Florence, the city of lilies, is the perfect getaway for anyone yearning for a peaceful weekend in the tranquil surroundings of Tuscany. It has the Uffizi Gallery, the Arno river and those famous red top buildings. It is also the home of 18-year-old English forward Ellie Brazil, who left Birmingham City in the FA Women’s Super League this summer to sign for Serie A champions Fiorentina.
Like fellow England youngster Katie Zelem, who moved to Juventus during the summer, Brazil was swayed by the idea of sampling a new culture. “The first two months I was here it was still summer, so it was gorgeous,” says the 18-year-old. “It’s just a different lifestyle. A few years ago I moved to Birmingham, away from my friends and parents, so it wasn’t something that scared me. It drove me to do it, to gain more independence and gain more life experience.”
Fiorentina won the league by eight points last season, so Brazil has a lot of competition in the squad, but having to force her way into the team hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm. “It’s going well in the sense of getting experiences that I would never have got in England,” she says. “I obviously wish I was playing more than I am, but I think that will come. The Italian is coming on slowly. Coming here meant promising my parents I would learn Italian and I do enjoy it.
“The coach speaks English but the manager doesn’t, so it’s still a bit of a translation phase. A lot of the girls speak English, but they’re very strict on the fact they want me to learn Italian. I’ve moved to their country so I have to mould myself into their lifestyle and their culture. I’m learning the key words you need to know on the pitch: shoot, turn, pass, left, right, up, down. I’ve finally nailed those.”
Despite testing out tennis, badminton, table tennis and athletics as a child, Ellie was only ever going to be a footballer. She is the daughter of Gary Brazil, the former Preston North End, Fulham and Newcastle United player who was also caretaker boss of Nottingham Forest earlier this year, and her older brother Jack is currently coaching in the Cayman Islands.
“Football started when I was born,” she says. “I was born into a family obsessed with football. From the age of three, I was in goal in the back garden with my brother pelting balls at me. I always loved football. My brother has been my biggest fan since day one and he’ll always be my biggest fan. He’s doing incredibly well out in Grand Cayman and he’s always been amazing with me, he supports me better than anyone.”
At 15, while part of the Derby County academy, Brazil won the 800 metres at the 2015 English School’s Athletics Championship and had an option to go down the athletics route but one ambition swung her towards football. “The idea of playing at a World Cup was what I thought about. I never expected to be living in Florence, but at that time it was the World Cup that made me choose football.”
Brazil realised that ambition last year, when she represented England at the U17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. “Playing there and seeing my parents in the stands and scoring a goal with my nan in the crowd was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m glad I made the right choice.”
England were dealt a tough hand in Jordan. Drawn in a group with the mighty Brazil, a talented Nigeria side and eventual winners North Korea, England battled through with a draw and two wins before being knocked out by finalists Japan in the quarter-finals. “We went into the tournament like any other team: we wanted to win. We had no expectation because we weren’t named as the favourites. We were the underdogs and got given the hardest group, but that drove us even more. In that tournament, you saw players play better than they’ve ever done before and it was incredible to be a part of it. We were part of a team nobody will forget.”
“Going out against the Japanese was hard. We did so well against Korea [drawing 3-3] and we thought they’d be similar to that. After the game we all agreed that we got outplayed. It was heartbreaking, but we also couldn’t put into words what it felt like to get to a quarter-final. We wanted to get to the semi-finals because we felt if we did we could get to the final, so to be that close and not get there was devastating.”
Their next chance is just around the corner, as the team have qualified for the Under-20 World Cup, which will be held in France next August. Before that, Brazil and her team-mates go to Florida next month to face USA, Brazil and Finland in a trio of friendlies to prepare for the tournament. “We’re all very excited,” she says. “The girls are like a second family. We have WhatsApp groups, Snapchat groups, we’re always in contact to see how everyone’s doing. It will be lovely to see everyone. When I’m with them is when I’m happiest. Everyone’s very excitable in our group chats at the moment with regards to going to Florida. We didn’t expect to go there just before Christmas and the teams we’ll be playing are World Cup standard.”
Twelve months ago, Brazil was just about finding her feet with Birmingham City. She was given her big break when David Parker stepped down as manager stepped down and was replaced by academy coach Marc Skinner, who immediately gave Brazil more opportunities. Her form helped her earn a place for the biggest club occasion of all, the Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley, just months after her 18th birthday.
City won the game 4-1 but Brazil remembers the day fondly. “In regards to Marc, I cannot thank that man enough for the opportunities he gave me, but Wembley specifically. It was just incredible, when we were walking around the pitch the day before, it was just like ‘wow’. Me and Charlie [Wellings] were sat there and it felt like we were playing Fifa. It just didn’t seem like it was actually happening.”
With Birmingham trailing 3-0, Skinner brought on Brazil’s close friend Wellings for the final 25 minutes so she could soak up the atmosphere. Brazil set up Wellings for Birmingham’s goal. “The result might not have gone our way, but it was an experience I’m never going to forget,” recalls Brazil. “Charlie coming on was amazing: best friends, two youngsters. We always said if we got on together we’d just enjoy it, so when the ball went in the net, that’s a feeling I’ll never forget. Whether it was 3-0 or 15-0, we’d still to this day get excited about that goal. Hopefully one day we can go back there and recreate it, whether it’s for the same team or a different team.”
After coming so close to winning the FA Cup, it was difficult for Brazil to leave Birmingham and Skinner. “It was horrible,” she says. “It was possibly one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, and that’s not me being clichéd. Marc is a very supportive guy. He still messages me now to make sure I’m alright. We’re in contact and I watch every Blues game I can. It was hard to leave the team and leave Marc because he was very good with me. If I hadn’t played in those games, I might not have ended up where I am now.”
Her new challenge is to keep Fiorentina at the top of the Italian game and enjoy her first Champions League campaign. “I do feel like I’m settling into it more now. It’s made me a stronger, more independent person. I don’t have to rely on my parents; I can rely on myself. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. As much as I love Italy, I’ve come here to learn the technical side of the game. Once I’ve done that and developed that, I do see myself moving on elsewhere. I’m not 100% sure where and that’s what’s exciting about the future.”
Despite her lack of minutes on the pitch, Brazil is now finding her feet with her new team. She scored her first league goal against Sassuolo in October before scoring her first goal in the Champions League in November against Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg. Coming off the pitch, she was greeted by a tonne of messages from friends, team-mates and journalists back home, as well as the official Uefa Women’s Champions League account. “It is very surreal at times,” she laughs. “But I appreciate it all when I go on Twitter and see all the support, even from the Birmingham fans. I’ll appreciate that forever. It’s lovely seeing that people are following you. The Wolfsburg match was definitely one I’ll never forget. I can’t just class that as another game.”
She has no doubt that she made the right choice to move abroad. “I’m not just learning how to play football, but a new language and growing as a person every day. I’m even learning how to cook – my parents will never believe that I’m learning to cook.”
• This article is from These Football Times• Follow These Football Times and Rich Laverty on Twitter