La Liga Lowdown
The Felipe Monteiro Story: Atlético Madrid’s Best Kept Secret
Written by Andrew Miller
Last summer was a bit of a whirlwind for Atlético Madrid. Between their all-time top-scorer walking away to join Barcelona just one year after publishing the “My fans, my team, my home” campaign, and João Félix’s record-breaking signing – you could be forgiven for missing the understated arrival of one Felipe Augusto de Almeida Monteiro.
Losing a player of Diego Godín’s historical stature, for any club, would be a tough pill to swallow. At 33 years of age and having made more than 350 appearances for Atleti, the Uruguayan was a crucial cog in what had made the record-setting defensive engine so consistently successful. But the club was heading into a natural period of transition, so it was time for a new generation to take the reins.
From the outside, spending €20 million (the highest ever fee paid for a defender in Atleti’s long and storied history at the time) on a 30-year-old with only 146 games of top-flight league football under his belt, to replace arguably Los Rojiblancos’ greatest ever defender, naturally raised a few eyebrows. For Diego Simeone and those select few who understood what had brought Felipe Monteiro to this point however, this was just another obstacle to overcome, as Felipe had done so often before.
This isn’t the first story of a star coming from humble beginnings, nor will it be the last. But it is certainly one of the most unique.
Monteiro enjoyed other ball-playing sports as a child. Basketball and volleyball were more of a focus, and in an interview with Diario AS at the beginning of the season, Felipe talked about giving up on football completely – “At the age of 18, I thought that football wasn’t for me. I hadn’t gotten anything from it. I was getting older and I had to start making a living and I wanted to work and not depend on my parents.”
Campeonato Paulista Segunda Divisão
Having failed to impress Corinthians on trial as a youngster, Felipe was released and continued to develop his skills at amateur club Veltra, the workers’ team for a tractor company partnered with local side União Futebol Clube at the time. Whilst working for his mother and father-in-law at a municipal market delivering crates of mushrooms to nearby restaurants, Felipe upgraded to União FC and made his debut in 2009 – he had started his climb up the pyramid of Brazilian football.
But this is no seductive “samba football” scenario - the fourth tier of state championship football in São Paulo is tough, rugged and poorly funded, a make-or-break opportunity for amateur players across the south-east region of Brazil to see if they’ve got enough ability and ambition, determination and drive, to make it as a professional. Felipe’s faith in his own talent was growing, and it would pay off.
Clube Atlético Bragantino
In 2011, Unãio faced former Série B side Bragantino in pre-season, and Felipe’s impressive defensive performances alerted the attention of head coach Marcelo Veiga who was on the lookout for defensive reinforcements. This tactically aggressive, powerful but raw 21-year-old fitted the bill, and suddenly he was swapping lower-state division to the second-highest tier of national football.
Making his professional debut at 22 years of age and starting 32 of his 33 games with Bragantino, Felipe made an instant impact, helping the club to a sixth-placed finish, their highest league position since being promoted back into the Série B in 2007.
A superb season, and the big boys in Brazil had taken note - especially the very club who released him as a 14-year-old after an unsuccessful trial.
Sport Club Corinthians Paulista
No footballer could deny the heritage of Corinthians, one of the best-supported football clubs in all of South America with a strong track record of success, especially in the last decade – both domestically and internationally. Then add in a well-respected coach in Adenor Leonardo Bacchi (or Tite as he’s better known), and it was a compelling prospect for Felipe to join the club in 2012.
Not that it was a fairytale start. Careless errors and a general lack of discipline meant he played just 80 minutes of football across three Série A games in his first season, followed by another two seasons of being in and out of the squad. But Corinthians were patient and tirelessly laid the groundwork for Felipe to succeed. With no real academy or youth-system pedigree to speak of, that gradual refinement helped him break into the first team towards the end of the 2014 campaign, forming a centre-back partnership with Gil for the final six games of the Série A season.
His patience would be rewarded the following season. As 2015 kicked off, Felipe contributed with two goals in Corinthians’ Copa Libertadores campaign before they were knocked out in the last 16, and although he didn’t figure properly in the league until matchday nine due to injury, the 2-1 victory over Figueirense would prove the catalyst for an historic 17-game unbeaten run.
That year, Corinthians won the Campeonato Brasileiro by 12 points with magnificent style and precision. They lost only five of their 38 league games, boasting the best attack and defence.
Joshua Law, editor of Yellow and Green Football spoke of the magnitude of the achievement: “For Felipe’s time at Corinthians, the real glory was the 2015 Campeonato Brasileiro. He formed a centre-back partnership with Gil that was pretty much unbeatable. After the Flamengo team of 2019, I would say that’s the most impressive club team I’ve seen since moving to Brazil. Tite is renowned for putting out defensively solid teams but they attacked with such efficiency as well.”
