Alex Telles was just 18 when he left hometown club Juventude for the first big move of his career.
The fresh-faced teenager packed his bags and left behind the town of Caxias do Sul in the south of Brazil for the city of Porto Alegre, trading fourth division football for top flight title contenders Gremio.
After bursting onto the scene in the Juventude first-team as a youngster, Telles was a man in demand.
In a bid to complete a deal for the left-back, Gremio struck a link-up with Juventude which saw five more players join him on the 120km jaunt south down the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
When he arrived in the big city, Telles and one of the five team-mates, goalkeeper Jakson Follmann, moved into an apartment together to start their new adventure.
“Jakson and I lived together in 2013, but we first met in 2007,” Telles says.
Their friendship instantly blossomed.
Telles adopted a dog, Pipoca (Popcorn), which Follmann would regularly look after as he travelled to away games, albeit with the occasional hiccup.
“One day I arrived on a trip and he told me that Pipoca ate my passport,” Telles once revealed in an interview with a Brazilian radio station, Rádio Gaúcha Serra 102.7 FM.
“Worst of all, the following week we had a trip to a Libertadores game, so I had to run to get another one.”
On the pitch, the pair were chasing their dreams.
Away from the pitch, they turned to music as an escape.
“He taught me to play the guitar and sing,” Telles recalls.
“We sang a lot at home, we formed a beautiful country duo,” Follmann jokes.
“Alex also knows how to play guitar, piano, drums and cavaquinho (a small South American string instrument resembling a small guitar).
“And by the way, he sings very well!”
Telles and Follmann’s friendship started when they were part of a talented crop of Juventude youngsters.
They won the Campeonato Gaucho Under-20s, beating top tier clubs such as Gremio and Internacional to emerge as the best youth team in the region.
From there, they then went on to the prestigious Copa Sao Paulo, achieving the best result in the club’s history by reaching the semi-finals against the best youth teams Brazil had to offer.
“It was very nice, because that team won some important championships in the football academy of Juventude,” Follmann recalls.
In the summer of 2014, they headed to Gremio alongside team-mates Bressan, Ramiro and Paulinho in a new link-up between the two clubs.
Whilst Follmann had previously been part of the Gremio academy before heading to Juventude, returning amongst the first-team setup fighting for the title was a culture shock.
“We ended up going to Gremio practically together,” he recalls. “That was very good, because we helped each other a lot, especially in the beginning when everything was new for us.
“It was a different reality than what we were used to. We left a club that was playing in the fourth division of the Brazilian championship for a club that was fighting in the first division.”
Amid their new reality, Telles made an immediate impact.
“We knew that Alex had something different about his football and his attitude,” Follmann recalls.
“It was just a matter of time before he would go to Europe, because he always had plenty of quality since he was very young.”
In 2014, he left Gremio and South America for his European adventure as he joined Galatasaray.
It meant leaving behind Follmann, but the pair remained in close contact until both earned big moves just a few weeks apart in 2016.
For Telles, a move to Portuguese giants Porto on a five-year deal was completed on July 12, 2016.
Follmann, meanwhile, had found his way to over-achievers Chapecoense two months earlier, looking to cement himself as a top flight goalkeeper.
As back-up goalkeeper, Follmann had to be patient in waiting for his chance, making just one appearance in his first few months at the club.
Then, whilst Telles’ career was hitting new heights in Europe, tragedy struck for Follmann ahead of one of the biggest games of his life.
He was one of just six survivors when LaMia Airlines Flight 2933 crashed over the Colombian mountains whilst taking the Chapecoense team to the Copa Sudamerica Final.
Follmann was fortunate to escape with his life, but the tragedy saw his left leg amputated and ended his football career.
In the aftermath, Telles was and continues to be a source of support.
Just weeks after the accident, Telles shared footage of Follmann taking his first steps along with an emotional message of support.
“We always talk,” Follmann says.
“Our friendship is very strong. I have a huge affection for Alex and I know that he has for me.”
Whilst his life as a footballer was cut short, Follmann considers Telles’ friendship one of the gifts he was given from the sport they both love.
“He is a brother that football gave me,” he says.
Four years on from the sudden and heartbreaking end to his footballing career, Follmann watches on with pride as Telles lives out the dream they both shared back in their Porto Alegre apartment seven years ago.
“I am a big fan of Alex the athlete, but even more Alex the person,” he states.
“He’s a simple guy with exceptional character who worked his way up and is exploring the world.
“I am very happy, fulfilled and grateful to have lived with him all these years, and watching him today he’s without doubt one of the best Brazilian left-backs playing in Europe.”
“We are more than friends, we are brothers,” Telles says of Follmann. “Our days together have always been very joyful.
“I am so grateful for having him in my life and he knows that I will always be there for him no matter what.”
“I spoke to him, and I already told him that I’m going to visit him soon,” he says.
Whilst Telles’ career has gone from strength to strength, Follmann has taken their passion for music into his new venture.
12 months ago, he was crowned winner of Brazilian reality TV show Popstars having stunned the country with his talents.
“And, actually, I think that we could shine together as singers in a band,” Telles joked when asked about their relationship.
Given Follmann’s new-found fame on stage, Telles could yet have the chance to showcase his musical talents with his old pal when his playing days come to an end.
For the time being, his friendship with Follmann will remain a source of inspiration as he awaits his arrival as a special guest at Old Trafford in 2021.
[email protected] (Rich Jones)