The parking lots at elite clubs around the globe tend to be crammed with cars worth many mortgages, but Emerson Palmieri was more modest in his transportation choice when he turned out for Santos in his native Brazil.
He drove a Fiat Palio to save up to buy his parents, father Reginaldo and mother Eliana, a house in Sao Paulo.
“The Fiat was my first car, and when you start your career, you need to think about things like this,” says Emerson. “It’s not about expensive cars or watches. It would be best to think about your parents and family first. When I started playing and earning money at Santos, I would give money to my parents to help them.
“I was happy I could help them financially. After I signed my first professional contract at 16, I started to feel like I could do something special for me and my family because they deserve everything.”
The 29-year-old’s journey to West Ham started at Santos before spells at Palermo, Roma, Chelsea, and Lyon. The Brazilian side is alma mater to Neymar, of Al Hilal, and Felipe Anderson, formerly of West Ham and now at Lazio. Emerson made 33 appearances from 2011 to 2015 for Santos before leaving for Europe. In June, his childhood club presented him with an award for being the first player to win all UEFA titles, winning the Conference League, Champions League, and Europa League.
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“It’s my team, the team my family supports. I was born in Santos, my dad loves the club, and when I played for them, it was a dream come true — the award was such an honor,” says Emerson.
“I was fortunate enough to play with top players like Neymar. It was a good time looking back now. Santos is famous in Brazil because there are a lot of talented players in the academy. When you arrive there, you have competition for places.
“My dad would be at work, so my mum dropped me to training every day until I was 14. Then I started training by myself and was almost starstruck when I saw Elano and Neymar. I started to train and play with them, and that’s when I knew it was serious. That’s when I decided it was my time to shine, and I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by.”
Emerson is married and has three children with his wife, Thai. The names of his parents are tattooed on his right arm, with his wife and children on his left. The defender is deeply religious, which explains the significance of his shirt number. “I have the Champions League and Europa League tattooed as well,” says Emerson, both of which he won with Chelsea. “It was great winning the Conference League with West Ham, and I plan on getting a tattoo of that in the next few weeks. I believe in God; the number 33 is always with me, and the year was 33 when Jesus Christ was reborn.
“I like the number three; I wore No. 3 for Santos; my birthday is the third of August, and I’ve tried to get the No. 3 first for every team I’ve played for. But when I arrived in Roma, I took the 33 shirt, and it’s given me luck.”
Since joining Chelsea for £ 13 million ($15.4m) in 2022, Emerson had to be patient for his chance but is now the first-choice left-back. The Italy international has markedly improved from early struggles and played an essential role in West Ham avoiding relegation in 2022-23 and their European success.
The defender’s sacrifices over his career have paid off, leaving the family home to join Italian side Palermo on loan in 2014-15.
“In the first three months, I was with my dad, but he had to return to Brazil,” Emerson says. “I stayed there alone, and it was my first season in Europe without my parents. For six months, it was hard not being with them. IT WAS BETTER when I joined Roma (in 2015) because I could adapt and learn the language, but Palermo was a challenging experience.
“In life, we have a lot of bad moments. I remember when I received my first call-up to the national team in 2017, and two days later, I ruptured my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). In my mind, I lost hope of playing for Italy. I was thinking about rehab, and it took seven to eight months to recover. That was the worst moment of my career, but family and friends helped me, and what I’d been through at Palermo helped me bounce back.”
Emerson represented Brazil at under-17 level, and playing for Italy was a big decision. When Italy asked if he would mean them, the defender waited five months, hoping to earn a call-up for Brazil. That never materialized, and he switched international allegiance in 2017, eligible for Italy through his grandfather on his mother’s side. Emerson’s 29 caps included winning the Euros in 2021.
“I was born in Brazil, my parents are Brazilian, my heart is Brazilian,” says Emerson. “But professionally, I feel Italian because when I go to Italy, everyone tries to help me, from the coaches I’ve worked with, the players and the people. Three years after playing in Italy, I received a call-up and was happy to say yes.”
The most significant moment in his West Ham career was starting ahead of Aaron Cresswell in Prague’s Europa Conference League final. Cresswell, who joined from Ipswich Town in 2014, is a stalwart of the squad, but at 33, his best days are behind him. Emerson has repaid Moyes’ faith with a string of impressive performances.
“The manager is like a father to us because he tries to help in every aspect, on and off the field,” says Emerson. “He works a lot with us on the mental aspect of our game. I love playing football; I play with a smile and always try to be happy.”
Off the field, Emerson has been instrumental in helping Lucas Paqueta become one of the Premier League’s best midfielders. The Brazil international joined from Lyon in the summer of 2022 in a deal worth €60million (£51m; $63.4m).
The 26-year-old scored eight goals, registered six assists, and had interest from Manchester City in the summer. Still, a move was halted due to the midfielder being investigated by the Football Association over potential betting breaches.
Emerson and Paqueta have formed a close bond. The playmaker and Moyes danced in the dressing room after the Conference League final, but Emerson has no plans to join them soon.
“He says he has everything, from power and skills, and loves the game,” he says. “He has what it takes to become a top player. He’s like a brother, but when he starts to dance, I always tell him, ‘I’m out.’ It’s only Lucas dancing, never me! We played together in Lyon, and when I joined the club, he helped me feel settled.
“When he arrived here last season, I was happy to return the favor and help him. Not just about what to expect in the Premier League but outside as well, like learning the language. I help him translate, and like I said, that guy is my brother.”
Emerson feels at home at West Ham and is thriving under Moyes. So, has the Fiat been upgraded? “Yes, I drive an Audi now,” Emerson laughs.
(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)