Alexsandro de Souza, or Alex as he is better known, became a household name mostly on the strength of successful spells with Palmeiras, Cruzeiro and Turkish giants Fenerbahce, where he continues to be idolised despite his departure early this year. When he subsequently announced his intention to return to Brazil, there was much speculation about his final destination – and with good reason. After all, what club wouldn’t want one of the country’s finest attacking midfielders of his generation? Throughout his career, Alex never hid his affection for his hometown of Curitiba and Coritiba Football Club, so it came as no surprise when he re-signed for the outfit where it had all begun for him as a teenager.
Having left the city as a raw 19-year-old and returned 16 years later with a keen and analytical mind, Alex was the perfect candidate to chat to FIFA.com about the Parana state capital for the latest in a series of interviews with star names aimed at showcasing the host cities of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™.
FIFA.com: Alex, many non-Brazilians will not be aware that the city of Curitiba is home to the historic rivalry between Coritiba and Atletico Paranaense. As someone who has experienced the intensity of Fenerbahce-Galatasaray derbies, how would you define the former?
Alex: In Parana it’s rather unusual as there’s a demarcation. Unlike in other states, it’s rare to find Coritiba or Atletico-PR fans outside the capital. Many people in the western part of the state identify more with the likes of Internacional and Gremio, while a lot of people in the north support Sao Paulo, Corinthians, Palmeiras, etc. It’s a question of cultural upbringing. In that sense, the north of Parana is almost part of the Sao Paulo hinterland. The same applies to football – it’s a hereditary and cultural thing. That traditional diminished somewhat during the latter decades of the 20th century, when both Coritiba and Atletico enjoyed success at a national level. In general, though, that culture [of Parana people supporting Parana teams] is less ingrained outside the capital. The city’s rivalry is essentially metropolitan, a capital affair.
In cultural terms, Curitiba is also different to the rest of Parana, isn’t it?
Yes it is. To a great extent that’s down the mix of ethnicities. For example, in the Santa Felicidade area you can still hear people speaking Italian to this day. In different parts of the city you can also hear German, and there are settlements that are predominantly Ukrainian and Polish with monuments in homage to these immigrants. Teams visiting here from those countries will certainly get a lot of support and experience a surprising atmosphere.
After almost 16 years away, you came back to Curitiba this year. How was it to return?
It was strange. I spent my first 19 years in Curitiba, but the city of my childhood was very different than it is today. Compared to other Brazilian state capitals, it’s still a small city, although it has to deal with the usual big-city problems. Seeing these problems here for myself really struck me, although I believe they’re fixable and I see a willingness at the political level to do just that. There are those who complain a lot about the traffic, but having lived in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Istanbul, I’m probably not the best person to talk about this (laughs). But yes you can still find yourself stuck in traffic at times.
For you, is the traffic the thing that has changed most in your time away?
To be honest, for me what’s changed most has been the people of Curitiba. When I was a teenager, you’d often hear people talk about what we used to call a curitiboca. That referred to an authentic – perhaps even too authentic – Curitiba native, someone very attached to the city with a rather closed mind. Nowadays, the people are much more open. For several years now we’ve had people moving here from Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, northeast Brazil. When it first started, you’d hear some people complaining about that, but fortunately that’s changing. The more open a city is, the more it evolves, and I think we’re seeing less and less of the so- called ‘authentic’ Curitiba person. Some people joke that Curitiba city folk are cold and unwelcoming, but it’s not like that at all. We have a thing where we can be wary of people at first, but deep down we’re affectionate (laughs).
If you had to tell a foreigner about the most interesting things about Curitiba, what would you say?
I think it’s a very attractive urban centre with several features that would remind you of European cities – very well organised transport system as well as tourist attractions. We have buildings that are 100 or 200 years old and very well preserved. It is better planned than the majority of Brazilian cities and, because of its considerable immigration, has a very notable tradition of gastronomy. For me, though, its biggest asset is its parks, which are very well looked after and extensively used by the people.
Do you frequent the parks of Curitiba yourself and where else do you like to go?
When I was a kid I used to spend a lot of time in the centre of Curitiba: at Praca Santos Andrade, at the Guaira Theatre. Nowadays I can’t wander around the city like that, as football has made my face very recognisable. When time permits, however, I like to go with my kids to Barigui Park near my home. We sometimes take the bikes or just walk. It’s a delightful environment. People make great use of – you’ll see people roller skating and on skateboards, older people out walking. I love seeing public spaces being used like that.
Will hosting the FIFA World Cup be good for the city?
One of my main concerns is for the infrastructure to be finished in time for the World Cup and, principally, for there to be a willingness to carry out works that don’t depend on football. In Curitiba, I see a desire to carry out such improvement and leave the city 100 per cent. As a Curitiba citizen, I feel I have an obligation to expect the city to improve. As already mentioned, we have a huge rivalry between Atletico and Coritiba, but at present that shouldn’t matter. Infrastructural and public transport works go way beyond inter-club rivalries. What matters now is making Curitiba a better place, both now and when the World Cup finishes.