Back in 2006, life was certainly good for Fabio Santos. After coming through the youth ranks with home-town club Sao Paulo, the 21-year-old was competing for a first-team place with the recently crowned FIFA Club World Cup champions, while comfortably surrounded by family and friends.
It would have been entirely understandable therefore if, faced with the prospect of leaving all that behind for a move to Japan, the player was not exactly thrilled.
However, Santos not only accepted the opportunity but did so happily. “I was very young… but it was incredible,” the Corinthians left-back told FIFA.com, recalling the loan deal that saw O Tricolor Paulista’s promising young star head for Kashima Antlers.
“I’d only ever played in my home city. I was living with my parents and everything was so much easier. Suddenly I had to uproot, take on other responsibilities and live by myself in a different footballing climate. It was hard to believe,” he added.
Santos spent a formative season with the J.League giants and gained a wealth of experience in the process. “I went straight into the team and remained there the whole year. It was very positive. I would have happily stayed longer but I was contractually obliged to return,” the Brazilian explained. “No question, though, I hope to play in Japan again before the end of my career.”
Back then, as a promising young talent, Santos alternated between two positions: his original wing-back role and that of a linking midfielder, at times replacing attacking midfield man Fernando during their time at Cruzeiro. Should Santos ever make good on his plan to return to the J.League, the local supporters might find a very different player than the one they remember.
A whole different concept
In the footballing culture that Santos grew up in, the standard bearers in his position were predominantly full-backs with attacking remits, players who, upon joining European clubs, ended up being utilised more as midfielders or even as wingers. Serginho while at AC Milan, Ze Roberto with Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, and Junior while with Parma are just some examples.
“Those contemporaries were our role models. At Sao Paulo, when I was a youth player, Serginho was on fire. That type of player was highly valued in Brazil, where everyone wanted to see the full-back get forward and create goals. You might not be doing your job in defence, yet no one criticised you for it. But that’s not how it is today,” the 27-year-old explained.
“Everything happened very fast for me. By 17 I’d already competed in the Copa Libertadores, and I was more interested in getting forward than defending. It was about being young and uninhibited. Back then I didn’t have the same sense of team spirit I do today.”
Santos cites coach Paulo Autuori, who he has worked under on various occasions, as having a decisive influence in gradually transforming his career: “I learned a lot and began maturing. Paulo helped me with that. He always advocated 4-4-2 and a back line of four to support the guys up front.
“He didn’t manage to establish it at Sao Paulo, perhaps because the team wasn’t used to it, but for me it’s the best system,” he continued. “You play with a defensive midfielder with a line of four behind him, and that makes it difficult for opponents to threaten you.”
It was this more consistent full-back that joined Corinthians in 2011, initially as cover for Roberto Carlos. “He was one of the reasons I decided to join the club, both to be able to share a dressing room with a player of his stature and because I knew I’d have opportunities when the squad was rotated over the course of the season,” Santos said.
What he could not have envisaged was that his chance would arrive so soon, with a crucial test coming in only his second match for O Timão. The game in question was a qualifier for the Copa Libertadores, in which Colombia’s Deportes Tolima famously dumped Corinthians out of the competition.
The reverse prompted the departure of Roberto Carlos from the club and coincided with Ronaldo’s retirement shortly afterwards. “I thought I might not play for them again,” said Santos. “But it turned out to be very significant moment for me. With Roberto now gone, I managed to get a run of games in the side, and so coming here turned out to be the best decision of my career.”
Wearing the famous black and white, the full-back went on to win the Brazilian national championship and then this year’s Copa Libertadores. If that were not impressive enough, he also got his first call-up to the Seleção senior squad in September – he had played U-20 level and won a bronze medal at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005 – and is again in the squad for Wednesday’s friendly with Colombia in New Jersey.
Of course, winning the continent’s premier club competition will allow Santos to once again star on Japanese soil. The difference being that, when he heads there in December for the FIFA Club World Cup, this mature and battle-hardened player will not be just looking to pick up experience. This time the goal is nothing less than a world title with Corinthians.