InterviewInspiRED, by Kodansha: Diogo Jota's journey to the top, in his own words
It’s apt that football forms the basis of Diogo Jota’s first memory.
Summer, 2004. Portugal is swept up in the all-encompassing mania that tends to come with hosting a major international tournament.
Jota’s homeland is united behind a side, captained by the legendary Luis Figo and featuring a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo, that would get to the final of the European Championship only to be stunned by an unlikely Greek victory.
An enthralled seven-year-old – a future teammate of Ronaldo, of course – watched the competition unfold from his home in Porto. The memories remain vivid.
“My first memory is 2004, Portugal hosted the Euros and that was a big event over there,” Jota recalls, in conversation with Liverpoolfc.com as part of Kodansha’s InspiRED series.
“Portugal reached the final and even today I clearly remember me being with my father in the living room, especially the time when we beat England on penalties – we lived those penalties and we celebrated in the end.
“I think that is probably my oldest memory as well and it’s related to football, so that shows how important it always has been in my life.”
It was around this time that Jota had begun playing the game himself, so did the fervour surrounding Euro 2004 see football evolve from a burgeoning love to an obsession in his mind?
“One hundred per cent,” he states. “Obviously I was just a kid but seeing the way the country lived that Euros, it never happened again, I have to say.
“Obviously we have never hosted the Euros or something similar again but I remember all the country really lived it [with] millions of flags being shown outside houses. It was a big event for the country and certainly gave the young generations the willingness to achieve something in football as well.”
‘Achieve something in football’. Well, Jota has certainly done that.
Now 26, he plays for Liverpool and Portugal – though the path to becoming a regular for one of the world’s biggest clubs and his national team has not been entirely smooth.
This is not a story of a child prodigy who was always destined for greatness; rather a tale of hard work and single-minded focus that, allied with talent, has resulted in his ascent to the top.
“My parents paid for me to play until I was 16, so it was pretty much 10 years of them supporting my career,” he says.
“Only when I got transferred to another club, that’s when I started getting a little bit of money but that only happened at 16 so yeah, it was a long journey.”
While at first club Gondomar, football was simple. It was Jota’s hobby, a cherished communal activity around which friendships he maintains to this day were formed.
“I think the good thing about me back then was that I never really thought about ‘making it’, to be honest. I was just enjoying my time, I had a lovely team. It’s not easy to get a proper team like I was lucky enough to get,” he notes.
“I was just enjoying playing football and enjoying being with my friends that are still my friends nowadays. And then when I got transferred, that’s when I realised that I could maybe do something.”
A shift in mentality was a necessary by-product of his move to Pacos de Ferreira.
Football remained Jota’s passion but it was his profession now, too, and leaving home at the age of 16 naturally brought with it challenges that had to be overcome.
“That was obviously a key moment in my life where us as a family and me myself, I had the belief of going away from my home and trying to achieve something,” he says.
“That was a big step and it all went well in the end, but obviously that was a tough moment for me as an individual: changing school and changing the environment that I spoke about before, of having everything together for a long time, and being alone in a different city far from home and just playing football. But that’s when I really thought: ‘If I am doing this, I better do it right.’
“So, it was quite a big moment in my life but I always believed I was doing the right thing and I never let myself reach that point where I was about to give up. No, that never happened, to be honest.”
A key spell in Jota’s career followed; a near-two-year stay with Pacos that, in his words, ‘gave my life a direction’.
He developed and matured both on and off the pitch at ‘a great club with very good people who supported me and gave me everything that they could’.
Eye-catching performances at senior level did not go unnoticed and, inevitably, more storied clubs started circling this teenager of growing repute.
A transfer to Atletico Madrid was mooted in January 2016 but Jota wanted to stay with Pacos until the end of the campaign. He did, though, begin learning Spanish in anticipation of signing for a club that would end that season as Champions League finalists.
Aged just 19, Jota joined Atletico during a golden era in their history. The move did not go to plan, though, and he would never play for Diego Simeone’s side.
“It was tough,” he remembers.
“I felt good when I moved but when I started training I didn’t feel the support about myself as a player and by the end of the pre-season I just wanted to be out of there and to take my career onto somewhere else where I could feel good and with support.”
A dream temporary move to FC Porto, the hometown club Jota grew up supporting, followed – as did a family reunion.
“I went back home and that is literally what happened because [although] obviously I was in a much better financial position by then, I didn’t have a house in Porto. So, I moved into my parents’ house again for a few months until I found a new house, the one I still have now,” he recalls.
“That was obviously a special moment because I left when I was 16 and I was coming back maybe three years later a completely different person. But by then I was used to my space and that didn’t happen because my parents back then lived in a very small house with my brother as well!
“But it was a nice few months and it was good, obviously, because I knew I was going to fight for the title, playing for a big team in Porto, and being back home as well. It meant a lot.”
After feeling out of place in Madrid, a spell in more familiar surroundings was restorative for Jota.
“That season was really important. It was not perfect because we didn’t win anything but it gave me the experience that I required and the family support that I maybe required then at the time, and that I don’t take for granted,” he acknowledges.
“So, it was good to get that experience: playing in the Champions League, fighting for the title, being mentioned already for [being in] the national team. That was important steps.”
Then came a switch that was both surprising and, ultimately, defining in Jota’s career: from the Champions League to the Championship.
But the fact a close friend had already trodden the same path to Wolverhampton Wanderers persuaded Jota to follow suit.