Momentum was building in Felipe’s career, which soon changed course again – he moved to Europe.
In true Felipe Monteiro fashion, the traditional signing and imminent club announcement just wouldn’t quite cut it when the Brazilian signed to join Porto in 2016 for a reported €6 million fee.
Marcus Alves of Bleacher Report recalled the announcement as one of the most curious he’d ever seen: “Felipe had gone to a little São Paulo state government shop known as a poupatempo, which offers a load of services (like a post office in the UK) to sort out his international driving license to make sure he’d be able to drive in Portugal, but at that time there hadn’t been any official confirmation of the deal. The poupatempo Facebook page later posted a photograph of Felipe, wishing him the best of luck in Portugal and reminding the general public that if you want to drive in a foreign country, you have to do like Felipe.”
It was a rollercoaster start to life at Porto for Felipe. He made his Primeira Liga debut in a storming 3-1 victory over Rio Ave, but five days later scored an own goal on his Champions League debut (and first home appearance) against Roma in the first leg of qualifying.
But one constant established early was the connection the Brazilian made with former Villarreal and Racing Santander defender Iván Marcano. Head coach Nuno Espírito Santo had built his defensive strategy around the pair’s ability to play out from the back and control possession under pressure, which by this time had come naturally after working under Tite back in Brazil.
Felipe redeemed himself against Roma with a goal in the away leg, followed it up a week later with a consolation at rivals Sporting Lisbon, after which Porto kicked off a breathtaking 30-game unbeaten run in the league to keep rivals and ultimate champions Benfica honest until the last few matches.
Whilst Porto fans appreciated Felipe’s standout performances throughout the season (he only missed two of Porto’s league games through suspension), his reputation with opposition fans was rather different. “Vale Tudo” was the nickname shouted from the stands in away grounds to tease Felipe, a form of full-combat Brazilian martial arts that translates as ‘anything goes’. His composure and discipline in the tackle was often questioned, his decision-making or the timing of a challenge would earn him the reputation of being an aggressive and violent centre-back.
Not that any of that affected the player himself. The following season, Porto stormed to the 2017/18 Primeira Liga title and Felipe’s name was included in the prestigious ‘Team of the Year’ list alongside defensive partners Alex Telles and Ricardo Pereira. That season, Porto conceded just 18 goals which was in large part down to the impenetrable back-line, but his attacking prowess and aerial dominance started to really shine through during this period as well.
Brazilian National Team
At the start of the 2018-19 season, which would eventually be his last in Portugal, Felipe received his second call-up to La Seleçao, this time to join his fellow countrymen in a trip to the United States and then El Salvador for a series of international friendlies. The moment was made even more special in that it was Felipe’s former Corinthians manager Tite who facilitated his international debut, six years after signing him for the São Paulo giants.
Felipe was welcomed on to applause in the 46th minute, replacing Cruzeiro defender Dedé to join newly-signed Porto teammate Éder Militão in the back four. To this day, it remains the only official appearance that Felipe has made for the Brazil team; he was called up again at the end of 2019 but wasn’t able to get any game time against either of South Korea or Argentina.
Atlético de Madrid
For Diego Simeone, having to replace an influential player and captain like Diego Godín was all too familiar a feeling, with the Argentine having only just done the same one year prior when long-serving midfielder Gabi left for Al-Sadd in Qatar.
With Koke donning the captain’s armband, Simeone’s attention turned to filling the defensive hole left by Godín’s departure to Inter Milan in the summer (as well as Juanfran, Filipe Luís and Lucas Hernandez), and the opportunity to secure a player of Felipe’s ability was too good to pass up.
In hindsight, €20 million in today’s market is a steal for any elite-level defender with Champions League pedigree, but even then, for a club like Atleti to go out and break their previous transfer record for a defender is telling. His transfer fee was only just surpassed by the signing of Kieran Trippier from Tottenham who has proved another shrewd piece of business from Los Colchoneros.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Felipe had already established himself as one of the best centre-backs in LaLiga. With only cross-city rivals Real Madrid having conceded fewer goals, he has become a key defensive component for Diego Simeone.
It’s hard to imagine the feeling an individual must have when they reminisce about playing in the fourth tier of state football in São Paulo whilst they celebrate with their new teammates having just knocked out the defending Champions League winners on their home turf, but for Felipe Monteiro it’s just another page written into his strange and unexpected footballing chapter.
That second leg against Liverpool at Anfield which went to extra-time will have arguably been the most intense and testing football experience of his life so far – but once again, he wasn’t fazed. And Felipe’s career so far has battle-hardened him for the challenges to come whenever football returns.
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