Real Madrid’s Brazilian midfielder Casemiro has always been the smartest kid on the block, even as an 11-year-old waiting for his trial at Sao Paulo FC to begin.
He had turned up as a striker but when he saw how many hands were raised when the coach asked, ‘Who here is a centre forward?’ he kept his down by his side.
He knew only 50 kids were going to be selected from the 300 hopefuls. He did the same when the coach asked, ‘Who here is a No 10?’ Another 50 hands shot up.
Only when it was time for the holding midfielders to raise their hand did he put his in the air.
Later in the trial, he was asked, ‘Aren’t you meant to be a striker?’ But by then he had convinced the club he was well worth taking.
Grinning broadly at the suggestion that street smart comes naturally to him, he says: ‘Since I was a kid, I always thought it was important to think on my feet.
‘And on the pitch, the legs have to be strong, but the head should be in charge. I like to be aggressive, powerful, physical, but you have to play with your brain.
‘You have to be well-positioned, see the move before it happens, cover the gaps, help your team-mates. I like to think, and not just off the pitch, but on it as well.’
Has Casemiro, the thinker, spent much time mulling how to outwit Pep Guardiola on Friday?
‘We’ve been doing that since the day the league ended!’ he says of Real Madrid’s last-16 second-leg match against Manchester City, having lost 2-1 at home.
‘I always try to read the mind of the other coach, try to work out what they’re planning. Sometimes the smallest details, five metres one way or the other, can change a game.’
By his own admission he thinks more like a coach than a player sometimes. It’s little wonder he has the football analysis tool Wyscout installed at home.
‘I watch all the games,’ he says. ‘My wife gets annoyed with me a lot because I’ll be watching a match between two Chinese teams or something. It’s my work! There is a time for family but football is my job. It’s my life and I have to be permanently thinking about it.’
The fact that football became Casemiro’s life saved him from an altogether tougher existence. His mother Magda brought the family up alone. Aged eight, Casemiro had to juggle training with looking after younger siblings.
He would walk the six miles to Moreira’s Sport, a club run by coach Nilton Moreira who spotted not just Casemiro’s talent, but also his occasional need for new boots, kit and even food when he had turned up to play on an empty stomach.
His mother had always imagined ‘Carlinhos’, as she called him, was just playing football for fun, but when he signed professional papers aged 16 at Sao Paulo and bought her a house, she realised football was more than a hobby.
He has not forgotten the early hardship and believes footballers are waking up to a greater social responsibility.
He works with Save the Children in Spain and is well aware of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals for deprived children throughout the summer holiday.
‘I saw it, yes,’ he says. ‘Players are thinking more along those lines and doing more. It was a great gesture. I have a lot of time for him, not just because he’s a great player — but for what he used his image for. That’s the way to help. It’s an important step we all have to take.
‘I am what I am because of my mum and the values she taught me.
‘Football was an escape route to achieve something in life. I had the good fortune to take that path, but lots of friends didn’t. That’s why I enjoy every day of it. Everything I do, an interview, a training session, a talk with the manager, I do it with all my heart.’
Those heart-to-hearts with Zinedine Zidane have changed over the years as Casemiro has grown in importance. But even now, as a 28-year-old, four-time Champions League winner, he admits to remaining slightly in awe of his boss.
‘They didn’t put so much football on the telly back then,’ he says of days in Brazil peering through the window of the local bar to see the small screen showing Zidane in action for Madrid’s Galacticos.
‘When I was a kid, they were my heroes. I often tell him that he doesn’t realise what he meant to me. I tell him, ‘You took a World Cup off us at France ’98, but you were still my idol’.
‘I couldn’t grasp then that the player I was watching as a kid was even real. You would see them on television and they played so well, they were so famous.
‘And even today when I talk to the manager, I get a little bit nervous. He was always my hero with Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Figo, Raul, Casillas. Now we have Zidane as the coach and we see the others here at Valdebebas.’
The Real Madrid training ground, from where Casemiro is speaking during the countdown to the trip to Manchester, includes the B-team’s Alfredo di Stefano stadium where it all began for him playing in the youth side when he signed from Sao Paulo in 2013.
Now he looks primed to be the leader of the next generation of talented youngsters. As the embodiment of respectful calm, does he have what it takes to lead?
‘It’s a personality thing,’ he says. ‘I speak calmly. It’s important to be polite, too, whether it’s talking to someone on the street, with a referee, or with a journalist. You have to treat everyone the same.
‘I’m a player who always wants to win, but manners and class can’t be lost ever. A human being should have that.
‘I would rather be a silent leader. Sometimes people might think I don’t speak a lot, but in the dressing room I try to talk one to one with the younger players. A leader can be quiet, too.’
The last time Real Madrid faced an English team in the competition, they beat Liverpool in the Kiev final of 2018.
‘It was a magical night,’ he says. ‘At the time we didn’t know quite what we were achieving. It was unforgettable and against a great team with a great coach. I don’t think we won because Mo Salah got injured… Gareth Bale in that game was incredible. ‘
Has the desire to win again been diluted by winning LaLiga?
‘No, no,’ he says. ‘When you play for Madrid, this shirt obliges you to win — always.’