In a lengthy interview with FIFA.com back in October 2012, Hulk shed light on how he was perceived by Brazilian fans at the time, with the attacker only gaining wider recognition back home once becoming a Brazil regular.
“If they didn’t know my game, sometimes they saw my physique and got the wrong idea, thinking I must be a blood-and-thunder kind of player," he said. "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.”
Indeed, the fact he has played out virtually his entire career on foreign shores had undermined his relationship with followers of A Seleção. Difficult as it is to believe after his integral role in Brazil’s triumph at last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup, Hulk’s place in the team had previously the source of fierce debate in his homeland. Not that such debate swayed the judgement of Luiz Felipe Scolari, who had complete trust in the wide-forward’s technical brilliance and tactical discipline.
Felipão’s faith was amply repaid by the Paraiba state native, whose fine performances for A Verde e Amarelo have also been reproduced at club level for Zenit St. Petersburg, where in 2013/14 he finished as the Russian top flight’s second-leading scorer and won the division's best player award. A near-certain starter for the hosts at the imminent 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Hulk made time for a chat with FIFA.com shortly before joining up with his Canarinho squad-mates at their training base in Teresopolis.
FIFA.com: Have you noticed how perceptions of you back in Brazil have changed? You had your doubters but you’re now an undisputed starter for a Seleção side expected to do big things at this World Cup.
Hulk: Yes, but it’s only normal as not many people [in Brazil] knew about me. Most fans there began to get to know me through seeing me for A Seleção: at the Olympic Games in 2012 and then the Confederations Cup [in 2013]. So, I can see how there’s now a greater level of recognition for my game, which is something that makes me very happy.
All of which has coincided with you appearing more and more at home in Russian club football, isn’t that right?
No doubt about it. That’s something else I’m pleased about: having had a good season with Zenit. The only thing missing was taking the league title, because we dropped some silly points which ended up costing us (Zenit finished second, a point behind CSKA Moscow), but for me on an individual level, things went excellently. I scored plenty of goals (17 in 24 league matches) and there’s no question I’m adapting to the Russian game.
You mention your goal-scoring, but a major factor in your favour with A Verde e Amarelo is your ability to quickly get back and help the team recover its defensive shape.
That’s right. Felipão spent a lot of time in European football (as coach of Portugal and briefly Chelsea) and places a lot of emphasis on forwards getting back and defending too, an idea which is much more common in Europe than in Brazil, for example. With the national side, even Fred, who’s our central striker, gets back to defend. I’m totally used to that since my time at FC Porto and I think it’s worked well: whenever we don’t have the ball, we all defend.
That means you and the right-back - in this case Daniel Alves - must play closer together and be more dependent on each other, right?
For someone like me, who tends to play wide, it can be even better playing alongside an attacking full-back like Daniel – like both Brazil’s full-backs, in fact. That’s because it gives opposing defenders more to worry about and, as a result, ends up creating more space. That said, of course, when the opposition have the ball we have to make sure we coordinate well so that our flank is always well covered. It’s a genuine partnership.
Everyone involved in the squad that won Brazil 2013 talks very fondly of the atmosphere in the camp. How did that come about?
This group of lads is brilliant. The Seleção squad have always been a great bunch, ever since I was first called up, but we needed to go through a decisive period, really show our strength and, by doing that, form a closed, tight-knit group – which was what happened at the Confederations Cup. And Felipão has been able to keep things that way. There haven’t been many changes made since then and we all still get on really well: there’s never any trouble.
How does Scolari go about maintaining that spirit of togetherness?
It’s not so much about what he says, I thinks it’s more down to the way he is. He welcomes the players in such a way that it makes everybody feel right at home and know what’s expected of them, be they experienced players or new arrivals. For example, he asks us all to come down for lunch and dinner at the same time, and that we all stay until everyone’s finished. That ends up becoming a habit and it does a lot of good. They’re just day-to-day things, but they’re vital in helping everyone bond within the squad. Felipão, better than anyone else, knows how to strengthen that sense of unity.
You’ve played against many of the players that will be lining up for Brazil’s Group A rivals Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon. What kind of encounters are you expecting?
First and foremost, they’re all very difficult games. Not just because they’re great teams with very good players, but also because as they’ll be facing Brazil at home, they’re likely to play quite defensively. So, when gaps do open up, we’re going to have to take full advantage. That was the case at the Confederations Cup, when we were almost always able to grab an early goal – which proved incredibly important. It helped us forge our identity even further: that of us pressing opponents high up the pitch right from the start of games.
Finally, which are, in your view, the strongest teams at this World Cup?
At a World Cup it’s hard to look much further than the traditional big-name teams: history backs that up. Therefore, of course, you have Brazil, Spain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Argentina… all of whom are great teams and usually do well. But, aside from the usual suspects, I think that Uruguay and Belgium are both capable of springing a surprise.