Cold weather, the language barrier and cultural differences could all have proved obstacles to Givanildo Vieira de Souza, better known as Hulk, settling into life at Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg, who he joined in early September.
Yet, in the case of this particular native of Campina Grande in the Brazilian state of Paraiba, adapting to new and challenging circumstances is simply not an issue.
Nor has it ever been, with the Seleção attacker learning from a very early age that, for him at least, opportunities would not come knocking – he would have to go and seek them out, sometimes to the other side of the planet. On all this and more, Hulk spoke to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: What was it like moving to Japan at such an early age?
Hulk: Once I arrived, everything there was totally different to how I’d imagined it. I was only 18 so I’d thought it would be difficult to adapt, but it turned out to be very easy. I found myself in a country that had everything, a great infrastructure. And, at all the clubs I played for, there were always other Brazilians to help me out.
And, even before that, when you were still a youth player, you spent a period in Portugal didn’t you?
That’s right, I went to Portugal when I was 15 years old. At the time I was on trial at Corinthians, in Sao Paulo, and my representative called me to say “We’re going to Portugal”. So I packed my bags and off I went. I spent a year over there and learned a lot, as I was living and training with professional players.
Does the fact you’ve barely played professionally in Brazil make it harder to win over followers of A Seleção?
Ah... it makes it a little more difficult. Even now, after a lot of games for A Seleção, there are still question marks, aren’t there? Not everyone knows who I am, or how I play. I left Brazil at a really early age – I only played 70 minutes or so as a pro over there – so it’s normal there is still some uncertainty when people talk about me.
How many minutes as a pro?
(Laughs) That’s right, only 70-odd minutes. My debut was against Fluminense, in the Barradao stadium, when I came on as a second-half substitute, while my other appearance was against Internacional, in the Beira-Rio. We lost 2-1 but I did pretty well.
Back then, tactically speaking, did you play more or less the way you do now?
That’s changed a little because of the way Brazilian teams usually line up. They tend to use 4-4-2 more often than not, while in Europe, generally speaking, 4-3-3 is more common. For that reason, over here I’ve ended up playing a wider role.
Even back in Brazil, though, you weren’t an out-an-out centre-forward were you?
No, I was never an out-and-out forward. I was always more of a second striker, who’d drift out to the flanks, would move around and go looking for the ball. But once in Europe I started playing in a wider role, though I’ve also now played a lot of games as a central striker – through the middle.
And you’ve always favoured the right flank, even though you’re left-footed?
Always. It just came naturally. I always liked to play on that side of the pitch and, fortunately, the coaches I’ve had have always supported me. [Former FC Porto coach] Jesualdo Ferreira, for example, was one of those who helped me so much when I arrived in Europe. He’d always take the time to talk to me and made me feel really at home, both on and off the pitch.
What was it that struck you most when you left Asia to play in Europe?
What I found in Europe is there’s a lot of respect for tactical formations. Out on the field, the players stick more closely to their [allocated] positions. So, when I first arrived I struggled a bit, because I wasn’t used to coming back to defend so much. Nowadays, that comes more easily to me.
A lot of people see your physique and mistakenly think you must be all about power and strength, rather than giving you credit for your speed and skill...
It’s true. If they don’t know my game, sometimes they see my physique and get the wrong idea, thinking I must be a blood-and-thunder kind of player. But to be honest I’ve never really been like that: I’m one of those players who likes to get on the ball and take people on. I’ve always had a hard shot, though, ever since I was little. (laughs)
How did your superhero nickname come about?
I’ve had it since I was a kid of around three, because I used to really like that character, The Hulk, and I used to tell my dad how strong I was, how much strength I had. So my dad said to me, “Ok then, you’re The Hulk”, and they still call me that now. Helpfully for me, I grew into a strong lad, so it fitted well. (laughs)
Back on the topic of A Seleção, despite the aforementioned uncertainty from some Brazil fans, it did not take you long to earn the trust of senior coach Mano Menezes, did it?
I think the biggest proof of that was the fact he picked me for the Olympics [at London 2012], particularly as I was one of the over-23 players. That made me very happy. Unfortunately we weren’t able to bring back the gold, but it was an opportunity I tried to take full advantage of.
Were you surprised to see your name on the official squad list?
At the start of this year, for example, I couldn’t even have dreamed of getting that chance. But, after the friendlies in the middle of the year [against Denmark, USA, Mexico and Argentina], I started to think that I might make the cut.
When you signed for Zenit, you spoke a lot about the club’s project of assembling a truly great team. Which facets of that project really caught your eye?
During the whole transfer window there were a lot of rumours about me interesting a number of big clubs, but neither Porto nor I were keen on the offers that came in. And, before I signed for Zenit, I’d spoken to [coach Luciano] Spalletti. He sold the club to me very well, telling me about the great structure that was in place and their project of building a great side. And that’s just what I found when I came here: a great structure and an ambitious project. I’m certain that, in the future, Zenit will be one of the biggest teams in Europe.
What’s the club’s main objective for the season ahead?
Of course it’s important to win the Russian title, but I think that our biggest aim is to do well in the Champions League. We may have lost our opening two games, but we’re not out of it yet. We’ve got the ability and quality to still reach the next round.
Almost as soon as you signed for Porto, you were involved in UEFA Champions League action. How special is the competition for European clubs?
Yes, I started appearing in the Champions League almost immediately after joining the club. It’s always seen as the most important competition, because it’s when you know you’re up against the very best teams and the best players. It’s very cool to play in. Even more so when you’re at a club in Portugal or Russia, for example, whose domestic championships aren’t as widely broadcast as the English and Italian leagues. And there’s no chance I’ll pass under the radar: I’ll always be scoring goals and catching the eye. Mano also tells us all that he always follows our progress, whatever league we’re in or club we’re at.
Earlier you told us how smoothly you settled in Japan, so have you had any trouble adapting to life in Russia?
To be honest, none at all: this city is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I’ve not had chance to get to know everything yet but, even just going on the little I’ve seen on my way to our training complex, it looks incredible. And the club’s got a very good set-up. So, truthfully, I’m not having any problems.
Finally, is it the fact you left home so early and also moved abroad at such a tender age why you’re able to take such major moves in your stride?
Yes, no doubt about it. I’ve ended up being able to adapt to pretty much anything, because I left home very early. After heading to Japan at 18 and settling well there, anything else is a piece of cake. (laughs)