Upon leaving Corinthians for CSKA Moscow at a tender age, Brazilian striker Jo found all kinds of challenges in his path. The shock of living in an entirely different environment, for one, as well as a climate that was certainly not like the one he was used to back home.
On top of that came the difficulties of adapting to a new style of football though, somehow, he overcame these obstacles and shone in Russia, eventually earning a move to Manchester City. That was when Jo’s rapid progress stalled, however, and he began to experience the ups and downs you would arguably expect from a player so young.
Sent out on loan to Everton and Galatasaray before ending up back in Brazil in 2011, he subsequently endured a difficult spell at Internacional - his prospects then looking gloomy. "You lose a little confidence," he told FIFA.com."It was a negative time for me. But I was lucky enough to find people that still believed in me."
Then Atletico Mineiro came to the rescue. The club supported him from the moment he arrived at the Cidade do Galo training ground, and the centre-forward found his form, becoming a key member of one of the most feared attacks in Brazil.
Now at the heart of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s World Cup plans, it has been quite a turnaround. "Everything is going perfectly," he said. "It seems like I can hit the ball with my eyes closed and it flies into the net. I'm bursting with confidence these days."
His 2013 season was one of reaffirmation. He not only won the Copa Libertadores but was the competition’s top scorer and was part of Brazil’s FIFA Confederations Cup winning side too, scoring twice in only 27 minutes - both coming on as a substitute for Fred.
In this exclusive interview, the striker, upon whose shoulders lie much of Atletico’s hopes of lifting the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco in December, revealed just how everything has been falling into place for him.
FIFA.com: Let’s start by talking about how well your move to Atletico has worked out. You had a hard time at Internacional when first coming back, but since joining Atletico you're like your old self again. Why do you think this is?
Jo: Adapting to Brazil again was really tough. When you play in Europe you have to be tactically disciplined. In Brazil it’s more about technique. Nowadays the game here is tactically more advanced, but two or three years ago it wasn't the case. So it was difficult, even in terms of physical strength. I gave away a lot of free-kicks, because in Europe the game is more physical. Then there was the question of time on the ball, the pitches - everything was hard for me. I had some problems off the pitch too, and it all became too much. It was a bad time in my life. But I was lucky enough to find people that believed in me, here at Atletico.
Do you remember your first conversation with Cuca? When he told you you were playing for the first time?
I remember my first conversation with the President (Alexandre Kalil), and he told me something that I think is good advice for everyone: ‘You and I are men who've both made mistakes. The mistakes you made weren't the first and won’t be the last, but you need to be able to set yourself boundaries and have objectives to aim for in life. You haven’t forgotten how to play football. I want to see the Jo I saw years ago, the Jo who was picked for the national team and earned a move to Europe.’
Did you ever doubt yourself?
No, it never got that far - I always believed in my ability. You lose a little confidence, of course, but Cuca said basically the same thing as the President. That he liked me, that he had wanted to sign me when he was at Cruzeiro in the past, and that I should just play football the way I know best. That made me feel relaxed. It’s great when things come naturally. Last year I had some good games, but this year has been amazing. Everything has gone perfectly.
It is easy to imagine how good you must feel at the moment, scoring regularly for Atletico and doing well withA Seleção, especially after everything you went through...
Confidence is so important for a player. It changes everything. You practically run away from the ball when you’re playing badly, because everything seems to go wrong. But when things are going well, it’s like you can hit the ball any which way and it will fly into the net. That’s the phase I’m in at the moment (laughs). Confidence is such an important word in football. I always try and tell the other players this before the games, that we should try and get the first few passes right, get off to a good start, build confidence and strength and take it from there. Confidence was what was missing before for me. Now I have plenty.
Is there anything in your career that you would like to have done differently?No. Maybe the only mistake was going to Inter. Not because it didn’t work out, but because when I left [Manchester] City, I was really close to signing for Benfica. But perhaps it was meant to be. I left Inter and ended up at Atletico, where I overcame my problems. Who knows if it would have worked out so well at Benfica? Lots of people criticised me when I left Corinthians [for CSKA in 2005], saying I was too young for a move like that. At the time, being honest, I was thinking about the money. I was able to make my family more comfortable, and at CSKA I played well, making a name for myself in Europe.
Now that you are preparing to face teams from outside Brazil in the FIFA Club World Cup, do you think having played in Europe will help? Especially if you have to play a strong team like Bayern Munich?
It helps a lot. It’s something I’m always trying to pass on to the other players. To play against top sides like that you need to be really tactically disciplined. Brazilian teams aren’t very used to that. If we manage to get through the semi-final and play Bayern, we’re going to come under a lot of pressure because of the way they keep possession. Pep Guardiola has brought that to the club, plus they still have all that pace out wide. If we want to win we’re going to have to work hard for 90 minutes, shut them down as much as we can and get our tactics just right, just like Corinthians did against Chelsea.
Does that mean playing with a more defensive system than usual?
Football is very competitive nowadays. We’re definitely going to have to mark a lot tighter than usual. Bayern are a cut above and, when you play a team like that, you have to be on your guard more than usual. It won’t be the end of the world if we keep everyone behind the ball and try and sneak a goal on the counter-attack, using the pace we have up front.
Would you like to go back to Europe one day, after all you have gone through?
Yes. I’d like to play in the Champions League and play in one of major domestic leagues again. But I have a contract with Atletico until late 2015 and I want to see it out. I’m really happy here, but I’m still young, and I dream about playing in Europe again. You never know what the future holds.
When you watch games from Europe today, especially Bayern games, does it change the way you see things?
Yes, of course (laughs). We finished training early recently to watch a Bayern game. We talked a lot about the match, swapping ideas.
Does Cuca like to talk about the teams you’re going to play?
He was a player himself, so he knows the right time to talk to the team. Before every league game he tells us what we should be doing. It’s good preparation for the Club World Cup. We’re thinking about the competition all the time. We’re tinkering with our system because of what we will come up against in Morocco. It’s important to make sure the team is prepared as soon as possible.
At the Club World Cup you might come up against Dante, your colleague in the Brazil squad. You have played against him in training, but now you could face each other in a real match. How do you feel about that?
(Laughs) We’ve already been joking about it, saying that the battle has already started. He’s playing in a team that has a lot of confidence. But I tell him that we’re strong too. We’ve got a few ideas up our sleeve that might just work for us.