BY DANIEL PRADILLA
It’s 2:00 am in Moscow, and Rodrigo Villalba is in his hotel room doing some work on his day off. He’s Brazilian, and I’m Colombian, so it makes sense that we communicate in Portuñol (a mix of Portuguese and Spanish). So far, we’ve managed to understand each other pretty well. Before discussing the picture in question, I wanted to know a little bit about him. Rodrigo is a 41 year-old a photo-journalist from Campiñas, state of Sao Paulo in Brazil. He and his wife Valeria own an agency called Memory Press. He also works as a freelancer for Futebol Interior, one of the biggest soccer web portals in his native Brazil. We haven’t met in person but he seems like a simple man and really down-to-earth. In his free time, Rodrigo loves to ride his motorcycle with his wife and go on walks with his two German Shepherds, Sauron and Hanna.
Tomorrow is not just another day for Rodrigo, he is preparing to cover the FIFA World Cup final for the second time in his life: “It’s a big day for me. I just received my accreditation to be on the pitch and I’m very excited.” His first steps into photography started when he was 28 years-old. He and his father used to go to the stadium to watch the local teams. His dream since he was a kid was to be on the field taking pictures of the game and the players.
He told me about how one day, he and his family were having dinner and someone asked him about his future, to which he replied that one day he was going to be a photographer at the FIFA World Cup. “Everybody laughed at me. They told me I was a dreamer and said that it was impossible.” His mother and his brother were the only ones that believed in him and encouraged him to work hard in order to achieve his dreams. So Rodrigo purchased his first camera equipment and started studying photography. For two years, he worked at the Guarani Football club for no pay. For Rodrigo, getting to where he is at now wasn’t easy. “Unfortunately in Brazil, the soccer culture is so big and there is so much competition that a lot of clubs don’t value our work. It took a lot of time and dedication to build my reputation”.
Many photographers and soccer fanatics including myself, can only dream of having a job like Rodrigo’s. I asked him to describe the feeling to be right there on the pitch, so close to the world’s best soccer superstars: “It’s a great feeling. I love what I do and feel very happy and proud to be surrounded by so many talented photographers from all over the world. I love interacting with my colleagues.” But more than a sports action photographer, Rodrigo is a story teller. He’s not really interested in taking your typical picture of soccer players kicking the ball; instead, he looks at the game in a more abstract way. “I don’t want show the face of the player, I much rather show the emotion of the competition itself.” To prepare for each game, Rodrigo starts by getting a good night of sleep. He takes his time to carefully study the teams, the most important players, the referees, the players that may be injured and so forth. For him, it’s really important to read and be informed about each match.
I was curious to know how many pictures he takes during each match. “Normally, I don’t take more than 600.” That’s a small number considering that when he started, he used to take around 1,200 images per game. “Nowadays, I’d much rather wait for the right moment than use the high speed continuous shutting.” And that patience and dedication beautifully paid-off on June 19th, during a group stage match between Senegal and Poland at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium.
"I can tell you right now that my life and my career as a photographer, can be defined as before and after this picture."
I asked him what was going through his mind and how he envisioned this picture. “It came out of a profound sentiment when I saw the two teams singing the national anthems. Seeing the players standing next to each other and how diverse they were, it brought many memories from my childhood.” Even before the game started, he was already thinking about a shot like this. He carefully observed the interaction on the pitch and just waited for the right moment. Some say this shot was just luck, but it wasn’t. He prefers to think of it as patience. “When I saw the Senegal’s player (Sadio Mané) on the ground, and how the Poland’s defender (Thiago Rangel Cionek) offered him a hand to stand up, I quickly focused on their hands and clicked twice. That’s it.” So this is how arguably the most beautiful picture of the Russia 2018 World Cup happened. So far, he has not been contacted by any of the players, but he wishes that one day he can take a picture with them.
Here, let me save you from scrolling all the way up. Simply observe this beauty once again.
30 minutes after the match, Rodrigo was going through his pictures and spotted this particular shot. He was immediately captivated by it. A few quick edits here and there, and then he posted it on his personal Instagram account. An hour later, the Senegal Football Association repost, then FIFA, and the rest is history. Two hours later the picture went viral and was liked nearly a million times. At that moment, Rodrigo’s phone was blowing up. He told me how happy he is that this picture has elevated his work to be recognized at an international level. He has received phone calls from many of his Brazilian colleagues crying, telling him how proud they were of him: “It’s something that I will never forget. I’m so grateful for this wonderful opportunity.”
For Rodrigo, soccer is more than a game; it is the greatest celebration of diversity. “When I look at this picture, I see the union of the all the nations of our planet. It represents all the cultures, all the races united, fighting as brothers in a soccer match. The only difference between us is the color of our skin.”, he concludes.
Even though this magnificent picture brought him a lot of fame and recognition, Rodrigo is already thinking of taking some time off the field. “I want to retire at the top of my game, like Pelé and all the greatest players.” His plan is to do a couple of exhibits and share his knowledge with the future generations of photographers and journalists. We wish him well in his new endeavors and can't wait to see his pictures from the World Cup final on Sunday.
You can check Rodrigo’s work on his Facebook page, @Rodrigo.Villalba.Fotografia.
Born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. Die-hard fan of Atletico Nacional and the Colombian National. Has 16+ years of football traveling experience, including 4 World Cups, Champions League, Premier League, La Liga, and Copa America.