Three years after taking Germany and Europe by storm in scoring 28 goals in Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga-winning season, Brazilian striker Grafite has enjoyed another prolific campaign, this time in the United Arab Emirates. Catching the eye in his first season with Al Ahli, he struck 30 goals in 35 games, 13 of them coming in the Etisalat Emirates Cup - a record for the competition.
A late developer, as he himself likes to point out, Grafite seems to have a lot of football left in his legs despite having turned 33. Happy with the way his career has evolved, the former Goias and Sao Paulo man spoke to FIFA.com about his move to the Middle East, his earlier experiences with A Seleção and Wolfsburg, and his concern at his compatriots’ lack of goals in Europe.
FIFA.com: Grafite, Al Ahli had an up-and-down season, picking up their form after a poor start and eventually winning a trophy. How do you think it went?
Grafite: It was good and it met my expectations. My family’s settled and happy, and though the league’s not as competitive as the Bundesliga, I expected that. I played 35 games and scored 30 goals, 16 of them in the league and 13 in the Etisalat Cup. People say it’s easy to play in the UAE, but the championship’s getting stronger, with players like Asamoah Gyan, Ricardo Oliveira and Luca Toni and some well-known coaches here now. It wasn’t so great for my team. We have a new side and we could have gone further if we hadn’t started so badly. We got a good run going in the end, but it was too late. Still, at least we managed to win the Etisalat Cup.
You had that wonder season in 2008/09 with Wolfsburg, when you finished top scorer in Germany, but you’ve scored less since then. How have you managed to rediscover that scoring form at the age of 33?
By putting in a lot of hard work. My goal is always to improve on what I’ve achieved the season before or to feel as if I’ve got better as a player. I didn’t come up through a youth system and I learned to play the game on fields and in sports halls, so it was hard for me to get some of the basics. I’ve come on a lot in the last four or five years though, and I still demand a lot of myself. Last season, when I was still at Wolfsburg, I picked up some injuries and we were fighting against relegation. Here though, I’ve had some regular football and the goals started coming. In my view experience also counts. I know the short-cuts now. I run less than I used to because my positioning’s better. That all helps keep my goal rate up.
You describe yourself as a late developer. Looking back on your career, where do you think you learned the most: in Brazil or Europe?
Before Brazil and Europe I had a valuable experience in South Korea. It wasn’t easy. I fought with the coach and out of the eight months I was there, I only played for three. The rest of the time I just practised my finishing. When I went back to Goias and on to Sao Paulo, I was in good physical shape and that’s where I made the breakthrough. When you move from Brazil to Europe though, you’ve got a lot to prove. I joined Le Mans, which is a small club, and learned a lot about tactics. In France and Germany, strikers aren’t just there to score goals. They have to defend, track back and run. Those years helped me, though the success I’ve had is down to a number of factors. I’ve brushed up my game as I’ve gone along, and looking back I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.
You must be even more proud of your time at Wolfsburg, which included winning the Bundesliga. Do you still think about that season and your time there?
Yes, and I stay in touch with some of my former team-mates, like Josue. I had four wonderful years there, and it’s where I enjoyed the best moment of my career so far. I was top scorer, league champion and player of the year, and that makes me happy. I always dreamed of playing for a big team in Europe. I never managed it but I won with Wolfsburg what many players only achieve with wealthy clubs. So in some way, I fulfilled that dream by reaching the very top.
You formed a great strike partnership with Edin Dzeko at Wolfsburg. Why do you think he’s not doing so well at Manchester City?
I think he’s lacked regular football. When you go to a club like that, one that’s spent so much money, people want an immediate response. They’ve also brought a lot of great players in, like [Sergio] Aguero, [Mario] Balotelli and [Carlos] Tevez. But he’s a great player too and he’s got what it takes to be one of the best strikers in Europe and the world. He can finish with either foot, he’s ambitious and he’s a good kid.
You had another special moment with Brazil at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, even if you didn’t play much. What was it like?
I can’t say I’ve had much of an international career. I was called up in 2005, but I only played in 2010, against [Republic of] Ireland, and I went to the World Cup. It all happened so quickly. It was a fantastic experience to be part of a strong squad that unfortunately didn’t win. I only played six minutes against Portugal and obviously I would have liked to have taken part more. It’s still something I’ll be able to tell my children about though. I haven’t played many games [for Brazil] but, like you said, I’ve achieved things. When I started playing at the age of 22, I didn’t expect to go so far. I had my dreams, I made my way up and won the title with Sao Paulo, the club closest to my heart. Then I went to Europe and earned respect in France and Germany. I think I’ve achieved all my dreams.
You were one of the last Brazilian players to finish leading scorer in one of Europe’s major leagues. Why do you think there is a shortage of great Brazilian strikers right now?
It’s hard to say, but a lot of the players who were impressing have gone home, like Fred, Vagner Love, Luis Fabiano and Adriano. And we’ve got the opposite happening, with very young players coming out of Brazil. You don’t have the names you once did at the big European clubs. Europe is producing more players and you’ve also got increasing competition with Argentinians, Chileans and Colombians. I hope the Brazilians can get back in among the goals again, because the big names are fading away or going to play elsewhere.
You’ve also left. Are you thinking of going back to Brazil?
The fact is that I want to stay here for a year or two longer. Before I put my career first, but now I’m thinking more about my family and the school my daughters go to. I’ve been approached by clubs from France, Germany and Turkey and that would be a good second option. Going back to Brazil is not a priority, even if my name always crops up over there.