An indispensable member of the Brazil team that went to the 1998 World Cup, César Sampaio looks back at that tournament, the infamous events surrounding the final, a successful club career in Brazil and Japan and offers his thoughts on Brazil's chances in Russia.

How did your football career begin?

I’m a native of the city of São Paulo, the third of a family of three brothers. I was born in the neighbourhood of Jabaquara in Zona Sul, here in the city. My story is the same as 90% of the boys in Brazilian football who come from a reality of difficulties in their childhood. My father was a postman and my mother was a seamstress. Ever since I was young, I was always running after the ball in the street and in the várzea amateur leagues. I was always searching for something but never imagining that I would become a professional athlete.

I did some trials at the big clubs here in São Paulo – Palmeiras, Corinthians and São Paulo FC - but I didn’t pass. I also tried out for a second division outfit, Nacional, but failed there too. So I started working, as my father had been saying that I needed to start helping out at home in order for us to get through our difficulties. 

Thank God that the company I worked for went bust! It had financial problems, so I was able to do my final trial with Santos – which my father told me was my last chance. I passed and played there for eight years from 1983 to 1991 before moving to Palmeiras.

The Santos youth academy has a great reputation the world over and a strong history. Did you feel this when you were there?

Yes. Santos is a team that, to this day, in relation to the formation of athletes and nurturing talent, though not in financial terms, is a reference point with huge names like Pelé – who was the greatest player in the world and makes the club deserving of all of our respect on his own – and in more recent times Robinho, Neymar, Diego, Gabigol, Lucas Lima – players who were formed at Santos and then went on to play for the national team.

And something that’s also peculiar is that there the fans and even the press don’t allow the club to buy a player before they've given a chance to an academy player. I mean, they have this mentality that if there’s a boy who’s really good from the youth teams – the U17, the U20 – they’ll force the directors to have a look at him before buying elsewhere. My case bears similarities with that. I became a professional around 17 to 18 years of age, hovering on the fringes of the team and on the bench in my first year before getting my first professional contract at 19. It’s very cool because it’s the club with the most ex-professionals working in the academy in Brazil, who help not just on the football side of things but also giving advice on the pitfalls of adolescence. An age of discovery when sometimes they receive a professional contract, start making a lot of money, then go off the rails a bit. 

It’s very important to have these ex-professionals involved. I know, going through it myself whilst taking in life’s experiences. I was very privileged in my formation, with Pelé giving me advice as well as other coaches who were ex-professionals and played for the national team, then went into coaching.  

How did you end up at Palmeiras? Can you tell us about Palmeiras during that time?

I became a professional at Santos in 1983, stayed eight years from starting as a 14 year-old and left aged 21. I went to Palmeiras already formed and having already featured for the national team as the Santos captain. Palmeiras bought me for a sum plus two of the players from their youth academy moved to Santos as part of the deal – Serginho Fraldinha, who was a fast attacker on the right side, and Ranielli, a left-sided midfielder. We were young, around the same age.

I had been a Palmeirense [Palmeiras fan] since I was a boy and had a trial there but didn’t pass. But then Palmeiras bought me. At the time, they had already gone 14-15 years without silverware in the state or domestic championship and I joined this drought until in the end it had become 17 years without a trophy of note. 

I was a part of the beginning of the era when Parmalat were sponsors, a moment of reshaping with a lot of investment and one in which we finally went back to winning ways against Corinthians in 1993 and entered a decade of great conquests and great teams. I’m happy I played a part in this historical comeback and repositioning of the Palmeiras brand.   

Can you describe the 1993 campaign in more detail?

I arrived at Palmeiras in 1991 and it was still a team that suffered. A team that was an amerelão [big yellow], a term that we use in Brazil for one which has good campaigns but doesn’t win titles.

In 1992, at the beginning of the Parmalat era, we had put together a team that formed the base of the national squad, with Palmeiras and São Paulo being the two sides that had the most players in it. São Paulo was the bi-campeão mundial [back-to-back Intercontinental Cup champion] so it became a big rivalry because of our investments and their titles. We were runners-up to them in the state championship but won it the year after. 

