Barefoot and with a heavy, threadbare ball, a group of boys are playing an improvised kickabout on a concrete quad. Oblivious to the puddles that pockmark the pitch from an earlier downpour, they play shirts against skins in a raucous and unrefined version of jogo bonito.
It is an unassuming place, with not a sprinkling of stardust, and yet it was here, on this rough piece of ground in an unfrequented corner of north–eastern Brazil, that Hulk began the football journey which has led him to become the spearhead of his side’s World Cup campaign.
“It’s incredible that Hulk played here all those years ago, and now look at him – one of the best players in the world,” says Marcos Marques dos Santos, 29, who used to play against Hulk when they were boys growing up in Campina Grande, a one–horse town adrift in the middle of the Brazilian countryside. His voice trails away in amazement.
The rise of Hulk, the kid with the superhero’s name, could well have been dreamt up by a Marvel comic writer. Not many kids who grow up in the Jose Pinheiro neighbourhood – a tough area, which saw six murders in 2012 alone – and even dare to dream of becoming a member of the fabled Selecao, winning a London 2012 Olympic silver medal and a Confederations Cup title into the bargain.
“The kids used to call [the area] Ze Pe for short,” Marcos says. “They’d say: ‘Don’t mess with me, I’m from Ze Pe’.”
Hulk’s story should be one to have united the Brazilian nation, yet the reality is rather different. Having left Brazil for Japan as a teenager, and subsequently moved to Porto and Zenit St Petersburg, domestic fans barely saw him play in his home country in club colours, and his appearances for the national side did not generate any warmth.
Supporters jeered him, calling for him to be replaced by Paris St–Germain’s Lucas, while the murals and billboards boasted more marketable local faces: Neymar, Fred and David Luiz.
It is a curiosity only partly explained by the fact that Hulk has pursued a career far from home soil, a point that could be held against many members of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad. Rather, it appeared to offer proof of a deep–seated northsouth divide in a country where few players from impoverished areas such as Hulk’s make it to the top of the game.
“There’s a lot of prejudice,” says Marcos, who remembers taking the 50p bus ride with Hulk to junior state tournaments.
“We feel a division in the country between the north and south. The teams in the south have a lot of talent, and there’s a lack of projects here in the north, projects for poor kids like Hulk.”
Conscious of the weight of his responsibility, Hulk already supports a football project in Campina Grande for youngsters like him. On a pitch that backs onto the countryside near a quiet industrial park, the coach who discovered him oversees training for dozens of yellow and green–clad children “We’re going to discover new Hulks because they are out there,” says Mano Costa, who paid for Hulk’s initial training himself. “The professional clubs don’t have the structure here in Campina Grande. It’s the dream of kids here to become a footballer, there’s a lot of competition, and today it’s very profitable.
“Hulk does a lot of work here on social exclusion. There’s a lot of good footballers here, but not all of them think about the social aspect like Hulk.”
For all the uneasiness in the stands, the faith of the Brazilian who matters most in football, manager Scolari, has never wavered. And for a coach who famously likes to build his teams like a family, a visit to Campina Grande quickly makes it obvious why Hulk is an ideal choice.
Behind the heavy sliding gate that protects his family’s home, there is a hubbub of noise coming from his nephews. They all play football in T–shirts bearing their uncle’s nickname: one smashes the ball against the wall with strength beyond his years. Two St Bernard dogs, Beethoven and Lassie, amble around the yard.
Hulk’s older sister, Nilda, greets us at the top of the drive. They are all cut from the same cloth: the angular jawline, the wide smile, the soft, sing–song Paraibano accent.
“The family is very united, very close, very big,” his father Gilvan says, glancing at a line of Russian dolls all painted in Hulk’s image that stand on a bar nearby. “I think it helped him a lot. We were all united for him, praying for him whenever he plays, whenever he travels.”
Hulk is one of seven children, a single boy in a sea of sisters – three older, three younger. Together, they used to go to the city’s central market at 5am each day, where their parents, Gilvan and Maria do Socorro, worked. At the end of the day, they would return to a modest, single–storey home that has since become a mechanics’ garage, and Hulk – so–called because he loved the cartoon as a boy – would play football for nearby Parque da Crianca, where the winners would get ice cream.
“He went through a lot of difficulties. We used to go to market early and he would wait for me to sell something to get money to buy breakfast,” Gilvan says. “I used to arrive home at night at around 10pm. He would be waiting for me, always with the ball under his arm, and would play until bedtime. He was crazy about playing football. I always knew he would be a good footballer.”
Chuckling with the familiar family grin, he remembers when Hulk first signed for Vitoria in Salvador before swiftly leaving for Japan. “He signed a contract worth R$500 [£125] a month and called us up. He said: ‘Mum, mum, I’m rich!'” Since then, Hulk, who cost Zenit £40million in 2012, has bought homes for his parents and each of his sisters, although the humility of a family built with much less remains. Nilda and Gilvan offer water and juice repeatedly before Nilda eventually brings out mugs of coffee and cheese sandwiches. She later insists on lunch of chicken pie, rice, beans, sausage and the Brazilian soft drink guarana.
She even passes the phone so I can say hello to her mother, like a relative.
Her brother’s achievements are a source of almost overwhelming pride. “From the middle of tribulations, from the middle of difficulties, comes achievement, right?” she says.
“And through what my brother achieved, it’s worth it. When you look at him, you feel emotional because you know where he’s come from. We look at him and say, ‘Wow, that’s our brother’. The World Cup is special.
As long as I can remember, my grandmother always supported Brazil and when we watched the World Cup, she would say, ‘One day, I’ll see my grandson here, representing Brazil’.”
According to his father, Hulk has adapted well to Russia, but he could be on the move again after the World Cup, having previously been linked with Chelsea and Tottenham.
“I always wanted to see him playing in Europe but he’s OK where he is and it’s natural for other teams to look at him,” Gilvan says. “He’ll play wherever. If he plays in England, he’ll play better still.”
In the meantime, there is the small matter of a World Cup. “He’s been preparing for the World Cup for four years, focusing everything on it,” Gilvan says.
And when Thursday’s opening game against Croatia arrives? “It’ll be easy. This is a united group, like a family.” He smiles. “I hope Hulk can be Brazil’s superhero.”
Originally published by The Daily Telegraph