Many Brazilians were surprised when Felipe Melo received his first international call-up last year. Yet, within months, no less an authority than Argentina coach Diego Maradona was hailing the midfielder as one of world football's biggest revelations.
It has been a long journey to international stardom for the Juventus player. After starting his career in 2001 with a two-year stint at Flamengo, followed by shorter spells at Cruzeiro and Gremio, Melo made the move to Spain. Failing to make much of an impact at Mallorca or Racing Santander, he eventually shone in a midfield holding role with Almeria. His success there earned him a move to Fiorentina, and after catching Dunga’s eye, his career took another upward turn when he signed for Juventus in 2009.
FIFA.com caught up with the 26-year-old and spoke to him about his long road to the top, his hopes of booking a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with Brazil, and how it feels to earn the praise of Maradona.
FIFA.com: Felipe, do you think the path your career has taken has helped you tackle the challenges you have faced along the way?
Felipe Melo: I was only 20 when I left Brazil and joined Mallorca from Gremio. I didn’t do much in Brazilian football apart from scoring the goal that saved Flamengo from relegation one year [in a vital Brasileirao match against Internacional]. That made me a little more famous at the time. I went to Europe soon after and, being a foreigner, I had to learn lots of new things like the language and customs. It’s a different type of football too, and I had to take lots of tactical and disciplinary aspects on board. It was very difficult and maybe that’s why it took me a little time to come through.
What was the biggest difference when you moved to Italy from Spain?
I was at Racing Santander for two years and really suffered there until I went to Almeria, where Unai Emery [the current Valencia coach] gave me a lot of help. I really progressed with him and by the time I went to Fiorentina I’d earned much more respect. That was a far bigger shop window. I was playing regularly in a team that was going for the European places and I was developing a lot from a tactical point of view. That all helped me make the Brazil team.
What did you like most about Unai Emery? Has he been the most important coach in your career so far?
He really was like a teacher for me. He used to sit down and speak to me in every training session and he made me an important player. There are two other coaches I can’t forget either. Vanderlei Luxemburgo [his coach at Cruzeiro in 2003] helped me a lot when I was in Brazil and made me become more professional. Then there was Cesare Prandelli, who was very intelligent and was almost like the king of Florence.
It was during your time at Fiorentina that you caught Dunga’s attention. How did you feel when he called you up for the first time? How did you find out and had you spoken to him beforehand?
I used to look out for all the squad announcements and I thought that maybe one day I might make the list. I found out about the call-up on the internet one day. I was looking at some stuff online and a friend called to tell me about it. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy I ran around the house screaming! I spoke to Dunga for the first time when I joined up with the squad.
When you were watching Brazil at Germany 2006 on TV at home did you think that one day you might be part of the team yourself?
I always had that dream of making the national team. Every player does. People used to laugh at me for talking about it in public, but I worked hard and never gave up and it finally came true for me. I was 25 when I got the call, though some players make it when they’re 18 or 20. Even so, a few of them haven’t gone on to achieve very much. I don’t believe for a minute though that my place at the World Cup is assured. Brazil is the biggest footballing country in the world and no-one’s place is safe. I feel I’m not far away from making the squad but I’ll only believe it until I’m actually there. If I can make it and if I can achieve something in my career, it will make me very proud to be able to sit down and tell my children and my grandchildren that I played in a World Cup.
You got the nod ahead of some big names for your debut match against Italy in London. Can you tell us a little about the whole experience?
Dunga had a few questions for me in the hotel and we had a bit of a chat, though not about his tactics for the match. We only had two days together and it was only in the team talk the day before the match that I found out I’d be playing. I felt a shiver go down my spine when he said in the dressing room that I was in the team. Everything that had happened in my career to that point flashed through my mind and I knew it was the opportunity I’d been waiting for for so long. I knew I absolutely had to make the most of it and show what I was worth. Thanks to God I had a really good match and I kept my place in the team with some more good performances.
You are now playing alongside a very experienced midfielder in Gilberto Silva, who occupies a deep position, while your job is to close people down and get forward when you can. Do you think you can make a comparison between the two of you and the tandem formed by Mauro Silva and Dunga at USA 1994? Has the coach spoke to you about this?
He’s never mentioned it but I’m sure he and Jorginho [Dunga’s assistant coach and a member of the Brazil team at USA 1994] are aware that the experience they gained then can be useful for us now. They come from a generation of champions and that’s no coincidence. Their experience shows that and everything they went through in that World Cup can be of use to us. They are both very focused on their work and they know what it takes to win. I’ve worked with one or two coaches who had very fixed ideas but Dunga is just another member of the team who puts a lot of hard work in and it feels like he’s been coaching for years. He knows how to listen and knows what players need. He knows the shortcuts to success.
How does it feel to play alongside someone with Gilberto Silva’s experience and stature?
It was fantastic to have him by my side when I made my international debut. He made me feel very calm. It’s hard to explain just how much help he gives you on the pitch, both when we’ve got the ball and when we haven’t. Even though we’ve played a lot of games together I’m still learning. He’s got great tactical awareness and I suppose that’s something he developed when he was in England, where you have to be positionally aware. He is a terrific fighter and a champion too of course.
What are the strengths of the current Brazil team?
The national side is very organised in a tactical sense. We play as a team and there’s a lot of unity out on the pitch. You can see how much everyone helps each other. Everyone runs, closes players down and gives their all, and players like Kaka and Robinho do their fair share of marking too. It’s things like that have brought A Seleção closer to the fans again, just like in the past when people really loved the team.
Let’s turn to Juventus now, who have been struggling of late. How are you coping with that?
Juventus are a big club and like all the great names they have to win titles. But it’s been a few years since that has happened. A lot is expected of us and hopes were high that we could win the Scudetto. But the only place we can sort this out is on the pitch. We are going through a tough patch but that’s something that happens to every team, like Milan at the start of the season. I know what pressure is and when I was called up for the national side, 99 per cent of people were criticising me. I had to turn the situation around by playing well. So we’re going to stay calm and even though people are saying we are not up to the job, we play for a great club and I’m absolutely convinced we’re going to get through this.
One last question. In an interview with FIFA.com last year, Maradona named you as one of the players of the season and one of the revelations of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. How does it feel to receive praise from someone of his stature?
It was a very great honour because he is one of the two greatest players in the history of the game. If he were playing today, he’d still putting on a show. Naturally, it made me very happy (pauses). To be honest, though, I’d really like Pele to give me some praise. After all, Maradona is Argentinian, isn’t he (laughs)?