"It was a great game and an unforgettable memory," commented Julio Baptista after Real Madrid had taken the honours in the clásico at the Nou Camp just before Christmas. The former Sevilla star scored the only goal of the game to ensure a place in Merengue folklore, but rather than accentuate his own personal achievement, the self-effacing Brazilian chose to emphasise the team ethic that underpinned a potentially decisive away win.
"My goal was important, for sure, but we didn't win because of me. It was a team effort. We managed to win what was a crucial game for us thanks to the spirit of togetherness in the team and the hard work we all put in," he said.
Such words are typical of the selfless Baptista, whose imposing physique and unmistakable, marauding style on the pitch mask a willingness to shy away from the limelight when the final whistle blows.
Although the turn of the year has seen him return to the
substitutes' bench, the hero of victory over Barcelona is not
complaining. Ever the consummate professional, Baptista is
channelling his efforts into the club's daily training
sessions, the selfsame formula that won him the trust of coach
Bernd Schuster, who has banished all thoughts of farming the No19
out to another club. "Baptista's attitude is exemplary and
he'll probably get back into the starting XI again,"
explained the German tactician.
"I have always got on with things and I'm not going to change my behaviour just because I'm not playing," advised the man in question. "What's important is to gain the coach's confidence so you can play, and you can only do that by working hard. It's not easy being on the bench but all I can do is keep plugging away and making the most of the opportunities I get."
Winning a starting place at the Santiago Bernabeu is no easy task, particularly when he must compete with the likes of Guti, Fernando Gago, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben for midfield places. Baptista has capitalised on whatever chances have come his way, though, featuring in 12 league games so far this season and notching two goals in the process.
Dubbed 'The Beast' on his arrival at Sevilla, the 26-year-old is not exactly the archetypal Brazilian footballer. Virtually the antithesis of his team-mate and compatriot, the slightly built Robinho, who bewilders opponents with his deft ball skills, the muscular Baptista employs a more direct approach to the game. Whatever the differences between the two, however, both players add to football's rich tapestry and have important parts to play in Schuster's new Real Madrid.
Baptista first caught the eye as a holding midfielder with Sao Paulo. In 2003 the then Sevilla boss Joaquin Caparros brought him to Spain, making use of his shooting skills in a more advanced, attacking role, a switch that paid immediate dividends, with Baptista scoring 20 goals in his first season in La Liga and 18 the following one.
Such figures prompted Caparros to express his admiration for the player. "Pushing him further up front meant we could make the most of his strength, his runs into the box and his ability to catch defences off guard. He's a real team player and that's helped us a lot. He's an amazing footballer."
With a price tag of 25 million euros, eight times the fee Sevilla paid for him, Real Madrid had to dig deep into their pockets to secure his services in 2005. 'The Beast' responded to the challenge but found goals hard to come by in a role that confined him largely to the left flank.
And the following season a loan deal with Arsenal led to him switching places with Juan Antonio Reyes. "Playing in England was completely different to anything I'd ever experienced before," he explained. "I had to adapt and that helped me mature. I learned a lot in London."
Future goals for club and country
After 24 Premier League appearances and four goals, the exile was called up to Brazil's Copa America 2007 squad in replacement of Ze Roberto. After sitting out a 2-0 defeat to Mexico in the opening game, Baptista came into the side and stayed there for the remainder of the tournament, scoring three goals, one of them in the final against Argentina. Perhaps the most impressive aspects of his performances in Venezuela, however, were his versatility and ability to snuff out the opposition in midfield.
It was not the first time he had tasted victory on national duty, having played a part in Brazil's FIFA Confederations Cup success in 2005, where he came on as a substitute against Japan and hosts Germany.
And just as he has at club level, Baptista has worked hard to retain the confidence of national boss Dunga, who called once again on the Madrid man's services as Brazil began their bid to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Having quelled speculation about another loan deal by earning himself a more permanent place in Schuster's plans, Julio Baptista remains committed to his recipe for success. "I need to keep working and let the coach make his mind up. I'm hoping to play and help the team whenever I get the call," he concluded.