty Images

"I do think Coutinho has that same quality that Ronaldinho and Messi have, but he has much to prove yet," Pochettino had said after their spell in Catalonia together. Following five years in a Liverpool shirt, Coutinho was making good on that statement.

Ex-Liverpool boss Benitez had been a reassuring voice for the powers-that-be at the five-time European champions that they were getting themselves a real bargain, and after scoring on his debut in February 2013, it was all plain sailing from there.

"Philippe was incredible. He changed us completely," said former Liverpool teammate Luis Suarez. "He's the one that gave us faith in having the ball because his technical ability is so good. You knew that he wouldn't lose it, you knew that he would produce something special with it, that he would always chose the right pass."

The Brazil star (r.) also played alongside future Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez (r.) while at Anfield Road. - 2013 AFP

Linking well with the likes of Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard, Coutinho was quickly taken into the hearts of not only his teammates but also the Liverpool fans. Manager Brendan Rodgers understood what made his brilliant Brazilian tick, and before a key game with Manchester City, read out a letter from the player's mother.

"At first, I didn't know that the manager would be reading a letter from her, then he mentioned her name and I was really overwhelmed," said Coutinho. "It said she loved me, is proud of me, is always with me and missing me. There was more, but those are just the words I needed to hear."

While he was impressive under Rodgers, it was when former Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp became boss at Liverpool in October 2015 that Coutinho really kicked into top gear. With Gerrard and Sterling having left and Mario Balotelli out of form and favour, Coutinho took on the mantle of the team's saviour, and enjoyed his best season to date with eight goals and five assists in 26 Premier League outings. He then upped that to a hugely impressive 13 goals and seven assists in 31 English top-flight games the following campaign as Klopp's belief in the Brazilian brought out the best in him.

Coutinho quickly became Liverpool's most important player, inheriting the captain's armband in the process. - gettyimages

"I've been given a run of games, and that has allowed me to build my confidence. Since I arrived, the manager has always trusted me," said Coutinho of Klopp. "He's a great coach and is exceptional at what he does. I spent a very enjoyable period of my life with him, and I was able to learn a lot. He always pays attention to the very fine details.

"But his main strength is that he's extremely focused and has been able to transform the club that he is with today. It's all about the mentality, and always staying completely focused. That's something I'll always carry with me. It was very important.”

Fifty-four goals and 45 assists in 201 competitive games for Liverpool was a healthy return, and one that brought attention from Barcelona, another club of Coutinho's dreams.

Though a switch in summer 2017 fell through, Coutinho had to wait just six more months before finally securing a move to the Camp Nou in a transfer that - at the time - made him the second-most expensive player in the game.

Coutinho became football's second-most expensive player ever at the time of signing for Barcelona. - imago images / ZUMA Press

"I only have good things to say about Philippe, but I think he left Liverpool because he wanted to play for one of the two big Spanish clubs," explained the Reds' chairman Tom Werner. "We tried to convince him that we had the club moving in the right direction and that he could experience great nights in the Champions League if he stayed in Liverpool".

The next season, Liverpool did have a great Champions League night, and Coutinho might have been forgiven for watching on enviously as - while his former teammates were crowned the best team in Europe - his Barcelona adventure turned quite a bit sourer.

It had started well. After a productive first half to the 2017/18 season in which he was involved in 13 goals in just 14 outings for Liverpool, he added 10 goals and six assists for the blaugrana as Barcelona lifted both the La Liga title and the Copa del Rey to make it his most productive season as a professional.

Coutinho (l.) teamed up with Lionel Messi (r.) at Barcelona to learn from one of the world's very best. - gettyimages

Coutinho was then a rare highlight for his country in an otherwise underwhelming FIFA World Cup in Russia, but Barca boss Ernesto Valverde was not as enamoured with Coutinho as Klopp was. That meant a frustrating 2018/19 season that brought just 22 La Liga starts and a meagre return of five goals and two assists.

That, and the arrival of Antoine Griezmann, was likely to herald more benchwarming and bit-part roles until Bayern rode in to the rescue with the offer of a loan deal and regular first-team football. It is an opportunity Coutinho has seized with both hands…and his ultra-talented feet.

"Bayern needed a player like Coutinho, especially after the departures of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben," said legendary former Italy international Andrea Pirlo. "He has settled in well and though Bayern are a strong team, the quality is better with him."

Two goals and three assists in his first five Bundesliga starts gave Coutinho the opening to his Bayern career he would have wanted on the pitch, while Thiago Alcantara has helped him hurdle the language barrier, the only one Coutinho's humble and affable nature would have struggled to break down on its own.

Coutinho is feeling right at home in Munich with Bundesliga champions Bayern. - 2019 DFL

And while Munich is not Rio - "I'm in love with the city," admits Coutinho - he and his family have settled happily in their new home.

"I've seen already that people are very open and willing to talk. The people here in Germany are very fair and honest. The city is very beautiful," he said. "I stayed at a hotel for a while in the city centre. My family and I occasionally went for walks and I was able to get to know the city. I'm really enjoying it. I am certainly enjoying the city a lot and the people as well."

Coutinho made good on his promise for Brazil last summer, bringing home the Copa America title, and now Munich and its Bayern-supporting population are ready to reap the benefits of that broad smile being back on Coutinho's face.

Ian Holyman