As I said, it drew in an era of great success. We won the league and state championships back-to-back in 1993 and 1994 before I left in 1995. I came back in ’99 and we also won the Libertadores – a continental title that hands you the right to contest the mundial, which took us to Japan to play against Manchester United. We lost 1-0 but played a great game technically and had more chances.  

Despite playing for the four big teams, my image is completely associated with Palmeiras because altogether I stayed there for eight years – six and a half as a player and the rest as a director of football – and we won 12 titles. Because I was the captain and then the director of football, if you say the name Cesar Sampaio, my image is immediately associated with Palmeiras because of the titles we managed to win when I was there.

Do you remember your first game against Corinthians as a Palmeiras player? As someone who had been a supporter as a boy, how was your first Derby Paulista?

I don’t remember my first ever, but the first historic one was in 1993. Even though I’ve won bigger titles, such as the Libertadores and the national championship, the state final in 1993 [was the most important] in terms of the rivalry, considering that we had lost the first leg – in which Viola scored and went around the back of the goal and imitated a pig, the Palmeiras club mascot – [and it] saw us break our 17-year drought. 

The week after the first leg was very difficult, the fans had huge expectations and I remember a few important facts. I had twisted my ankle and the doctors weren’t going to clear me for the second game because of my physical condition, but as I was the captain with an opportunity to win I told them I wanted to play. At the time, coaches would trust players to play through the pain barrier, so I overcame the limits of my physical condition and my ankle was completely swollen by the end. 

In that week the Palmeiras fans were very angry with Viola but also with us. I remember the team coach going to the changing rooms and the fans throwing coins and notes at us, telling us that were mercenaries because once again Palmeiras would get to the final and not win the title. 

But in the second game we won 3-0, which forced extra time  and we won 1-0 in extra time too, meaning we had beaten them 4-0 overall. 

As well as the other games we played against them, another highlight was 1999-2000 in the Libertadores which brought great duels and also the 1999 Paulistão final when Edílson, a midfielder for Corinthians who had also played for Palmeiras, flicked the ball over his own head and started a mass brawl where Paulo Nunes kicked him. Corinthians were champions but the game ended with this fight. 

It’s a very tense fixture and in São Paulo it’s the biggest rivalry. The city literally stops when they face one another. And for a Palmeirense, after becoming champion beating Corinthians is the second-best title. And vice versa for Corintianos, who, after they’ve won any title, consider beating Palmeiras to be another conquest. It’s a game that affects the atmosphere of the city and I’m grateful for being able to have more fond memories than bad ones.   

At the end of the 1990s there were two memorable Libertadores games against them…

We had duels in two consecutive Libertadores. In 1999, in the first one, the quarter-final that went to extra-time and penalties. We had been drawn in the same group alongside two Paraguayan teams Cerro Porteño and Olimpia. Corinthians qualified in first place and us in second. We were drawn against Vasco in the last 16 and then Corinthians in the quarters. They won the first game 2-0 and we beat them by the same margin in the second, so it went to penalties. During this time, Marcos, the goalkeeper and an idol even now for Palmeirenses, ended up being nicknamed São [Saint] Marcos – mostly for saving penalties from Vampeta and Dinei. Because of these saves, we were able to progress in this competition, which we eventually won. 

Then in 2000, in the same way, we got them again in the Libertadores. They won the first game 4-3 and we won the second 3-2 which forced us to penalties once more and this time Marcos saved against Marcelinho, who was an excellent dead-ball specialist.

The Libertadores is a dream of all the teams in Brazil and a competition that can allow South American teams to compete in the mundial. Now, it’s different, but at that time you went straight to the final to face a European team. 

But the games against Corinthians were very emotional, with a lot of tension. Decided by penalties with Marcos becoming São Marcos and Zinho, a World Cup winner in 1994 with the national team, scoring the decisive kick. He admitted that he never felt as much pressure in his career as when he had to step up and take the penalty, anaesthetised and with heavy legs. 