“There was a key person and that was Ruben Neves because I played with him in Porto and in the U21 national team, and when he made the move to join Wolves that’s when I realised: ‘Maybe we can go and do something together there.’”
Again, Jota left home and again, there were hurdles to clear: cultural adjustments off the pitch and, on it, the adaptation required to thrive amid the relentlessness of English football’s second tier.
“It was a crucial season for me in a lot of aspects,” Jota details.
“I was lucky that when I was at Pacos I was living in a house that they have for foreign players and that was when I really learned how to speak English. That was easier [because] when I moved to Wolves I knew I could speak the language.
“I remember I went to live for the first month or so in Ruben Neves’ house. I still remember I went to the team hotel and Wolves had a friendly that day. I waited for him to come back from the game and he came back injured.
“They played away and he got a knock, in a friendly, so that was the moment when I realised, ‘Oh my days!’ and he said to me: ‘This is tough!’
“But I was ready to face that challenge. It [the Championship] is very physical but it helped me a lot. I did 44 of 46 league games, I missed two to a small injury, and that gave me the physicality, the intensity.
“Maybe [there is] not as much quality, obviously, as the Premier League but it gives you those things that are so important for a player.”
With Jota their leading goalscorer, Wolves stormed to the Championship title and, after an impressive debut campaign in the Premier League, senior international recognition arrived.
“I remember I was at Wolves, I got up to the canteen and the call-up came up. Ruben Neves was one of the first to hug me because he was already part of the Portugal squad so he was really happy when he saw I was going as well,” Jota remembers, with a smile.
“That was an incredible journey – always going up with Wolves: Championship to Premier League, first season in the Premier League we get Europa League and then I get the national team.
“To play for your country is always a thing you want to do if you play football, or whichever sport you do. If you play for your country it means you are [in the] top 26, or whatever it is in each call-up, in your country. So, it means a lot.”
In the summer transfer window of 2020, Liverpool – the reigning Premier League and FIFA Club World Cup champions, who had also lifted the Champions League a little over a year earlier – came calling.
Another test for Jota, then: this time, walking into a dressing room of serial winners with the objective of breaking into a starting XI spearheaded by that front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
“Everyone was mentioning the front three, the best front three in the world,” Jota states.
“Everyone is expecting me to [be a substitute] but in my mind I know I can challenge and that was one of the first things Jürgen said to me: ‘I want you here but I want you to fight for a spot in the starting XI.’
“For me, it was like: ‘I know that I want to do this, he is telling me that, so why not?’
“So, I just took it day by day, training and playing the best that I could whenever I stepped on the pitch. And I was lucky enough to score pretty much straight away against Arsenal and everything clicked from that point on.”
But then came 2022-23: the campaign Jota instantly agrees was the hardest of his career to date. A calf injury caused him to miss around four months of the season, including the World Cup.
“If you designed a graph of my career it was pretty much going up [all the time] and then you have a big injury,” Jota notes.
“You miss the first World Cup of your career. We [Liverpool] were not doing great also on the pitch [and] I felt really bad that I could do nothing, just sit on the sofa watching the games, both Liverpool and Portugal. Yeah, it was the worst [season] by far, by far.
“I spent a few weeks where I was just at the start of a big journey of recovery, but then the World Cup starts and then you realise, ‘I am not there, I am here.’ That was tough, obviously.
“You just go through it, trying to do the right things to be fit as soon as possible, to be back to those stages again: there are still more World Cups to come, there are still better seasons to come.
“I tried to finish last season the best I could to help the team. We did a good last push, it was not enough but this season we have a fresh start and we can write our own story again.”
Fit again and back playing for club and country, Jota has already netted eight times for Liverpool in his 16 appearances so far this season.
And the No.20 insists that his prime years are yet to come.
“You have a lot of energy when you are young but you still do a lot of mistakes and you always learn with experience,” he states.
“I always look up to [Cristiano] Ronaldo, for example, and I think he scored more goals since he has been over 30 than before he was 30, so that shows as well it’s doable. It also means if you are 26 you can be away from your prime and that’s what I expect – and that’s what I work for as well every day.”
That said, he has already begun thinking about what’s next, about what happens when his playing career comes to an end.
“In this moment I would not mind to be a coach,” he explains, while revealing that he started his UEFA B Licence coaching qualification at the AXA Training Centre in the summer.
“I played all of these games like Football Manager, I always loved it, and I feel that on the pitch, on the tactical side, I always understand the game and that also plays an important aspect in my own game.
“But at this stage I feel I will never be a first-team coach [manager]. I could be an assistant, for example, but you never know so if I have this opportunity [to do the qualification] I think I will learn something while I am doing it, and in the end I get the UEFA B badge and then I can go from there.
“Obviously it’s the first time you kind of jump to the other side, trying to think about training sessions and not just going on the pitch and someone will tell you what you need to do.
“We still need to finish it but I am enjoying it and I take it very seriously as well, with my planning. It’s like Football Manager converted into real life so I am enjoying it.”
But while no final decision has been made, one thing is for certain: football will always be a major part of Diogo Jota’s life.
“I can’t see it any other way,” he concludes.
“Although at this moment I am already working hard as well on my eSports side, I feel like football, it’s still my main passion and I can’t see myself being away from football for a long time.
“So, I know it’s probably still a few years until that day arrives, but I can’t see myself without football.”