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.
It only made the fall seem harder. After making regular appearances for Bolton in 2005-06 and 2006-07, albeit largely as a substitute, he succumbed to serious knee trouble that wiped out virtually all of the following three campaigns and led specialists to write him off. He had five operations – four to the right knee, one to the left; released by Bolton in 2010, he was forced to cast about for an opportunity at lower levels. He calls it a “ghost period” and its capacity to haunt him endures.
“In football, the only respect you ever get is when you play and you’re playing well,” Vaz Te says. “If you don’t play, you lose your voice, and it is hard to deal with. I came close to putting my boots on the side and saying: ‘Never again’. I told my agent that I didn’t want to play.
“I had trials in different places, I failed medicals. I went to trials when I knew I wasn’t quite there and the players were looking at me, thinking: ‘Who is this guy?’ It’s horrible. They disrespect you, they look down on you. From being high up there to back at that level . . . I mean, I’d never been down there. It’s crazy, suicidal.”
Vaz Te checks a characteristically passionate monologue. “No, I would never take my own life,” he continues. “I come from a poor family, a hard-working family so no matter what, I would always fight another day. But what I’m saying is it’s very degrading, very humiliating. I lost all my money. I started gambling and going out every night. I needed it because you will never find the same adrenaline anywhere to what you find in football.
“When you go out, people respect you. You go to a restaurant and you are first in the queue, even though you haven’t booked. They are little things that become a big thing. No matter where you go, you haven’t got a voice. It wasn’t a gradual change, it’s a massive change, especially when you are told: ‘This is it, you’ll never play again, find something else to do’. I have people that I look after, people that need me. It just adds up.”
Vaz Te refused to lose sight of the dream. His final-roll-of-the-dice operation in the US brought stability and he moved to Panionios in Greece on a half-season contract in the summer of 2010. Panionios went through two managers, one president and a financial meltdown. “I didn’t get paid for four months,” Vaz Te says. He could not stay until the end of his contract.
He played the second half of the season at Hibernian, having signed for six months, after turning down three-year contracts in Poland and Ukraine. “It was very risky, considering my knee,” he says. “But I decided to go to Hibs, and literally for no money.”
Greece and Scotland he trained, played and scored once for each club. The returns may appear modest but, to a confidence-player like him, they were tonics and the platform for his salvation, which arrived in the season of his life last time out.
It is easy to be cynical in modern football but Vaz Te’s comeback seems like a fairy tale, particularly as his 24th goal of the season was the 87th-minute winner for West Ham against Blackpool in the Championship play-off. The first 12 had come at Barnsley in what seemed like a military boot-camp to Vaz Te, such was his treatment by Keith Hill and David Flitcroft, the manager and assistant at the time. Vaz Te says that he “needs love” but to Hill and Flitcroft the motivational weapon of choice was a very big metaphoric stick.
“Every club in the Championship turned me down for a trial in the summer of 2011 until Barnsley, luckily, offered me one,” Vaz Te says. “I stayed for two weeks and I signed on a free transfer for one year. It was very rigid and maybe they were tougher on me. I knew where I was going and no matter what obstacles were in my way, as long as I was healthy I would tear them down.”
Vaz Te was reunited with Allardyce and the goals flowed. In his previous eight seasons, seven of which were at the Reebok, Vaz Te had scored nine times.
His play-off winner brought overwhelming emotion and he took stock alone in the dressing room rather than celebrate with his team-mates on the Wembley pitch. There was plenty upon which to reflect, not least the sacrifices he had made to have the season he did. “I never went out, I never had a relationship,” Vaz Te says. “It was just training, home. Training, home.”
Vaz Te, though, is consumed by the future and the second chance he has earned. The Cup tie against United is big box office and the excitement at his return to action is palpable.
He believes that West Ham should be “talking top 10” in terms of a Premier League finish, and if he refuses to specify his personal goals it is safe to describe them as lofty.
“Perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t have the hard times,” he says. “They made me grow up, learn so much and really appreciate what I have. That’s why I’m fighting so hard.”
Ricardo Vaz Te and West Ham support the Bobby Moore Fund for Cancer Research
Rooney still out Will miss Liverpool game
Manchester United travel to West Ham for today’s FA Cup third-round tie without Wayne Rooney, who will be absent for at least two weeks more than first thought due to the knee injury he suffered in training on Christmas Day.
Ferguson said: “Wayne Rooney is still injured. We’re surprised, it’s longer than we thought. We expected him back training but he’s not. It’s nothing serious but if looks as if he’ll be out for another two weeks or so.”
A week tomorrow United host Liverpool on what is a pivotal afternoon in the Premier League as Manchester City travel to Arsenal. But Ferguson will not be able to field the England forward. “He won’t be fit for that, I don’t think,” the Scot said.
“ He just got clipped behind the knee. Hopefully two weeks will sort it but it’s a loss.”