It was a bad penalty, technically speaking. Straight down the middle but the goalkeeper picked a side so that’s why he was able to score. I think he felt the pressure of the atmosphere, from the fans, from his teammates and the rivalry between Palmeiras and Corinthians. A player in that situation realises that he can either become an idol or end his career with the team if he can’t be counted on in crucial moments such as penalty shoot-outs.

This, along with breaking the drought in 1993, are some of my favourite memories. And when you’re a Palmeiras player and lose to Corinthians, you have to take a lot of care in the following week – walking in the street, dining out with your family. Any defeat to them and meeting fans in the street can even result in you being attacked. It works the same way for their players, too. You have to live at least a week to ten days as a recluse, hidden, until the emotions of the fans have cooled down a bit. 

Can you tell us about the emotion of winning the Libertadores as the captain and a boyhood Palmeirense?

I have a history of overcoming difficult situations and '99 wasn't any different. We lost the first game of the semi-final, a very tough fixture in Argentina against River Plate where Marcos made at least five saves; miracles we call them here as they were five saves that were emblematic.

And in the return leg at Parque Antártica, the old Palmeiras stadium, we won 3-0 in a great game in which Alex shone and scored a brace. Then it was the same process. We lost the first game in Colombia 1-0 against Deportivo Cali. As we’d knocked out Corinthians, Vasco and River, we were facing a slightly smaller team, but still lost the first leg 1-0 before beating them 2-1. We were up against it, Evair ended up getting sent off and the game went to penalties.

Zinho, a good penalty taker, hit the post with the first kick. And it was a very tense shoot-out with Zapata, their marksman who had scored earlier in the game, hitting his wide and making us Libertadores champions. 

To this day, Marcos still says that the biggest moment in his Palmeiras career was in this shoot-out even though both missed penalties hit the post or went wide. As for me, I had picked up a thigh injury during the week between the first and second legs and was doubtful. I was a national team player at the time and got cut out of the 1999 Copa América squad because of this injury, but in one more story of overcoming the odds we conquered the Libertadores just as I had twisted my ankle in 1993 before breaking the drought. It was completely worth it. Even though I missed the Copa América, Palmeiras became Libertadores champions. 

As a player, you have all the emotional preparation necessary. From the beginning, you have this ability to put your feelings as a fan to one side until after triumph. I think that in all of the teams I played in I won something, which includes Santos and São Paulo, so we always represent whichever side we are playing for. However, if you win a title with the team of your heart, after the game ends you experience a happiness for which I just can’t find words that you could translate. 

Alongside the team that broke the 17-year drought, this 1999 Libertadores win wasn’t just celebrated with my teammates and the fans but also the whole of my family and good friends. A gratifying moment that was very pleasurable to win with the team of my heart. 

Tell us about your time in Japan. You went there while still playing for the national team and this could be compared to Renato Augusto, who is playing in China now.

Actually, I went to Japan because I wasn’t called up to USA 94. Well, in the first instance I went for financial reasons. It wasn’t like China now with such high salaries, but it was still an offer that presented me with a figure three times more than I was making at the time. 

Globalisation wasn’t as widespread as it is now. Information was a lot scarcer than today. Going to Japan at that time was like relinquishing the Brazilian national team. I remember that Dunga went as well, he was world champion in '94 and the captain too and ended up going to Japan because of the financial side of things. 

I went more because of my disappointment. After having been the captain of Palmeiras for the back-to-back 1993 and 1994 Paulistão and Brasileiro titles and also winning the Bola de Ouro awarded to the best player in the league twice – once in 1990, still with Santos, and again with Palmeiras in 1993, just before the World Cup – I was overlooked for the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. 

I looked more at the financial side of things, but after that I adapted well in Japan. I identified a lot with their culture but in the first instance I relinquished the national team to earn money because I thought I’d never get called up. 

