The Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano has seen its status updated from a haven away from the Real Madrid limelight to the place where the club’s ambitions stand or fall over the past year, but then it has always been that on a personal level.
Scores of excellent young footballers have passed through the doors of the 8,000 capacity stadium in the shadow of the famous Santiago Bernabeu, each with a dream of making it into the Real first-team, or just of making it anywhere at the top level.
Liverpool’s Fabinho returns this evening having technically achieved the former, but emphatically proved the latter.
Having joined Real’s ‘Castilla’ B team on loan from Portugal’s Rio Ave in 2012, the Alfredo Di Stefano would be Fabinho’s home ground for a season, a campaign in which he played as a right-back for a side which also featured the likes of Casemiro, Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vazquez, a likely opponent on Tuesday night.
Fabinho was a tall, clearly technically proficient full-back, and he stood out in the side.
Not just for his football.
“The poor man arrived with some boots that didn’t even exist anymore… a real old man!” the former Real and Middlesbrough goalkeeper Tomas Mejias told Marca of his old teammate, who he used to spent time with off the pitch as he helped him settle into Madrid life.
Indeed, the Marca piece indicates that Fabinho was known as “the one with the Copa Mundial boots” around the halls of the Valdebebas training ground, such was his fondness for the iconic footwear with the three stripes.
It was probably the footballer and not the boots that eventually caught the eye of Jose Mourinho though, with the Real Madrid boss keen to keep watch on the progress of Fabinho, who had been brought to the club by the manager’s long-time agent Jorge Mendes.
Still just 19, there was never much chance of the skinny Brazilian forcing his way into Mourinho’s first-team on a consistent basis back then though.
A side full of household names such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso, Mourinho’s Real were quite well off for full-backs, with the former Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeloa a regular on the right side, where Sergio Ramos could also fit in. Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao alternated on the left.
But being around the squad, training with the first-team and experiencing Madrid life was the main aim for the teenage Fabinho, and he did all that.
“He was a really nice man, shy at first but really nice,” Mejias, a native of Madrid, continued.
“I tried to welcome him by letting him sleep and eat at my house so he wasn’t so alone, and we have been good friends ever since.
“He even invited me to the Champions League final at the Wanda [Liverpool’s win over Tottenham in Madrid in 2019].”
Indeed, that Champions League success must have felt like a crowning moment for Fabinho, a lasting mark left on European football, and back in a city where he took some of the formative steps in his career.
He would eventually get a solitary Real Madrid first-team appearance as a late substitute in a 6-2 win over Malaga in May 2013, when he was on the pitch for long enough to assist a goal for Angel Di Maria.
Such as Mendes’ way he was soon to be on the move again though, joining Monaco on a two-year loan, then a permanent deal and then moving to Liverpool in the summer of 2018 just 48 hours after the Reds had lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid.
His role in that game becoming regarded as the beginning of something, rather than the end, has long been established, as has the fact it it his presence in Liverpool’s midfield which now looks to be the thing that the Reds have been missing for far too long this season, as his stint in defence due to emergency circumstances has come to an end.
He will back at the Alfredo Di Stefano on Tuesday, but playing in midfield.
And as Mourinho once said: “I think that a team without a Brazilian isn’t a team.”