Wesley Moraes: Aston Villa’s Record Signing With a Remarkable Backstory
Nothing about Wesley Moraes Ferreira da Silva’s story is straightforward. Aston Villa’s club-record signing lost his father when he was only nine and worked in a factory sorting screws before he became a multimillion-pound striker. In between times, the Brazilian had a son at the age of 15 and a daughter a year later. On top of all of that – and it really is hard to imagine how turbulent this 22-year-old’s life has been at times – Wesley fulfilled his dream of making it as a professional footballer despite having one leg that is almost three centimeters shorter than the other.
“He was born like this, of course,” says Hans Coret, who works closely with Paulo Nehmy, Wesley’s Brazilian agent. “When Paulo met Wesley the first time, he went to the former doctor of the national team of Brazil. He checked out the leg and he said: ‘You will never have any problem with this, it’s how he is, never change anything.’ It’s amazing. But you know the story of Garrincha in Brazil …”
Garrincha, Brazil’s unique and brilliant World Cup winner, is also referred to at Trencin, the Slovakian club where Wesley first made his name in European football, earning a move to Club Brugge in January 2016. “It is interesting because sometimes it looks like Wesley’s limping on the pitch by the way that he walks,” Robert Rybnicek, Trencin’s general manager, says. “But he’s so quick. He’s a special guy.”
Brugge picked up on Wesley’s unusual physical profile during his medical. He was only 19 years old at the time and the Belgian club were initially concerned about injury prevention. Yet Wesley has never experienced any problems in that respect and, as with Garrincha, whose left leg was six centimeters longer than his right, his body had learned to compensate for any imbalance a long time ago.
Finding stability off the field was harder and inevitably clubs delved into that chaotic backstory. “We knew everything,” Dévy Rigaux, Brugge’s team manager, says. “We had a very clear screening of the player before signing him. There was a long conversation with a psychologist on one side and with us, the people of the club, on the other side, on the social aspects. We felt during these conversations that he was a boy with a very good heart, with really good values in life, which were necessary in our environment to become the right football player.
“If you lose first of all the father at an early age, and you become yourself a father when you are still a kid, at 15, it has an impact. His children stayed in Brazil, so that was quite difficult for him. We had to build a relationship with him where, bit by bit, you start to talk more about the family.”
Football was Wesley’s salvation. After spending much of his childhood playing futsal, he traveled all over Europe trying to earn a contract, spending three months with Atlético Madrid’s under-17 team and scoring twice for them in an international youth tournament in Spain, only to end up back in Brazil working on a production line.
Wesley needed a break and that moment came when a highlights reel was sent to Trencin, who offered a one-month trial. Wesley saw himself as an attacking midfielder, but the Slovakian club looked at his power and pace and had other ideas. “He didn’t want to play like a No 9. He wanted to play in the middle. But all his talent that he had was really to be a striker,” Rybnicek says. “We started to work on it and to give him this trust that in the future this would make him a really good player for the international market. Slowly he started to believe and the development was incredible.”
Although that plan worked out well and Wesley was soon transferred to Brugge, he still had a lot to learn on and off the pitch, right down to the importance of getting enough sleep and eating properly when he was away from the club. “We went with him to the supermarket to buy exactly what he needed,” Rigaux adds.
Rigaux talks with a lot of fondness about Wesley, praising him in particular for the way that he was always receptive to the club’s advice, yet there were also moments when Brugge had to get “tough” with their young striker. Callow, desperate to prove himself and a little impetuous, Wesley became an easy target for defenders who saw a weakness in his temperament.
“You see the beginning of his period in Brugge, he had some red cards for non-mature behavior. Then I was very hard with him,” Rigaux says.
“First of all you show a kind of comprehension to his behavior because you know that he gets a lot of kicks, but you need to explain very clearly that it’s absolutely not the way, because they knew that he reacted when they provoked him. We said to him: ‘Be smarter with your body language, try to change it. If you show to a defender that you get irritated, he will only do it more. When they kick you, take three seconds to think and not react.’ And, of course, it happened a few times that he fell in the trap again.”
Wesley needed to refine areas of his game too, notably his heading, but everyone could see his potential. Futsal had helped to hone his technical skills and then there was his towering physical presence and explosive speed. At 6ft 3in and 93kg (14st 9lb), he could dominate opponents. “He killed other players because he’s such a big guy,” Claudemir de Souza, a Brazilian who played alongside Wesley for Brugge, says.
Claudemir lived next door to Wesley in Belgium and, as someone who is nearly 10 years older, tried to guide him. “We know it’s hard when you lose your father when you’re so young,” Claudemir adds. “His mother always supported him, she would come to Belgium and I think she will come to England. And I know Wesley works a lot to help his children, because he knows how difficult it is not to have a father.”
Yan, his son, and Maria, his daughter, were born to different mothers and although Wesley is no longer with either of those women, he remains in regular contact with his children and wants to do his best for them. That situation is helped by the fact that both children live close to Wesley’s mother.
Rigaux believes Wesley “has been lucky that he has the right people around him” in terms of the positive influence provided by Coret and Nehmy, who is in a position to deal with any problems that arise in Brazil and has been described as being like a father figure. Together they have encouraged him to plan for tomorrow by investing in a plush apartment in Juiz de Fora, the Brazilian city where he grew up.
Yet the boundaries are blurred when it comes to others. In what is a remarkable image to picture, Rigaux has seen photos of 25 people, who are all depending on Wesley, gathered around a small kitchen table back in Brazil. That sort of scene fuelled concern about outside pressure on Wesley to perform. “It was something that we really needed to explain to the family,” Rigaux says. “Because this boy, he has an unbelievable responsibility to not only his mother and brothers and sister, but he has his kids, his best friends – everybody is asking: ‘Can you help me?’”
Remarkably, Wesley seemed unfazed by it all and played with a single-minded determination at Brugge that led to goals – 30 across the last two seasons – and being named the young player of the year in the Belgian Pro League. “All the problems that he might have, he puts behind,” Coret says. “He has one focus and that’s football. He’s not nervous about things.”
There was a huge offer from a club in China in January and Cardiff were also keen, but Wesley stayed put and got his reward when Villa paid £22m for him this summer. The English lessons that Wesley started in Brugge have come in handy already but the big question is how the boy who had to grow up so fast in Brazil will adapt on the pitch.
“First of all the supporters need to give him a warm welcome,” Rigaux says. “Wesley looks massive but he really needs the support. He had it from the Brugge supporters – and every time he said to me that it gives him an enormous feeling when they chant his name. Secondly, we’ve prepared him in a really good way but don’t think from the beginning that he will be the No 1 striker in the Premier League. Give him time, though, and I really expect him to be a key player for Aston Villa and to have a big career.”