As Dunga still played in Japan and was the 1998 captain after winning the ’94 World Cup, he accompanied me as we played against each other and became an intermediary between Zagallo and me, telling him that I was playing very well and that I was a star player in Japan. 

This coincided with Mauro Silva, a player who played my position and was in the ’94 winning team, picking up an ankle injury and having to undergo surgery. There was Flávio Conceição too, who at the time was at Real Madrid. I think he left La Coruña for Madrid and I can’t remember what the problem was regarding the move but it meant that I was picked for the Confederations Cup which we played well in and won. At first, I was a substitute behind Emerson, who was at Roma, but I ended up becoming a first-team player and making my way to the World Cup. 

For my generation, it was 12 years at the top of the food chain with stars like Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaká, who became the best players in the world. Kaká was crowned a little later, but even still, Brazil, as well as enjoying great conquests, had numerous Ballon d’Or winners. I played a part in an important chapter in Brazilian football history on the world stage where as well as winning titles, we had craques and the football was of a very high level. 

It was a spectacle. Win or lose, the priority at the time was to play well. Today, football – though obviously I get that strategies and the physicality are important and there have been great developments in this area – is a sport in which the weakest has a team to win against the strongest if you have a great strategy and can neutralise the opponent. And if you can beat them it becomes an emotional event. But in our time it was a game of more technical quality, with more space on the field and less velocity. A joy to play. And for the fans a joy to watch I believe, as it was more fun and emotional. 

Can you explain the 24 hours before the France 98 final? A lot has been said about what really happened. Could tell us about it?

The 24 hours waiting for a final, in relation to insecurity and nervousness, are easier than your debut. In the 24 hours before your first World Cup game, at least in my case, time doesn’t seem to pass and it feels like a week. The night before – if I slept three hours, that was a lot. It’s different from player to player, and some, though this isn’t to say they are less responsible, just take it in their stride and don’t get beat up about it. 

The hardest part is the national anthem. The anthem of your country. When you’re all lined up, a film passes in your head of your childhood, playing in the street, watching Brazil play on television, when we painted the street green and yellow and made popcorn with my mother handing it out and watching with the family. In the 24 hours before a final there are these elements too but you have already become a lot more emotionally balanced. 

In relation to ’98, from my observations, Holland were the best team at the World Cup, technically speaking. We even talked amongst ourselves, saying that whoever knocked Holland out would be a serious candidate for the title. We managed to beat them on penalties with a famous performance from Taffarel, the Brazilian goalkeeper, who was also there in ’94. 

The most difficult, tense moment was the problem that occurred with Ronaldo. He had a convulsion. That was around eight or nine hours before the game, in the afternoon, after lunch. Ronaldo, at the time, was the best in the world. The highlight of the seleção brasileira, a player with strength, speed and in great form. He was the team’s top scorer as well at the World Cup. It was like if Cristiano Ronaldo had a convulsion today, or Messi, or Neymar, the team’s reference point. 

So, there was that question if they would permit him to play or not. At the beginning, the doctors prohibited his participation. So, after he had the convulsion, Zagallo held the team meeting, before we left the hotel to go to the stadium, with Edmundo. Edmundo would have played. Zagallo made a speech prioritising this moment, telling Edmundo that it was his time to make history, that everybody was important, and that God had prepared that moment for him to score the goal that won the title. He was working a lot with his emotions. That was at the team meeting, then we went to the stadium and Ronaldo went to do a load of tests. 

Moments before the warm-up began, when we were already in the changing room waiting to get on the pitch to warm up, Ronaldo arrived with the doctors. He said that he’d done all the tests and they had not identified any problems and that he wanted to play. This was 40, 45 minutes before the game. Then the changing room turned into a mess… Well, a mess in the sense that we, the players, did not want Ronaldo to play. From there, there was a meeting of the coaching staff and the doctors, where the doctors ended up giving Ronaldo the green light. 

I’m telling this really quickly, but it was a really difficult day. We had a few moments. Firstly, we were worried about Ronaldo when he had the convulsion, we didn’t know what had happened. Then we had the preparation with Edmundo, after that Ronaldo came back and was going to play, and then there was the meeting with the doctors, who allowed Ronaldo to play.

