Special series on footballers who were born and raised in poor conditions but went onto become successful.
The players are in no particular order.
1. Diego Armando Maradona
Raised in the shanty town of Villa Fiorito, Diego Armando Maradona had to share one room with seven siblings. Deprived of education and life's taken-for-granted comforts, El Diego had a severely difficult childhood. For him football was the only comfort in his life; shirtless and barefoot, the little kid was blessed with a magical left foot that he used to frightening extent to sear his way through the footballing forest to become arguably the greatest ever footballer in the world.
Rivaldo is a Brazilian legend who became the 1999 European Footballer of the Year and went onto win the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, but the former FC Barcelona star had a very tough childhood. As a child, he was so malnourished that he lost several teeth and was extremely thin, even when he has become a teenager. His father was killed in a road accident in 1989 but that didn't stop Rivaldo from making it big in football. The rest, as they say, is history.
3. Antonio Cassano
Born in Bari, abandoned by his father when he was very small, raised by a single mother in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Italy, Antonio Cassano didn't have a dream-like life until he was into his late teens. Since his barging onto the football stage with modest side Bari, Cassano has been in the headlines as much for the right reasons as for the wrong. 'Peter Pan' hasn't really fulfilled the astounding talent he was born with but he is still one of the finest players in Italy. As Cassano writes in his autobiography, “I spent the first 17 years of my life dirt-poor. Then I spent nine years living the life of a millionaire. That means I need another eight years living the way I do now and then I’ll be even.”
4. Carlos Tevez
Carlos Tevez was raised in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Fuerte Apache and was born in a pretty much less than well off family. Yet a severely deprived childhood couldn't eclipse Tevez's footballing talent and the Argentine went onto become one of the finest strikers in South America, earning a move to England's West Ham United, whom he almost single-handedly saved from relegation from the Premier League. An important figure at Manchester United in two trophy-winning years spent there, Tevez is now at Manchester City and looks to scale even greater heights.
5. Robert Douglas
Many people in India might not know about Robert Douglas but those who know would marvel at his feat. Douglas played for Scottish giants Celtic and for the Scottish national team but years before that he worked as a bricklayer while playing for Forth Wanderers.
Manuel Francisco dos Santos, otherwise known as Garrincha, is a classic rags-to-riches tale in football. Born in Pau Grande with several physical deformities one of them being bent legs, he started working in a local factory when he was 14 and didn't make it into professional football until he was in his late teens. Gifted with perhaps the most devilish dribbling skills ever seen, Garrincha went onto win the World Cup twice with Brazil and scripted his name into the football history books.
7. Roberto Carlos
As a child, Roberto Carlos used to play barefoot with the ball filled with sand rather than with air and until he turned 20 his family didn't own any vehicle other than a bicycle. Also, as one football writer observed, “.....from an early age he was a sort of human ox, spending hour after hour in the fields alongside his father pushing or pulling outrageously heavy pieces of farm machinery.” Now that same "human ox" is a footballing legend and a free-kick God to many, having won everything there is to be won in the game and having played for the world's biggest club and for the world’s most popular and successful national team.
8. Steve Savidan
Steve Savidan is a relatively unknown figure in world football but his story too is a rags-to-riches tale. A late bloomer, the Frenchman worked as a waste collector and bartender for some time while he was with AS Angouleme in the third tier of French football. Savidan went onto play for AJ Auxerre and also earned a cap for the French national team.
9. Julio Ricardo Cruz
Former Argentine international striker Julio Ricardo Cruz actually worked as a groundskeeper for Argentine club Banfield. One day he was asked by the coach to play in a practice match because of a missing player. Cruz was so impressive in that match that Banfield decided to sign and the rest, as they always, always say, is history.
2008-2009 season was Edinaldo Batista Libano's 'breakthrough' season as he topscored in the Bundesliga for German club VfL Wolfsburg. Grafite’s 28 goals in the league were a vital force that propelled the Wolves to their first ever German championship, but not so long ago he sold bin-liners in his homeland Brazil and turned professional only after he had turned 22.
Like another footballing legend Diego Armando Maradona, Edison Arantes do Nascimento, otherwise known as Pele, grew up in abject poverty. His first football was not a proper ball but a sock stuffed with newspaper. His father was a footballer too but he could never earn enough to feed his family and suffered consistent injuries. Pele himself worked as shoe polisher when he was seven and initially didn't dream of becoming a professional footballer. As Pele later noted in his autobiography, "Poverty is a curse that depresses the mind, drains the spirit and poisons life. It is being robbed of self-respect and self-reliance. Poverty is fear.” Yet in the subsequent years football became the centre of his life and we all know what followed next.
