Before Rúben Dias was Premier League champion, he was a 14-year-old kid who needed a round for practice.
Dias had been invited to join the famed academy of Lisbon-based SL Benfica, Portugal’s most successful club. But he had to find a way to make it happen.
His grandfather, Joaquim Dias, offered to drive the trip for at least 30 minutes each way, five times a week.
“When you’re around 14 you go to the main academy…it’s just you and the club. Your parents can’t be there. It’s when you go one on one against yourself,” Dias, who plays for Manchester City, tells me in an exclusive interview.
“I was lucky to have a very devoted grandfather. Sometimes my father would take me but it was mostly my grandfather who did all the dirty work.
“My grandfather was a very humble person but still, taking all this time of his life to take care of me and help me every day was something very special to me.”
Up to four or five hours a day, the elder Dias waited. Sometimes he could find a space between the railings surrounding the training ground for a brief glimpse of his grandson playing.
“First of all, I can guarantee you that he is very patient,” Dias laughs.
“I think he took a few games, like Sudoku and games like that. I think the opportunity to be there and live the dream with me was also something that meant a lot to him.
A start and a change of position
Dias, 25, is one of the best central defenders in the world. He joined Manchester City from Benfica in a deal worth at least 68 million euros ($67 million) in September 2020.
In his first season, he won the Premier League title, the EFL Cup and reached the Champions League final. He was named Premier League Player of the Season and last August signed a new contract until 2027.
Before he became an expert in stopping goals, however, Dias wanted to score them.
He was eight or nine years old when he made his debut for his first club, CF Estrela da Amadora. Recruited by a classmate who spotted his talents on the playground, Dias started the game as a striker, ready to propel his new team to victory.
“I was the best player at my school, I was the best at this club and I just wanted to be up front and score goals, like all the other kids,” Dias said.
“But in my first game it happened. My team was in a bit of pain and I ended up running around. I was trying to talk to everyone, trying to organize it and get everyone running. world together.
“Then at one point the coach said, ‘Ruben, just go to the back and let’s go. And since then, I haven’t left.
“I think it came naturally because I wanted to score goals, but I wanted to win more.”
This will to win was born from kicking with his brother, Ivan, also a professional footballer, and his father, Joao, in the parks of Amadora, on the outskirts of Lisbon.
There was not a single moment that convinced Dias that he could be a professional player. But the determination was still there.
“I think that up to a certain age, you only play for fun. You play because you love to play,” he says.
“Unfortunately some parents these days just push their kids to do it because they know what this life can bring you. But when you’re really natural, you’re just doing it for fun, because you like it.
“It was just a feeling of ‘I’ll do it. No matter what, I will sacrifice more. I’ll be ready to sleep more, ready to party less. I won’t be bothered by girlfriends, I won’t be bothered by too many friends who might distract me while I pursue my dream.
“Having the talent and the right mindset together can make you unstoppable.”
life beyond the game
Throughout his career, Dias has tried to keep his feet on the ground. He watched interviews with elite athletes from other sports who failed to invest during boom times in their careers and retired without a financial safety net.
“Since I was very young, I have been very concerned about my future,” says Dias, whose mother, Bernadette, is an accountant and father, Joao, a real estate consultant.
“It was always very aware that even though I’m doing great and now have a world of possibilities, with bad decisions it can just go away. And it can go fast.”
Guided by two trusted advisors, Dias began taking “small steps” to secure his financial future after gambling. He believes in portfolio diversity and currently invests in real estate and financial markets.
Part of planning now is to be able to give back as effectively as possible in the future. Dias mentions the Netflix series Inside Bill’s Brain, about billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. He is fascinated by “philanthropists and people who care about the world and try to help” and is particularly interested in environmental sustainability.
“It’s important for me to keep learning and listening. From a very young age, there are things that inspire me,” he says.
“The planet needs people who want to take care of it. And obviously, that’s one of my goals. I am a person who has a certain visibility and I want to try to use it as well as possible.