I wouldn’t say that it was Ronaldo’s fault that Brazil did not win the World Cup, that’s not fair. But, emotionally, if Edmundo had played, I believe that Brazil would have been much more balanced to make the most of what we had. At that moment, all of our concern, of the team and the players, was focused on the physical wellbeing of Ronaldo.

I’ve seen some things. Unfortunately, I was present at the death of a player on the pitch when I was at São Paulo, a centre-back [Serginho] of São Caetano passed away from a cardiac arrest. So, we thought that Ronaldo ran the risk of death.

And there are a few other things. In training during the week, Ronaldo marked Zidane at set pieces because the two were around the same height and had the same build. Then in the game, as Ronaldo couldn’t head the ball, he had to avoid contact, Leonardo went to mark Zidane because he didn’t have a history as a good header, as a man who was dangerous in the area from dead balls. Then, for the first goal, he beat Leonardo to the ball. Then we switched. Dunga went to mark Zidane and Leonardo went to mark zonally and he scored the second goal, beating Dunga as well.

Emotionally, Brazil didn’t perform at even 50% of the level we had during the World Cup in that game. I don’t blame Ronaldo for that, but we were very worried about his physical wellbeing. For people who saw the scene, for us laymen who have no scientific training to understand the gravity of the event, seeing Ronaldo fitting, the convulsive crisis, is something that has a big impact. It was a really heavy scene. So, we were still worried that something worse could happen. Thanks to God, Ronaldo didn’t have anything else after this, it was a one off. 

I already knew that it would be a difficult game. I had said so to my family, that Brazil weren’t well-balanced to play a final, to show our best, emotionally speaking.

Who made the decision to put Ronaldo on the pitch?

It was the doctors. In truth, we didn’t participate in the meeting. It was the coaching staff, the doctors, Ronaldo, the physical preparation specialist and Ricardo Teixeira as well, who at the time was the president of the CBF [Brazilian football federation]. Then Zagallo said that it would be up to the doctors to permit Ronaldo to play or not. And the doctors authorised him to play. 

A lot of people blame Zagallo. But, as I see it, if you take Messi out of the Argentina team today, or, as I said, Cristiano Ronaldo out of the Portugal team, or Neymar from Brazil, I think the coach is always going to want these players in the team. It is the responsibility of the doctors. As a director of football, I’ve had experiences, not exactly like the one with Ronaldo, but I’ve taken different decisions. Today, we’d only use players who are 100% in a final because you could have a great player but in a final, it’s invariably details that end up making the difference. They’re always tight, equal games, and if you don’t have players in their best physical condition… If there is a risk of something worse happening, you have to avoid it.

You said that Zagallo, when it looked like Edmundo would play, went over and talked to him. Was he a good man-manager?

Yes, he has won the most World Cups in the history of Brazilian football. We used to say that he was the flag-bearer, he carried the Brazilian flag. He was a coach with traditional tactical set ups, he rarely changed things. Most of the time the substitutions, or even his strategy, was based on an already well-defined tactical system. If he took off a centre-back, he’d put on another centre-back. If he took off a centre-forward, he’d put on another centre-forward. He was a more conservative coach. It was rare that Brazil would play with four forwards, or four midfielders, he always had two variations, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, as the pillars for adjustments. 

But the emotional side of his management was always very vibrant. In the team hotel, at lunch, at dinner, on the eve of the game, he always spoke to all of us individually, talking about the opponent, to point out a weakness in one sector or a strength of a certain player. He was a man with huge passion, huge emotion, he’d say that we were representing Brazil. He even used war analogies. It was the Brazilian flag, the Brazilian people being represented through our football boots. 

He was a great guy. Zagallo’s team meetings were really emotional, as were the interventions during the game, before the game, at half-time. In the semi-final against Holland he did a good job of giving confidence to our penalty takers and to Taffarel as well, the goalkeeper. He was a really charismatic person, one of the most charismatic in the history of Brazilian football.