These days he might be seen with models, supermodels and at times transvestites but once upon a time no one knew him and he was just another Brazilian kid who wanted to play football and was struggling to keep himself afloat. Born in a poverty-stricken family in Rio de Janeiro, Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima once couldn't garner the bus fare to take him to a trial with Brazilian club Flamengo, thereby mitigating his chances of becoming a professional footballer. But the later-to-become three times FIFA World Player of the Year and one of the greatest strikers of all time did not lose heart and went onto play for Cruzeiro, and subsequently went onto have the world prostrating at his feet.
A fallen star he might be and perhaps a moral criminal for having wasted the God-gifted talent that you and I can dream of being blessed with only in our eighth birth, Adriano's rise from miserable poverty is as much inspiring as incredible. Born in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro and raised in Vila Cruzeiro - a notorious neighborhood that made the headlines when TV Globo journalist Tim Lopes was cruelly murdered in 2002 by druglords - Adriano grew up poor but dreaming rich. As he himself acknowledged, “When you're small, you dream of having a big car. Your mother is the most important person in your life, and you dream of giving her a big house. And you see the top footballers with beautiful and glamorous women." Only, in the subsequent years Adriano got more of such luxuries and could never fulfill the talent he was gifted with.
14. Moreno Torricelli
Moreno Torricelli might be best known for his performance in the final of the Champions League in 1996 against Ajax but the former Juventus defender didn't have a particularly easy time making his way into football. Torricelli actually worked as a carpenter and his talent was spotted only when he was over 22 years of age in a pre-season friendly in July 1992 for Caratese against Juventus. The then Juventus coach Giovanni Trapattoni signed him and Torricelli went onto establish himself as one of the best defenders in Italy. He featured for the national team too: he was part of the Italian squad for Euro '96 and 1998 World Cup.
15. Lionel Messi
This is not exactly a rags-to-riches tale but Lionel Messi's journey from a growth hormone deficiency-stricken lad to the world's finest player and most likely candidate to become El Diego II is quite inspiring. When the now 22-year-old was only 11 years of age, he was diagnosed with a growth problem that would have cost around $800 per month to be cured. His club at the time, Argentine side Newell's Old Boys, couldn’t arrange the funds and Messi could well have gone to waste and remained small and fragile had a certain FC Barcelona not come into the picture. The Catalan club moved Messi and his family to Spain, paid the expense for the lad’s treatment and now have the world's best player on their books.
16. Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo might hold the record for the most expensive transfer in football history because of his move from Manchester United to Real Madrid earlier this summer but the Portuguese international wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. The Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year grew up in poverty in Funchal, Madeira. Now of course, the 24-year-old is a world class footballer, one of the best in the world, and arguably the most recognizable footballing face on the planet.
17. Juan Roman Riquelme
Generally described as an "enigmatic genius" and accepted as a throwback to modern football, Juan Roman Riquelme is without a doubt a world class playmaker and one of the world's finest and most incisive players. Like several of his compatriots, the Boca Juniors playmaker had a terribly deprived childhood. Born in a family of ten and raised in Don Torcuato, Riquelme was forced by his father to play in matches that formed the basis for illegal gambling rings when he was only 10. Riquelme, though, continued to progress and led Boca Juniors and Villarreal to glory, becoming one of the most creative genius of all time.
18. Collins John
Collins John might not be a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo and will never ever be but his story is as much heartening and inspiration. The former Fulham striker's father was murdered by guerrillas in Liberia in 1991 when John was only six years old. Two years later John, his mother and younger brothers escaped and immigrated to the Netherlands and lived in a refugee camp in Rotterdam for two years; eventually they gained Dutch citizenship. As Collins John recalls, "I had nothing more than a pair of underpants. We didn't have food every day. It was a real struggle because of the civil war."
19. Ian Wright
Ian Wright is an Arsenal legendary goalscorer but that wouldn't have happened had he not been spotted by Crystal Palace at the right time. Wright played non-league football in England until he was just a few months shy of his 22nd birthday when Palace talent scout Pete Prentice was impressed by the striker in a local Sunday league match. Wright was soon given a professional contract by Crystal Palace and later went onto become an Arsenal legend and England international. Had Palace not spotted him, Wright would have become a full-time plasterer.
This might well seem the odd one out but no rags-to-riches tale matches that of Villarreal's story, this columnist's favourite. The club from Vila-Real have spent most of their history in Spain's third division but since the late 1990s they have been on the rise. Built from virtual scratch by president Fernando Roig, who invested heavily in the club and promised to take them to the Spanish first division and make them challengers for the championship, Villarreal now are part of La Liga's elite. After gaining remarkable success in the UEFA Cup, the Yellow Submarine made the footballing world drop its jaw when they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2005-2006 and were only a penalty away from securing a place in the final. In their second ever season in Europe's top club competition in 2008-2009, Villarreal reached the last eight.
Football is replete with rags-to-riches stories and we must have missed many such inspiring tales in this two part series. So who do you think we have missed? Which player's rags-to-riches tale you think we should have featured?