Not so very long ago big-name Brazilian players looking to further their careers across the Atlantic would invariably choose one of Europe’s major leagues as their destination.
In contrast to the likes of La Liga and Serie A, however, the Ukrainian and Russian championships were seen as relative backwaters where chilly climates, unfamiliar languages and the style of play seemed to deter prospective newcomers. And those players who did take the plunge were viewed back in Brazil as having taken a backward step, as having hidden away from the glare of the fans and the media, their international prospects undermined in the process.
Yet, judging by the progress being made by Russia’s recent Brazilian imports, all that seems to be changing. Spartak Moscow midfielders Alex and Ibson hope that is the case at least, having had little cause so far to regret their decisions to swap the limelight in Brazil for the Russian capital.
“It was a very difficult decision for me, but it was one I had to take if I was going to keep on developing,” says former Internacional idol Alex in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“It’s always a risk when you decide to leave a place that’s like a second home for you and where you’re respected. That was the case for me at Flamengo,” adds team-mate Ibson, himself something of an institution with O Rubro-Negro. “Nevertheless it was something I had to do to reach my goals. I was very happy but everyone knows I’ve always had this dream of succeeding in Europe.”
Happily for the twosome, the Russian league is gaining an increasingly high profile and their successful adaptation to life there has raised their chances of a Brazil call-up.
“I see no reason why you can’t play in Russia and still get a mention,” continues Alex, now the captain at Spartak. “Russian football is shown on Brazilian TV, we’re in the Champions League and the internet has made it easier to access information. I got a chance or two under Dunga and I hope I get more opportunities with Mano Menezes. He’s rebuilding the team and trying out new players in my position, all of which gives me cause for hope.”
Ibson, two years his fellow countryman’s junior at 26, voices similar hopes: “Russian football is improving and getting a bigger profile all the time. I know Mano Menezes watches the games and he’s even called up Carlos Eduardo from Rubin Kazan. My name’s come up a few times but I haven’t been able to fulfil my dream of playing for A Seleção yet. I’m not giving up though. We’re doing fine at the moment and we’re hopeful of getting the call one day. If things go well in the Champions League, then we should have an even better chance.”
The perfect springboard
Both players are right to point to their UEFA Champions League performances as being crucial to their hopes of earning Menezes’ approval and the recognition of the fans, not to mention other clubs. And given Spartak’s current rate of progress in Group F, they could well be extending their stay in the spotlight. After wins over Olympique Marseille and Zilina in their opening three games, the Russians are lying second in the section, three points behind leaders Chelsea, whom they take on in London tonight in a game that will mark Alex’s return from injury.
“Spartak haven’t reached the knockout rounds of the Champions League since the 1990s but I’m confident we can bring that sequence to an end this season,” says a bullish Ibson. “We’ve only lost to group favourites Chelsea, which was a result we expected really, and we’re confident we can make history. We have a lot of quality in the team, we play an attacking game and we’re always looking for goals. If we can get the job done against Olympique in Russia, then I really think we’ll qualify.”
The former Flamengo man joined Spartak in July 2009, five months after Alex, the duo forming part of a Brazilian quartet with strikers Ari and Welliton, last season’s leading marksman in the Russian league and the top scorer so far this term as well. And as the midfield duo acknowledge, having their two compatriots for company has made the settling-in period that bit easier.
“Spartak Moscow have made a good decision in investing in Brazilian players,” continues Ibson. “We spend a lot of time with each other here. We’re always meeting up at one another’s houses and that helps get over any homesickness we might have.”
“The great thing is that Russian people like Brazilian players and have a lot of respect for them,” adds Alex. “You can tell that from the affection the fans show us, and that’s something that opens doors for more players from back home.”
Having grown accustomed to initially unfamiliar surroundings, Alex and Ibson are going from strength to strength with Spartak. And should they help the men from the capital reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League, they could well help their compatriots come to see the Russian league as a land of opportunity rather than a hiding place.