Did you mark Zidane during the game?

In truth, nobody marked Zidane [laughs]. It was me and Dunga, and Dunga was more the defensive midfielder. We played with two ‘protective’ players, to protect the centre-backs. I got forward a little more, I had more freedom to join up with the offensive sector and Dunga was more the protector of the defence, a more fixed position. 

We say that we marked him with paint, with a paintbrush, just a little mark on Zidane’s shirt [laughs]. In that game he played really well. I can say that until today, in France, they use Zidane’s performance in that game as a reference. He assumed the responsibility of being the difference maker and played an excellent game. 

I congratulate France and I think it was an ‘easy’ final for them because of the emotional state of the Brazilian players. In the World Cup final any detail, as small as it may be, can make a lot of difference. One sector, one strategical adjustment, a missed chance or a taken one. Imagine what the squad went through on the day. It was really heavy and we were worried that Ronaldo might die if he hit his head during the game. France have nothing to do with this. They prepared well and afterwards even won the Euros, it was a team that marked an era, a great side with great athletes. However, they didn’t confront an opponent on the same emotional level. We could have lost to France, but it would have been a more equal game, a tighter game. It was an easy game for the French owing to our emotional imbalance.

But you won the Copa América…

Yeah, I won that as well. We won the Copa América in ’97 in Bolivia. It was a really difficult Copa, as Bolivia has this problem of altitude. It is truly inhuman and directly influences the athlete’s output during the game. We did all our preparation in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which isn’t at altitude, it isn’t at the 3,600m of La Paz where we played the final against the hosts. We won the game 3-1. We took the lead and they equalised with a shot almost from the middle of the park. The air resistance is reduced and the ball moves more quickly, so Taffarel lost the flight of it. After that, Ronaldo made it 2-1. Zé Roberto scored the third goal.

We won the Copa América in ’97, right before the Confederations Cup in Saudi Arabia, so we had that preparation for the World Cup. So Brazil arrived at the World Cup really strong. In the long-term strategy, there were phases of construction and restructuring. These competitions allowed for changes to the squad and of tactics as well. For the World Cup, the preparation was very well done. The period of training and study. We had time with the psychologist too, to work on the emotional side of things. He was called Evandro. We did sessions with him.

For a Brazilian, at the World Cup, the only thing is the title. Nothing else exists. Second place is a defeat. In my career, I consider being the runner-up as a victory, but some said that we had sold the World Cup, that there were bribes, that there was money for us to throw the game. Even something bigger, with Fifa as well. But it doesn’t have a price. Me, as a witness, I know that the World Cup has no price. It’s that unique moment. We all had good, long contracts, we earned a lot. And we didn’t know if we would be at the next World Cup. So you couldn’t sell the cup. 

Even Ronaldo, when he came into the dressing room after his medical exams, said, “I didn’t play in ’94,” because he was really young, “I don’t know if I’m going to play again in 2002,” because he had already had some knee problems, and then after he tore the tendon and was out for almost two years, one year and eight months. He said that he didn’t know if he would play in 2002, so he wanted to play. You can’t negotiate that. It’s a unique moment, it’s the Oscar of football and it’s difficult for you to get to that point.

The Brazil team that won the Copa América in '97 had some players who were known to enjoy certain extra-curricular activities...

The down time for the seleção brasileira, for the players… Not just the Brazilian team, for any footballer, the free time is… dangerous, let’s say [laughs]. I lived with great players, on and off the pitch [laughs], who were just as good off the pitch as on it, or perhaps even better off it than on it. But I’m a Christian. I was already an Evangelical, so I was always a little bit more conservative. 

We knew that there were certain recreational activities, one or two options for leisure time, to relax. But I wasn’t present, for motives greater than football. I wouldn’t even say it was a religious choice but a different lifestyle. We knew that after a big victory for Brazil, the night turned into day for some players. Not just in Bolivia, every moment post-match where the players are given time off, each is responsible for their own actions.

