February 25, 2024
In an interview that first appeared in the Official Matchday Programme for the FA Cup third round replay against Crystal Palace, JOÃO VIRGINIA sits down to plot his eventful route to Goodison Park, while describing what he enjoys most about his homeland of Portugal, how he has fallen in love with the Blues since joining the Club in 2018, and how – regardless of what happens around him – he will make sure he is always ready for what is to come…
It has been some journey for João Virginia to get to this point.  Now 24 years old – still considered very young in goalkeeper terms – the first step of chasing his football dream came 12 years ago, when he left the family home in the Algarve and moved nearly 200 miles north to join Benfica’s famed academy in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon.
Another life-changing move, this time to England to sign for Arsenal, followed four years later, then a further relocation upon penning his first deal with Everton aged 18, and three subsequent loan spells in three different countries since.
Always an affable character at Finch Farm, there is, understandably, an extra spring in his step following his performance and clean sheet in the first FA Cup third round clash with Crystal Palace as we sit down to reflect on his career so far.
“I grew up 15 minutes away from Albufeira, which is a lovely place that gets busy over the summer but even over the winter it’s just a great place to be,” explains Virginia, in his booming voice, a natural tool that comes in handy on the pitch. “I love the Algarve – the food, the weather and, like the rest of the country, football is huge. Everyone loves football. I played football every day growing up, in school and outside of school.”
After joining a grassroots team as a six-year-old, Virginia – whose younger brother, Pedro, is also a goalkeeper and has spent time with Arsenal and FC Porto in the past – stepped away from club football after a couple of years, until having the epiphany of becoming a goalkeeper aged nine.
“When I joined my first club I had no particular position, like the rest of the kids, I would just run around and follow the ball,” he recalls. “I stopped going for a little while, I think it was probably because I wasn’t having much fun playing outfield but I kept playing in school.
“I grew up a bit quicker physically than most of the other kids and when I was nine years old, I started to realise I was quite good in goal. It would get to a point where we would go out for break and the guys – even the older ones – would be like, “Joao, Joao, go in goal!”, and I really started to enjoy it.
“Playground football is great. It was one of those where you are let out for break or after your lunch and every time it would be a race to get to the football pitch. It’s basic – we had a small goalpost but the pitch was on concrete and we used to play with the heaviest football that would hurt to kick around, but we loved it.
“It was at nine I joined another local team, FC Ferreiras, this time as a goalkeeper. Benfica have, like, satellite clubs around the country and pick up the best kids in each area – so, for me, the area was the Algarve and I was selected for them at the end of my first year at FC Ferreiras.
“Benfica is a massive, massive club in Portugal. I joined that satellite team for one year as an Under-11, but the team plays the best teams in the area and against older kids, too. Then, once the season has finished, Benfica pick the best out of the whole country to go to Lisbon and join the academy.
“I was picked for that and I moved away from home when I was 12. Benfica has dormitories but my parents managed to move me into a place that my grandparents had in Lisbon but were not living in at the time. My grandmother, my aunt, my parents and a minder would take it in turns to stay with me and look after me.”
A daunting step at an already testing age, but Virginia says football has always been his tonic in difficult moments.
“At first it was a bit hard moving away but once you get into the football you just forget all the worries,” he explains. “For me, it just makes me happy to play football and having the opportunity to join Benfica was something I couldn’t let pass me by, even at that age.”
Virginia’s rapid upward trajectory continued upon moving to the Portuguese giants.
As the shot-stopper entered a crucial stage in his development between the age of 15 and 16, he was regularly playing for Benfica’s Under-17 and Under-18 teams and it was while doing so that led to the next leg of his journey.
“We were playing a tournament in Geneva in Switzerland,” remembers Virginia, who has represented Portugal from every level between Under-16 and Under-21. “We played against Arsenal and I played really well. I think there was already some interest before because I had been playing for the national team as well, but, yes, I think that game really started things off and the opportunity to move to Arsenal came up.
“Coming to the Premier League is a dream of every kid growing up playing football, so I went for it. I came over on my own at first. It was quite a shock in the beginning, learning a new culture and getting to know the language better – I could speak the basics but not like I can speak it now. Also on the pitch, it was a lot more physical. The first year I was at Arsenal they put me in the gym every day to build myself some muscle. I bulked up a lot and gained around 10 more kilograms in that time.
“In the first year I stayed in digs with a host family – it was me and Eddie Nketiah living together and he is someone I am still very close to now. We had a good group of us with a lot going on to play at the top level: Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson, Donyell Malen… so the quality was always very good.”
Compatriot and then-Everton manager Marco Silva – backed by his Goalkeeper Coach Hugo Oliveira – identified Virginia as an ideal understudy to first-choice Jordan Pickford and back-up Maarten Stekelenburg, bringing him to the Blues in the summer of 2018.
“It felt like the perfect step for me, coming into a first-team environment and joining another massive club in Everton,” says Virginia. “It’s been five years now but it’s gone so quickly. I just want to keep giving more to this club.
“I’m in love with Everton, honestly. Everything around the Club just makes you get drawn into it – the supporters, the atmosphere in the stadium, the environment, the family we have inside the dressing room.”
There have, of course, been spells away from Merseyside since that move to Goodison Park, with loan moves to the Championship with Reading, Liga Portugal with Sporting CP and Eredivisie with SC Cambuur.
“I’ve always wanted to get different experiences from the loans,” insists Virginia. “I’ve managed to go to different countries and different leagues to expose myself to as much as possible. I’ve built up those experiences through seeing different styles of football and different ways of playing.
“I think I’ve grown by doing that. The three loans I’ve had – in the Championship, back in Portugal and in the Netherlands – have all been useful, even though it can be hard sometimes to go out on loan and be away from your club, you grow a lot from it.”
Now back in the surroundings he loves most, Virginia signed fresh terms with the Toffees over the summer, keeping him at the Club until the summer of 2025.
His mentality of staying ready while playing back-up to Everton and England No.1 Pickford – a goalkeeper Virginia regards as one of the world’s best – is relentless.
“I have to be consistent,” he says. “My approach is to work as if I am playing every game and being prepared for it. This has to be the way. “Ultimately, it comes down to the manager’s decision and here at Everton we have Jordan, who is England’s first-choice goalkeeper, so I know what is coming most of the time – but I still have to be ready, even when I’m sat on the bench I keep that mentality.
“I have my mind on the game constantly and that has to be the case so you can be prepared when the opportunities do come around.
“I’ve worked with Jordan for a while now and we know each other well. He is obviously a great goalkeeper and we’re fortunate to have a good group of goalkeepers to work with here. We constantly try to push each other, improve each other.
“But, for sure, when you have someone performing at such a high level like Jordan, it brings everyone else up.”
“I’m in love with Everton, honestly. Everything around the Club just makes you get drawn into it – the supporters, the atmosphere in the stadium, the environment, the family we have inside the dressing room.”

