Simoes thriving on Saudi adventure
© AFP

“In football, you just never know [what’ll happen],” said Victor Simoes when speaking to FIFA.com and, having been born and raised in the Rocinha favela of Rio de Janeiro, he has certainly come a long way to his current status as one of the hottest attacking properties in the Middle East.

His route has been varied as well as long, with the striker starting out at Flamengo, making his name in Belgium, leading the Copa do Brasil scorers’ charts with Figueirense, tasting life in the Korea Republic, getting amongst the goals for Botafogo and becoming a fans’ favourite with current side Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia.

At the age of 31, and after so many twists and turns, Simoes believes that he has now found a measure of stability in his career, despite the interest generated by his performances, the distance from his native Rio and the cultural differences he has encountered. “That’s the way it’s shaping up,” said the player, on his future at Al Ahli. “A player’s career generally follows a downward curve. Most players end up dropping further and further down the scale until they eventually hang up their boots, but for me it’s been the opposite!” he added with a grin.

Most players end up dropping further and further down the scale until they eventually hang up their boots, but for me it’s been the opposite.
Victor Simoes

What's more, the forward’s 2010 signing for the Jeddah-based outfit has coincided with a revival of the club’s fortunes, the highlight being victory in the 2011 King's Cup of Champions - their first trophy in five years. They also finished a close second behind Al Shabab in the race for the 2011/12 Saudi Professional League title, with traditional heavyweights Al Hilal and Al Ittihad back in third and fifth respectively.

“This season we were still in with a chance right to the end,” Simoes explained. “We ended up two points behind the leaders after we drew [against them in] our final match. Also, we’ve just made it through to the second phase of the Asian Champions League for the very first time. We’ve done a lot in two years.

“This was a team that used to always fall just short, which is why the papers are now saying this is the ‘Victor Simoes Era’. It’s because I’ve managed to shine in decisive games,” continued the front-man, who was the Saudi top flight’s 21-goal joint leading scorer, alongside Nassir Al Shamrani of Al Shabab. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’ve hit around 50 goals in two years here. If you look around the world, only the guys at Real Madrid and Barcelona are doing better than that.”

Experience breeds confidence
Clearly full of belief in his own ability, Simoes’ self-confidence comes on the back of his roundabout journey to Saudi success. From his start in Rio with Fla, the player briefly switched to Minas Gerais state minnows Tombense before swiftly moving on again, to Belgian side Beerschot AC, while still only 22.

Within a year domestic giants Club Brugge had swooped for his signature, with Simoes helping his new side to victory in the 2003/04 Belgian Cup, before contributing to FCB’s league triumph in 2004/05. “It was a really good spell, I was a revelation,” said Simoes. “I was asked to take dual nationality, but I got it into my head that I wanted to go back to Brazil. I just got desperate; I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life there.”

Thus, by 2007 he was back in his homeland and taking part in Figueirense’s shock run to second place in that year’s Copa do Brasil – his five-goal haul also earning him a share of the competition’s scorers’ honours. However, having re-announced himself in grand style on the Brazilian scene, he opted for another move abroad, this time to Chunnam Dragons in the Korea Republic.

Unfortunately for Simoes, this sojourn turned out less happily than his Belgian stay. A pubis injury restricted his impact at the K-League club, leading to him eventually making the expensive decision to rescind his contract and return to Brazil, where he immediately underwent corrective surgery. Come 2009 he had signed on the dotted line for Botafogo, the club many of his family support, but after a promising start he began slipping down the pecking order and once again decided to try his luck on foreign soil.

All of which begged the question, how easy does he find it to pack his bags and move away? “In a way, it’s normal for us by now,” he explained. “But I still find it really tough, even though I handle it better than I used to. At the end of the day it’s part of the job. But I’m much more emotional about it than my wife is.

“I always end up going. I may leave [Brazil] with tears in my eyes but, once I’m on the plane, I focus on the job ahead. It’s hard because I’m Carioca (a Rio native) to the core. But we’re here chasing a dream, looking for a better life.”

Indeed, Simoes has a wife and two children to think about, a six-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy – the latter who was born in Saudi Arabia, while his comfortable home in a foreigners’ compound in Jeddah is also shared by two of his sisters and his mother. “The life I lead here is totally opposite to the one I’m used to,” he said, on his current lack of a social life outside of training, travelling and matches. “But we know how it all works: it didn’t take long to adapt.”

The green tiger
Very proud of the praise he has received from the Al Ahli fans and his team-mates – only one of whom, attacking midfielder Camacho, is Brazilian – there have also been some curious incidents along the way. Such as when he attempted to recreate a goal celebration from his Botafogo days by imitating a panther, which nobody really understood at the time.

“The first time I did it everyone thought it was a dog, which they thought was strange,” Simoes explained. “But they didn’t know what a panther was. In my ignorance, I thought that there are panthers in the jungle wherever you are. So, it became a green tiger, because of the team’s jersey. Now they trust me and come and join in.”

Now in possession of a renegotiated contract, which includes the possibility of an extension come the end of the season, the comfort and familiarity of their Saudi lifestyle means the Simoes family’s globetrotting days could be on hold for a while yet. “When you’re a foreigner in your first year here everyone’s a bit wary, as they think you might take the money and leave after six months. But I’ve really helped to boost the morale around the club,” said the striker as the interview concluded.

“I came straight to Saudi Arabia too. A lot of people said that it might be easier to adapt to life in other neighbouring countries, but I’ve stayed the course here. I’ve made history where nobody thought I could.”