With Chelsea in the midst of another European knockout campaign, and ahead of a big quarter-final next month, who better to talk to than David Luiz.
The Brazilian’s experiences of the latter stages of European competition are more dramatic than most, and in the first of a two-part interview he tells the story of his life-changing debut for Benfica, and then remembers the extraordinary Chelsea v Napoli Champions League tie that touched hearts and got people dancing…
It feels fitting that David Luiz’s story in European knockout matches begins at the moment he set foot on the continent he has played his club football in ever since. So many of his most iconic moments have come in two-legged European ties or finals, but perhaps the most significant for his development was his very first, over 12 years ago now.
Fresh-faced and short-haired, David Luiz joined Benfica from Vitoria in his native Brazil, initially on loan. It was January 2007.
‘I was just a kid living a dream,’ he remembers of his 19-year-old self. ‘When I arrived in Benfica I was looking at the players like, "Wow, they are video game players’" I was so bad in my first month there. I didn’t touch the ball. I was just in a dream.
‘Fernando Santos was the Benfica manager then, a great coach. He won the Euros with Portugal. Anyway, he spoke to me many times and said, "What are you doing?! You’re not a player. Go back to Copacabana!’’
It was a tough start, but David Luiz managed to gradually assert himself in training. After an injury to regular centre-back Luisao - a Brazil international and one of the ‘video game players’ David Luiz was so in awe of – the young buck thought his chance would come in a league fixture against bottom-placed Aves. He called home to tell his family and friends to try to watch the game.
‘I was so happy. But then the manager put a midfielder as a defender, and not me. I was sad. My mum and dad in Brazil didn’t have cable TV, so they went to watch the game in another house of our neighbours, and then they didn’t see me play and everyone was sad.
‘Anyway, five days later we had a game in the UEFA Cup against PSG. We travelled to Paris. Luisao came and we weren’t sure if he was going to play. I was already happy because I was travelling to Paris.
'I was just a little boy happy to be there! It didn’t matter if I played or didn’t play.'
— David Luiz
‘Twenty players travelled. Normally I would be one of the players not to be in the 18. I remember I was in the hotel on the afternoon of the game. I opened a door and saw [Kostas] Katsouranis, the midfielder who had played as a defender in the previous league game. He was talking to the doctor and saying he felt sick and couldn’t play tonight.
‘I closed the door, went to my room and thought, "Maybe I go to the bench." I called my parents and my friends and said I could be on the bench so see if you can see me on TV!
The calm after the storm
David Luiz was indeed named as a sub. Luisao started. At the Parc de Princes, a stadium David Luiz would later call home, thousands of local Portuguese fans contributed to a great atmosphere for the first leg of the round of 16 tie. The visitors went 1-0 up through Simao.
‘Then, on 33 minutes, Luisao said he felt his injury.’ David Luiz’s memory is crystal clear. You can tell how pivotal this moment was.
‘Fernando Santos looked at the bench once, looked at the bench twice and looked at the bench a third time, and then said, "Okay, it’s only you, let’s go!".
‘I came on and after five minutes it was already 2-1 to Paris Saint-Germain! I did one mistake. Imagine my head! I thought tomorrow they are going to send me back to Brazil!
‘Then the first half finished and I was so happy,’ continues David Luiz.
‘I started to breathe again. The coach asked me if I wanted to be changed, and I said no. Some players were angry with me; others told me to keep calm. I remember praying to God and saying, "Just make me calm, the rest I will do."
‘I went to the second half and was the best player on the pitch. I almost scored. We lost 2-1 but I did amazing, and the team-mates and fans were happy with me.’
Things spiralled after that first experience of football in Europe, and European football. Three days later David Luiz made his full debut for Benfica and was named man of the match after a 2-0 win against Uniao de Leiria. Then came the second leg against PSG. A 3-1 victory took the Portuguese through. When Luisao returned from injury, it was the other centre-back who lost his place in the side. David Luiz’s life had changed forever.
'Let's do something special in our lives'
Fast-forward to David Luiz’s first taste of European knockout football in the blue of Chelsea, and the results are equally spectacular. Having moved mid-season from Benfica, he was cup-tied so could not play against Copenhagen or Manchester United in the early months of 2011.
The following campaign we beat Valencia in the final group game to guarantee our place in the last 16 of the Champions League. We were drawn to play Napoli. What followed was one of the all-time great European comebacks.
‘It was the moment of that season because of what happened, everybody knows, but also because we saw how you can change moments of your life if you really want to do something,’ reflects David Luiz, seven years down the line.
‘That feeling touched every single heart. And not just because of the score. For me the second leg started in the first leg, when Ashley Cole saved a goal on the line. I remember everybody was praising him afterwards, even though we lost 3-1. ‘Well done Ash, okay, let’s go!’
‘We said after the game that ball Ashley Cole saved is for some reason. Everybody started to believe in that feeling, everybody started to believe in that moment. It touched every heart, and we all thought let’s do something special in our lives.
‘We did that, and for football or professional mentality, when you do something like that it brings back your confidence, your strength, your dream. It was a different atmosphere. That game was the game where we thought it could be possible.
‘Football is magic because of this kind of stuff. Anything can happen. The atmosphere, the great vibe, the good energy, the positive moments.
‘I like to use my professional life as an example for everybody,’ adds David Luiz. ‘You can dream. You can try to turn it around.
‘Ashley still believed in the next 90 minutes. Maybe he was the right one. He saved the ball and celebrated. He understood it was not just that game. He was an example for us. And the second leg is still in our heads today.’
Time to party
As it is for all Chelsea supporters. Anyone who was fortunate enough to be at Stamford Bridge on the night we beat the Neapolitans will remember the electric atmosphere and unbridled celebrations. David Luiz, man of the match that night, paints the picture from his perspective on the pitch.
‘It’s like when you go to a party and just one person is dancing. You don’t dance. Two people? You don’t dance. But when you see everybody is dancing, the atmosphere gets you! It was like that.
‘I like the example of the laugh. Why do you start laughing when somebody else is really laughing? It’s the infection of the good energy.
‘You see a player go, and another player go, another one goes! The supporters go! And you make a magic moment together.
‘That was the kind of magic moment you will always have inside your heart, and you know it is possible to do anything.’
In part two tomorrow, David Luiz picks up from where he left off in our victorious Champions League campaign of 2012, recalls some other great European knockout ties he has been involved in, and explains what we need to do when the Europa League resumes next month…