I was the opposite. Nowadays, the players have individual rooms but at that time we usually shared. Inevitably, I’d be in with one of the crazy ones. The good boys, the well-behaved ones, would be put with one of the crazy ones, to try to control them. Ronaldo is not too crazy, but he was my room-mate. Vampeta was my room-mate. Djalminha was my room-mate with the seleção. Those guys were active in the early hours. In Bolivia the victory celebrations were thrilling, but I didn’t participate.

Did that cause tension in the group?

Nothing much. It’s interesting in a certain way. I converted when I was 18, I’d say that I was even a bit boring. All fanaticism, I think, is bad. I’m not just speaking about religion. You start to study, you start to have a different view of the world, you live abroad, you experience other cultures, your vision expands a bit. 

I managed to change the reality… God managed to change the reality of my life and that of my family. Then after I had my own family it repositioned me. Even my daughters, my grandchildren, if they don’t mess up they will be able to study, be able to eat. The reality of Brazil is different to other countries. Here, literally 80% of the population survives. They don’t even have the basic necessities, basic hygiene, healthcare. The country is unable to administer its population. Well, they could but there is corruption and everything. That could be a whole other interview. 

When I was really young I converted to Christianity and here they call them ‘the believers’. And there is some provocation. Some players did things to me and to the players who said they were Christian to see if we were really Christians. Are you going to drink? Ah, if you drink, you’re a liar. Did you look at that woman? Oh, you looked. You can’t. And all that. [laughs] Since I was young we lived with this.

What I see… How can I say it? It’s hypocrisy. My generation had a few crazies and the guys really were mad. They had personality. They did stuff and said that they did it. They still talk about it. Damn, Renato Gaúcho, who’s now the Grêmio coach, he was… he played the game on and off the pitch. Romário. But they were guys with personality. Ronaldo as well, Edmundo. These guys admitted what they did. 

Today, you’ve got social media and these things so it’s become more difficult. There’s a whole filter. There are agencies. For you to speak to a player these days, there are three filters to get to the guy. The relations have been lost. After games, I used to go out to have a beer or a glass of wine with a reporter. I didn’t see any problem at all. My work is finished and so is his, so let’s have a drink, what’s wrong with that? Today, if you saw one of these guys drinking with a reporter, you have articles about it for a whole week. 

It’s not so long ago, we’re not talking about such a distant past. But in these last 10 years the world has changed a lot. I think that any professional has to have their leisure time respected and each person is responsible for what they do. I don’t think I’m right because I’m Christian, and that non-Christians are wrong. I live like this because it’s how I feel good. If I felt good going out, causing a mess, getting with everyone, then fine. It’s a lifestyle that I’ve chosen, and that’s that. There are some clubs where there are problems because of this, though.

As someone who is from São Paulo, where we have neighbourhoods like Liberdade [São Paulo has the largest Japanese immigrant community in the world, concentrated in Liberdade], we have direct contact with Japanese culture, do you think that helped you? It seems that you really liked Japan…

A lot. I went for the money, honestly. Then afterwards I started to identify with Japanese culture. I even brought up my daughters there. I have three. In their childhood they lived six and a half years in Japan, two years in Spain. I was out of the country for eight, almost nine years. 

Japan is really interesting. You see that, if you could mix cultures, how good it could make the world. It would be really cool. In Japan, unlike here, they have a business mindset. The human side of Japanese people… They have a state that is concerned with providing all the basic human necessities, and there is a lot of solidarity. They have earthquakes, seaquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, tsunamis, there’s everything. Because of this, when your house falls down, everyone is going to help you, because tomorrow, mine will fall down. It’s a country that deals well with this. I asked a Japanese person, “Are you not scared?” because I went through a lot of this stuff there, mainly earthquakes. I said, “Damn, aren’t you scared of the earthquakes?” And he said, “No.” I asked, “Why not?” Because when everything starts to shake the Japanese stay calm. All foreigners run and try to get out. The locals just stay put. I think it’s how they’re educated. If you’re going to die, it’s your time. If you’re going to die, you’re going to die. 

One of the Japanese players said to me that, “People say that in Brazil, when you stop at traffic lights, thieves come. And there are times when they kill you at the crossroads.” I looked at him and I was a bit embarrassed and I thought, “Yeah, each culture, each country, has its own problems.” [laughs] For me, the earthquakes were terrifying. For a Japanese person, traffic lights here are the same as an earthquake. 

Japanese people are quite radical when it comes to career plans. They choose one thing and say it’s going to be like this, this and this. It’s a country where you can’t externalise… You can’t cry, it’s rare to see a Japanese person crying. They drink a lot because the pressures are huge, from the time that they are in school. If there is someone who doesn’t do well at school it’s a shame on the surname. If you separate after marriage, you weren’t man enough to sustain your household. It’s something cultural. It’s different but it’s something that we end up understanding. I don’t think like that, but there are a lot of other things…

The wisdom of the elderly, the regard in which they hold older people, is really, really cool. There’s a saying, that goes more or less like this, “The experience of grey hair is not learned at university.” They say something like that. So, I learned a lot there, it’s a great country. They are a loyal people, too. After I started to learn to speak a bit of Japanese, they opened up a bit more. 

Here in Brazil you can make a friend quickly. You can go out there, say “Hey, how are you? Do you want to go and have a drink?” and you’re already mates. In Japan, for a guy to invite you to have dinner, it’ll take a year. They look at you, observe you. They see how you are, when you win, when you lose. They are more reserved people, a more reserved culture. But in the end I really identified with them. 

Do you speak Japanese well?

I can communicate. I was there in April [2017], it was the 25th birthday of a club that I played for, Sanfrecce in Hiroshima, and they called me over. The club was relegated to the second division and when they went down, they signed me and then we managed to get back up to the first division. I stayed a year and a half in Hiroshima. So, for the 25 years, they picked a player as a reference for each year and the year that I was there, they picked me. They paid homage. There were two days of celebrations and parties, it was really nice. 

I went with my wife. We went to Kashima, where I played, we went to Yokohama, we went around, went to the temples. It was just my wife and I, there were some things I didn’t understand but we didn’t miss any trains or any buses, we managed to get around OK there [laughs]. 

Now, I’m the president of a club in the interior of São Paulo state and we have a partnership with a high school in Japan. There were three players over there, but there’s just one now. It’s in Kumamoto, in the south of Japan. We send some players over there. The youth teams, up to under-20s, the school teams are really strong there. It’s similar to the American model. After that they have a draft and they go to the universities and end up choosing the best players. The schools are strong, there’s TV coverage.

What do you think of Tite’s national team and their chances in Russia?

From my point of view, Brazil possesses the best players in the world in terms of raw materials, in unpolished stones. And Tite has been able to make that transposition. Football is cyclical, it goes through phases and Brazil, today, has been able to put together a competitive team in the current model. The system, the profile of the players and the tactical involvement of the players, with and without the ball, is fundamentally important. In my era, if you had the technically better team, your chances of winning were greater than now. Today, if you have good players, you need to have them tactically organised and committed, they need to buy into the idea of the style of play. Tite has managed that. 

The best thing about the seleção now, speaking about South America, is that there isn’t a system built for one player to stand out. Obviously, Neymar is the difference-maker, but the seleção isn't set up for Neymar to play. I thought this was interesting about Tite. Most of the time, in most national teams, you adapt the system to someone’s needs. Now, Paulinho has his space, Daniel Alves, Renato Augusto, Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho. Other players have stood out because the system isn’t rigid or fixed. It gives you freedom. If you’re having a good day, if things are going right for you, you can play well in the Brazilian team now. He’s also freed them up in the final third. It’s a team that construct the play. Until around 70 or 80 metres, they play very simple. One, two touches, dribbles to create space, not backwards dribbles or dribbles to hold the ball, and then there is the improvisation in the final third, for the assist and the finish and it’s worked very well.