It is early afternoon and though there are still two hours to go before training, Sao Paulo’s new Uruguayan defender Alvaro Pereira pitches up early at the club’s training complex to give an exclusive interview to FIFA.com.
On being thanked by the interviewer for taking the time to come in, he replies: “Don’t worry about it. I always arrive early. That’s the way I like it.”
Anyone would think he was just trying to be polite, to make a good impression. After all, he would not be the first or the last to do that. There is no escaping the feeling, though, that the Uruguayan is completely and utterly genuine and means every word he says.
With a minimum of fuss and effort, Pereira has made that selfsame impression on the Sao Paulo faithful, winning them over on the very day he was unveiled to them.
Whenever new signings arrive at a club, they invariably speak of how proud they feel to wear the jersey and how willing they are to give their all for their new employers. Alvaro was no exception, though in his particular case the fans were in no doubt he meant every word he said.
“Maybe people just think that I mean what I say when I speak,” he explained, a little uncertainly, perhaps aware that if he were to stress the point too much he would in some way be questioning the authenticity of others when they speak.
Modest to a fault, he chose to share the credit for his popularity with the Tricolor diehards: “I think it’s got something to do with the gratitude the fans feel for everything that Uruguayan players have done for the club, players like Pablo Forlan, Pedro Rocha, Dario Pereyra and Diego (Lugano), who had a big part to play in me coming here.”
Lugano the link man
Even though he left Sao Paulo eight years ago, Lugano still enjoys hero status there and has become something of an unofficial ambassador for the Brazilian outfit. That much became clear when the 28-year-old Pereira explained his decision to leave a club of the stature of Inter Milan at the peak of his career to return to South America following a six-year absence.
Taking up the story, he said: “I’d been saying to Diego for a while: ‘I want to play for Sao Paulo. I want to play for Sao Paulo.’ And then one day he sent me a message saying: ‘Is that what you still want – to leave Europe and go back to South America?’”
To illustrate the point, he tapped away on his left hand as if it were a mobile phone, and then added: “To my mind, though, Sao Paulo isn’t just South America. It’s a place apart. I probably know more about the club than he does, and he played here. I’m crazy about football, so I went on the site, had a look at the city, the training centre, the history … the whole lot.”
That story says a lot about the relationship between the club and its Uruguayan players, Lugano in particular. It also speaks volumes of the close ties between the members of Uruguay’s national team. While there is nothing unusual about team-mates being good friends outside the game, it is not every day that a centre-half based in England gets in touch with a full-back playing his football in Italy and plays a key role in shaping his future with a Brazilian club. That suggests a stronger bond than usual.
“When results didn’t go our way we always used to hear that we weren’t the Uruguay team but a ‘friends’ club’,” he explained. “But you can see that we are a family. You can pick up the phone whenever you want and send a message to any of them, knowing that they’re going to reply to you straightaway. And that ends up being reflected on the pitch, even more so when we’ve been through so much together, good and bad.”
Part of the reason for that togetherness is the immense pride that a nation of little more than three million inhabitants takes in its football.
“When you’re growing up in Uruguay they tell you who Obdulio Varela is. They tell you about (Roque) Maspoli, (Alcides) Ghiggia and (Juan Alberto) Schiaffino,” said the full-back. “The first time I went to the national team’s training centre, when I was with the U-20s, I remember looking at the pictures of the Olympic champions and the 1930 and 1950 teams and feeling goose bumps.
“It’s hard to explain and it’s something that we Uruguayans carry with us when we play for our clubs. I think there are lots of times when we’re able to transmit that whole sentiment to team-mates from other countries.”
There is a similar depth of feeling in the love affair between Sao Paulo and their Uruguayan idols, a mutual appreciation that explains why Pereira had no doubts about making a move that seemed at first sight to be fraught with risk, even with the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ coming up.
As he calmly explained, however, his reasons for moving to Brazil go even deeper: “It was a dream of mine to come and play here in Brazil. The British might have invented the sport but the heart of the game is here.
“Once when I was playing in Romania I had a day off and I went to see Cluj’s reserve team in action. It was a third division match. The opposition scored a goal and the guy who got it was shouting in Portuguese. Turned out he was Brazilian. It just goes to show how many people play football in this country.”
Not every professional footballer chooses to spend their time off watching Romanian third division football. But then again, not every professional footballer is Alvaro Pereira.
“Like I said before, I’m crazy about football,” said the smiling Uruguayan. “I’ve played at Old Trafford, San Siro and the Santiago Bernabeu, but the other day we faced Palmeiras at the Pacaembu and it was amazing.
“I prefer to see people leaping about and celebrating like that, like they do here in South America. It’s something I’ve missed. I’ve played in the Champions League and I’ve won the UEFA Cup, but what I want to do now is play in the Copa Sudamericana and the Copa Libertadores. Maybe they can’t understand that in Europe, but it’s true. That’s how I am.”
Proof if it were needed that Sao Paulo’s new Uruguayan signing speaks straight from the heart.