Tearing down obstacles second nature to Vaz Te
Ricardo Vaz Te has the look of an action hero and his story might have been scripted in Hollywood. The West Ham United forward trades only in the extremes of emotion and he has had it all, lost it and clawed it back again. The 26-year-old knows what it is to hit rock bottom, to seek solace in gambling and nights out, but the frustrations have provided context to the renaissance.
His journey almost ended before it began, with a childhood brush with death, when the pyrotechnics were terrifyingly real. Vaz Te’s escape from civil war-torn Guinea-Bissau in west Africa came in 1998 and on a day that stretched like an eternity.
“You’re seeing bombs dropping and all you’re thinking was . . . I don’t know . . . just get out of here, perhaps?” he says, with a nonchalance that did not exist as he willed the container ship he had boarded to depart the carnage around the small port.
The Portuguese authorities had diverted the vessel from Senegal to rescue its nationals from the former colony and Vaz Te was one of them, having been born in Lisbon. His parents had divorced and his mother sent him as a baby to live with his father in Guinea-Bissau. On that day, however, it was a scramble for life jackets, and passports were hardly being checked. The ship’s captain was commended for bravery.
“I was with my auntie, her sons and my brother,” Vaz Te says. “It wasn’t even a proper boat. It was meant to deliver cargo to Senegal so it had all the containers . . . the oil on the floor. You had no safety. Kids could fall. It was crazy. It probably took a day but it seemed like forever. We went to Senegal and from Senegal we took the plane to Portugal. I had many relatives that lost their legs and some died so I’m very grateful that I was on that boat.”
Vaz Te describes himself as an “explosive mix” of cultures and there is a mercurial quality about his style; Manchester United will need to be wary of him in the FA Cup tie at Upton Park this evening. His mother’s grandfather was Brazilian and he feels he has “the strength of an African, the intelligence of a European and the flair of a South American”.
His career has been scarred by cruel cuts, most recently the dislocated shoulder that he suffered against Arsenal in early October which required surgery, kept him out for nearly three months and checked an encouraging start to the season. To him, it could have been a scratch. Fighting back is in his DNA and he has done so from plenty worse.
Vaz Te was 16 and on youth terms at Farense in the Algarve when he was put forward by an agent for a trial at Bolton Wanderers, who were then managed by Sam Allardyce. He impressed and, despite the alien surrounds and his lack of English, he made the bold decision to join them. The breakthroughs came quickly. He made his Premier League debut at 17 and his first start at 18, against United at Old Trafford. He was feted; the football world was at his feet.