In signing for NBA franchise Phoenix Suns in 2003, Leandro Barbosa knew he was taking up the position as an ambassador for Brazilian basketball. What he perhaps could not foresee, however, was that he would also help spread the gospel of football, the sport he played most in his childhood years.
Barbosa’s arrival in a side that featured Canadian point guard Steve Nash, a diehard Tottenham Hotspur fan and a co-owner of MLS outfit Vancouver Whitecaps, triggered a wave of appreciation for five-time world champions Brazil in the NBA. As one of four Brazilian players in the championship, the guard, who now plays for Indiana Pacers, was regularly sought out by team-mates and opponents anxious for his views on the game they call soccer stateside.
In the first of a special series of interviews in which Brazilian personalities from outside the world of football talk about the game and the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, FIFA.com spoke to Leandrinho in his native Sao Paulo, where he is currently preparing for the London Olympics.
Aside from revealing who the NBA’s soccer experts are, he also shared his views on Brazil 2014 and his beloved Corinthians, his affections for them remaining undimmed despite a brief spell with Flamengo Basketball during last year’s NBA lockout.
FIFA.com: Is it true that you’re a good footballer, and if so are you good with your feet? You’re 6’3 which is not that tall for a basketball player but pretty tall for a footballer.
Leandrinho: Look, I can play a bit. Some people said I would have made a good centre-half, and others reckoned I could have been a decent attacking player because I’ve got a good burst of speed. Maybe I’m not the best person to ask, but I can turn quickly on the ball. Footballers are generally pretty small and there are only one or two big players around.
Have you always played football?
I always wanted to play football when I was a boy, but it was hard to get a break because there was so much competition, and no club ever came in for me. I played in the street, sometimes in bare feet, scoring goals with the rest of the kids and playing four-a-side games. The thing was, my older brother played basketball and I ended up following in his footsteps.
Were you already a Corinthians fan by then?
I was born a Corinthians fan. When I was a baby and my father sat me on his lap, he would use a piece of black and white cloth to tie me to him, to make sure I didn’t fall. That’s what my mother and brothers spoke about. I never went to the stadium because we had very little money, but when the matches were on TV I watched them at home or went with my dad to local bars showing the games. There were a lot of Corinthians fans in the area. Thanks to my dad I became a huge supporter, and the happiest time I remember was when Edilson, Vampeta and Ricardinho were in the side (together the trio helped O Timão win two Brazilian titles and the FIFA Club World Cup Brazil 2000). Not many teams have brought as much happiness to Corinthians fans as that one.
Do you still follow them from the USA?
I watch the games on cable TV, on a channel that shows matches from all over the world. I’ve got TV Globo too and whenever I’ve got time I’ll sit down and watch a game.
What’s your view of the game today in the USA?
People follow it a lot now and they watch football from everywhere: Brazil, Europe and MLS. We’ve got Neymar, who’s a great player and is very popular abroad. Everyone asks me if he’s really that good a player. I’m always telling people how good and how strong Brazilian football is because it’s attracting a lot of overseas players, isn’t it? Here in MLS, the game’s been getting a lot more attention since David Beckham arrived at LA Galaxy, and then with Thierry Henry, who’s another famous face. The stadiums are always full.
Tell us about the stars of NBA and their appreciation of football. You sometimes have a game on the court, don’t you?
I always wanted a game when I was at Phoenix Suns but there was no one to play with. When Steve Nash joined the team it was great. We’d finish training and then we’d be straight off to play football.
He’s one of the best point guards around, but is he a good footballer?
He’s very good. He plays football in the same way he plays basketball and if he wanted to play for a team, I’m sure he’d end up at a pretty good one. He’s mad about the game, so much so that he’s organising a charity match in New York next Wednesday. He’s got some NBA people involved and football players from England too. Henry’s also going to be there. We’ve become good friends with him since he came to New York and he’s a really nice guy. It’s going to be basketball players against the footballers and we want to win.
Who else plays the game?
At Phoenix there’s Boris Diaw, who’s French. He’s very tall but he’s skilful. And there’s also Goran Dragic, who’s from Slovenia. One guy who can play a bit too and who totally knocked us out is Shaquille O’Neal. He’s great in goal. He’s 7’1 tall, and he likes diving around, so we put a mat on the floor after training and made some goals. He loved it and he was always ready to take you on. After that the whole team joined in. At Indiana there’s George Hill, who was a goalkeeper at college. And then at Toronto Raptors there was Jose Calderon of Spain. We’ve got a bit of a rivalry going because he supports Real Madrid and I love Barcelona. We always have a bet whenever there’s a clásico. When I left Toronto, Madrid beat Barcelona and he called me asking for his money, but I couldn’t pay him because I’d gone.
Brazil will be hosting the FIFA World Cup in two years’ time. What are your expectations for the tournament?
I can hardly wait. I think it’s going to be crazy, and the whole nation is going to be jumping. There’s no more passionate country than Brazil. We saw what Sao Paulo was like this week with Corinthians in the [Copa] Libertadores. Can you imagine the whole country like that?
One last question, what’s your biggest FIFA World Cup memory?
I’ve watched a few but I’ve never actually been to one. USA 1994 was the one that made the biggest impression on me. I was 12 at the time and I remember the celebrations. Bebeto and Romario were there and Ronaldo was just breaking through. It was a brilliant achievement, the first World Cup win in 24 years, and that title stuck in my mind for many years.