“So it’s not just about securing my future. It’s also very much about ensuring that I will reach a certain level where I can dedicate myself to these kinds of causes as well.
It’s not hard to imagine Dias becoming a leader off the pitch. Along with Kevin De Bruyne, he is part of Manchester City’s management group and is tipped to take charge of Portugal when Cristiano Ronaldo retires.
Leadership, he says, is something that comes naturally.
“I believe the right people to lead, they are born with. I never tried to aim for anything other than being who I am.
In his first season of professional football, Dias played for Benfica B, in the Portuguese second division. The club was nearly relegated.
“There was a lot of pressure. But I think that’s also when you see someone with fiber. Someone with the will to win,” says Dias, who was 18 at the time.
“Because it’s very easy to hide, it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, why don’t they just call two, three or four first-team players to help us?’ But I think that’s exactly the turn where you have to say ‘no, if we lose we might actually go down and we’ll be responsible for it’ But still, let the pressure come and we’ll fight.
“I think in my career it was a very important moment to define my personality.”
Since his first match with CF Estrela da Amadora, Dias has had the instinct to organize his teammates. It was not always well received.
“When I arrived in the Benfica first team, they didn’t like it very much because I was very young!” he says.
“But the beauty of it all is that the people who didn’t like it were the same people who now recognize that it was who I was. I wasn’t trying to show off, I wasn’t trying to show off. to look smart, I was just being myself.
After three years, Dias was transferred to Manchester City. Before leaving Benfica, he was dismissed by the club’s then captain, Luisão, and another of the team’s leaders, André Almeida. They told Dias how proud they were that he was taking the next step in his career.
“It was special to hear that from them. When I joined the first team, they were like ‘what is this guy doing?’ But in the end, they recognized it was me,” Dias says.
“These are the kind of things that leave something behind. When you retire and get on with living your life, it’s the details that make it all meaningful.
“Playing for Manchester City is intense, but it has to be”
When Dias arrived in the English Premier League, he had to adapt quickly.
“The main difference (compared to La Liga Portugal) is its quality, every game, every few days. In Portugal you have big games, but once in a while,” says Dias.
“Here you play the Champions League and, I’ll be honest, sometimes it seems like an easier game than playing in the Premier League.
“In the Premier League you play against the best in every game. It’s a good thing if you’re an ambitious player. If you come here to hide, you can’t. But if you come here with the ambition to to be great, to do great things for you and your club, then you’ve come to the right place.
Dias has explained how ‘demanding’ Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola can be. It’s something he embraces.
“It’s intense. And it depends a lot on your personality,” says Dias.
“Sometimes people don’t like it because you’re always being pushed. But at the level where we play, it has to be like that if you want to win like we won and if you want to keep winning.
“It doesn’t matter what you have done, what matters is what you do and what you are going to do in the future. So you have to push yourself every moment.
Dias will need all that motivation to get through a busy end to the year. Premier League and Champions League fixtures follow one another ahead of the start of the World Cup next month.
Dias was in Portugal’s squad for the 2018 final but didn’t make an appearance. This time he will be a key part of the first 11. What would it mean to win the World Cup?
“Obviously it’s probably the most special (trophy) to lift,” Dias said.
“I dreamed about it. But I try not to think about it too much. I’m trying to think more about what will have to happen for this to happen.
“We have a very good team, we have very good players. But in the end, it’s about how these players can work together.
Portugal don’t need to win the World Cup to make Joaquim Dias proud. For the 81-year-old, all those hours spent waiting for his grandson were worth it when Dias made his Benfica debut.
“He was probably the happiest person in the room,” Dias said of his grandfather, a lifelong Benfica fan.
“Sometimes today when he goes to the hospital he wears my shirt. He is very proud of what I have achieved.
“When I think of (what he’s done for me) I think one day I’ll be a grandfather, if all goes well. And for me to take this step with my grandson means a lot. It’s something that even now I feel how much love he had for me to do.