Sean Dyche’s side could rightly consider themselves unfortunate on a number of levels following the first FA Cup meeting that led to tonight’s replay. The Blues finished the match with an xG of 1.32 compared to Palace’s 0.55, while the intervention of the VAR and subsequent decision to show Dominic Calvert-Lewin a straight red card in the 79th minute of the match was successfully appealed afterwards.

For Virginia’s part, he made three saves on the night – including a fine save at full stretch to repel Eberechi Eze’s arrowed strike from 25 yards out in the dying embers of the contest. Naturally, with it being the Portuguese goalkeeper’s first Everton appearance for 1,020 days – his last outing coming in an FA Cup tie against Manchester City at Goodison Park in March 2021 – it stirred a number of emotions.

“I was really happy, to be honest… Proud,” he admits, as conversation turns to that Selhurst Park meeting. “I couldn’t wait to get the opportunity to play for Everton again.

“It’s an honour. Especially when you go down there in midweek and see the way our fans travel and get behind us.

“I was pleased with the way it went. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the game which would have made it much better but it was nice to keep a clean sheet. Obviously, I would like to get more minutes and hopefully I am selected for the replay but regardless of what the manager’s choice is, I will be prepared.”

As for what the future holds for Virginia, his priority is clear – but he will not get swept up daydreaming of what may or may not be.

“Obviously, if I could stay here, keep improving and one day pick up the number one shirt at Everton then that would be amazing,” he says. “You don’t know how the future will unfold, but what I can control is how I work every day and keep taking each day and game at a time.

“I try not to think too much about the future and put my focus on the present.

“One thing is for sure – I’ll be ready.”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *