André Santos: from Figueirense to Arsenal

Thank you, André Santos, for sitting down with us.  Why don’t we start by discussing the beginning of your career. You are a youth product of Figueirense. Can you tell us about your time there and how you developed?

AS: Firstly, I thank you also for this opportunity. It is a pleasure to talk to you and I am very happy to do this interview. I began my career with Figueirense, a club in Florianopolis, Santa Catarina. I was born in São Paulo where I lived as a child. When I was 8, I went to Florianopolis where I joined the youth of Figueirense. I passed through all the youth teams, from the categorias da base to juniors. My first year as a pro was 2003. I played 31 games in the shirt of Figueirense that year. As a result, I received many proposals from Brazilian clubs the following year, nine in total. That was very nice. I left Figueirense for Flamengo, who offered me a contract for three years. At Flamengo there was a carousel of coaches who came and went. That was not ideal. Atletico Mineiro of Minas Gerais from the Serie B attracted me in 2006 and my time there gave me a lot of experience. I returned in 2007 for a year to Figueirense. It was also a return to my family and many friends. Figueirense had an excellent campaign in the Brazilian cup, reaching the final against Fluminense, but it was also the last season of Figueirense in the Brasileirao. Corinthians bought me in 2008 and I played together with big players such as Douglas, Christian, Elias and Ronaldo. I also worked with Mano Menezes, who is of course now coach of the Seleção. It was a great experience and a particularly important stage in my life, because I managed to write my name in the annals of Corinthians. My entire family is Paulista and supports Corinthians. It was a big dream to play for Corinthians and I realized my dream. I was very happy.

 It is clear that Corinthians was the club of your dreams…

AS: No doubt, Corinthians is the team of my heart. All my relatives  support Corinthians and I always follow their progress, but I also nurse a soft spot for Figueirense, the club that opened doors for me in Brazilian football. I am greatly indebted  to Figueirense. Figueirense was my break-trough, and Corinthians allowed me to grow and become a great player.  I will love these two clubs for the rest of my life. 

After Corinthians you then soon moved to Fenerbahce in 2009. You played together with Roberto Carlos there. How was it to play with a great idol of your left-back position, and what did you learn from him?

AS: Fenerbahce is a great club, with an incredible structure and amazing fans. I signed a four year deal, and stayed for two very successful seasons. In the first season Fenerbahce was competitive till the very end, in the second season Fenerbahce won the league. For me, it was a very good time. Fenerbahce had a number of great players in its ranks: Deivid, Christian, Diego Lugano and Roberto Carlos. I was a big fan of Roberto Carlos, and today he is a good friend of mine. We communicate and talk a lot via the phone. He is in Russia now, playing for Anzhi. Roberto Carlos has a great personality and is a great player, of whom I have learned a lot. He inspired me, for he played for the Seleção for a long time. At his side, I grew as a player and it was a true privilege to play with him. For six months we were able to play together at Fenerbahce and he scored three goals. That was pretty cool! After that he returned to Corinthians, where he played at my position.  It was an incredible experience. Fenerbahce offered me a very professional working environment. I feel I have written a little bit of history at Fenerbahce. 

There was a special moment in a UEFA Cup game against Steaua Bucharest when you scored a remarkable goal, wasn’t there?

AS: Yes, it was a great game against Steaua Bucharest and I scored a beautiful goal. It was a moment of joy… a special moment to score alongside Roberto Carlos and to receive his affection with a hug. A very special moment in my life! A unique memory.

Undoubtedly you had a great time at Fenerbache, but unfortunately there was the infamous match-fixing scandal. Was this the spark to go and look for another club?

AS: The impact of the scandal at the club was enormous. I played two seasons at Fenerbahce and Turkey is a risky country. In all honesty I don’t know exactly what happened. On the field Fenerbahce won with dedication and commitment from each and every player.  We won the title on the field, but there was unsavory business off the pitch and at the board level, of which the players were unaware. But the group of players gave it their all to capture a spot, entitling us to play Champions League. What precisely happened is unclear and I can’t explain it, but it was a motive to leave Fenerbahce.

It has always been my dream to come to Europe, and to play in the Champions League with a big club. Fenerbahce is a big club of course. It was after winning the title that UEFA communicated that Fenerbahce were barred from participating in the Champions League. It was very disappointing as a player to be that close, only to then be far away again. I consulted  my agent for a solution and  searched for a new club. The Champions League is an important goal in my career, especially with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in mind. It is a window where you can be noticed.

Very soon you received a phone call from Arsène Wenger…

AS: Arsenal first contacted my agent, Carlos Leite, who has been my agent for more than three years. He spoke about interest from Arsène Wenger, because during the friendly match with Scotland [Brazil-Scotland 2-0, 27 March 2011]  at the Emirates  I had played very well. Wenger watched me and at the moment that I heard about the interest, I wanted to do the move. The discussions and negotiations began. Arsenal were at a difficult time and it would be a good opportunity for me. Carlos Leite advised me and said that Arsène Wenger wished to get in touch to talk to me. It was very pleasing that a great manager with his qualities wanted to bring me to his club. Arsenal is a big club with a rich history. When he called, I saw an English prefix on the phone. He spoke English, I only knew a few words and my English was flawed, but the conversation still went smoothly. He understood what I said and stressed that playing for Arsenal would be an enrichment. I wanted to help and the next day I was already on the plane for the contract negotiations and medical tests.

Arsenal is indeed one of the biggest clubs in the world, but at the time that you joined Arsenal was in troubled times, with Nasri and Fabregas having left the club, a lot of players injured and North London still reeling from the humiliating 8-2 defeat against Manchester United. How did all this impact the move?

AS: I came to Arsenal to change this! To show that Arsenal had the ability to climb in the rankings. Arsenal were ranked seventeenth [in the Premier League table] when I arrived. Yes, Arsenal lost great players – Nasri to Man City and Fabregas to Barcelona – and suffered an unprecedented defeat – the worst in its history against Manchester United. It was a very bad week for Arsenal. Therefore Arsenal contracted Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Park and Yossi Benayoun – players  with experience to cover the departures of  key players and also to fill in for the many injured players. The new players were well received and formed a group that wanted to win. This gave the group more maturity and more urgency to win. The victories came, Arsenal climbed up the table and we finished in third place. Given the poor start, the many problems and the tough season, third place is a victory for Arsenal.

This summer brings a new set of stories about Arsenal. There is speculation that Robin van Persie might leave. The club has recently bought Lukas Podolski. How will you approach next season? The expectation of the fans is always high. Which targets should Arsenal set itself?

AS: Arsenal is definitely a great club, one of the best in the world, and appeals to fans. We have got to think about winning titles: English champions, European champions. Those are certainly the objectives for next season. Arsenal must think big. Therefore, Podolski was bought and only players with the qualifications required are recruited to strengthen the team. That way preparations for next season will be good. Van Persie has an excellent campaign behind him. I do not know what his situation at the club is now – whether he stays or not. He loves the club and is already eight years at the club and his season was really incredible. Arsenal will definitely talk to him and do everything to keep him at the club so he can help us next season. At this time I hope he makes the choice that is best for his career and his life. But no doubt that our players want Van Persie to remain.

When you came to Arsenal, you were relatively unknown in the Premier League. Arsène Wenger described you as player who has to the quality to defend but also to go forward and help in attack. How would you describe your own qualities?

AS: Arsène Wenger has described my qualities well, which obviously led him to contract me. In Brazil, we have laterais, and they attack a lot. In Brazil, you always attack. In Europe it’s the opposite: you can not attack. It is therefore difficult for a Brazilian player [in my position], when he travels to Europe to adapt himself to this mentality. He can not attack, but has to defend. But thanks to my time at Fenerbahce, I learned enough in terms of defensive work and positional play. The Premier League is obviously one of the best leagues in the world. The defense is an important part of it and I have learned a lot this season. It is certainly true that I am technically skilful and rather quick. Today I learn how to mark and support the attack when going forward, but next season I hope to make progress for Arsenal so I can become a regular starter. 

A question every newcomer to the Premier League gets: what about the physical nature of English football? In the Manchester City game you put Balotelli in his place as a reprisal for his bad tackle on Alex Song. It is a sign that you deal very well with the physicality.

AS: Certainly. English football is fast and strong and luckily I have been able to adapt quickly. Big games are always difficult. So that was also the case against Manchester City, who are led by an excellent coach [Roberto Mancini] and have a quality squad. It was a game with a lot at stake. Balotelli is a player with class, but at times he goes over the top a bit. During the first half, I was sitting on the bench and I watched Balotelli tackle hard on Alex Song and Barcary Sagna. That was not to my taste and in the second half it was my job to cover Balotelli. I contained him. He is not the best player in the world. He’s a little bit searching, like all other players. Messi, that’s the best player in the world. Then Cristiano Ronaldo. Then the rest. 

It soon became apparent that you were an asset for Arsenal and you scored the equalizer in that spectacular 3-5 away victory to Chelsea. Was it a turning moment for Arsenal this season?

AS: It was important for the club, the players and for myself. Winning a classico is a moral boost and you go into the next game on a high. An away win to Chelsea makes you proud and gives confidence. My goal helped the team and it was good for my confidence. Arsenal began winning matches and started to climb up the table. The victory over Chelsea ensured that Arsenal played well again and at high level.

Robin van Persie scored a hat-trick in that game against Chelsea. What impresses you most about him?

AS: Robin is an excellent player and striker. He is one of few world class strikers today. He has definitely proven that this season. He is fantastic, both on and off the field. He helps our team a lot and I think he can play for any club in the world.

The season continued and unfortunately against Olympiacos in the Champions League ligament damage to your right knee required surgery. It was a big set-back. What is worst about recovering from injury – the loneliness that you undoubtedly experienced at times or the incertitude over coming back to full fitness again?

AS: These are actually two questions. It is never good for a player to get injured. At the age of 28 this was my first serious injury. Before that I had fortunately never suffered an injury. It was hard because I had a dream to play big games in the Champions League and the Premier League and that was what I did until my injury. My surgery meant I had to recover for three months. There was no guarantee that my ankle would fully recover. There was always doubt. You feel alone and lost, but my family, friends, doctors and Arsenal supported me. I underwent surgery in Brazil and the doctors gave me confidence. The treatment went well. I am very grateful to Arsenal for their affection and good care. But it is always difficult when you’re a bit isolated: you do not know whether you will fully recover and the progression that you’ve made on the field is hindered. I was doing well at Arsenal and made progress, but the injury has been an obstacle. I am fully recovered and feel 100% fit now, both physically and technically. I want a good preparation for next season to make up for the lost time.

The injury aside, how do you reflect upon your first season with the Gunners?

AS: It was a good season. The adaptation went smoothly. After all, for me England was yet again another country, another language and another league. Arsenal has no other Brazilians in the team. So it’s not so easy to quickly adapt. Without my injury I would have played more often. What I have not been able to show this season, I can still show next season. Arsenal will definitely give me that opportunity and André Santos will show what he has got in his stride.

You emphasize progress and improvement. The Champions League is a big window to show  yourself as a player. Do you consider Arsenal to be a stepping stone to realize your dream of playing at the 2014 World Cup?

AS: As of my arrival at Arsenal, I have had a few targets in my mind: to be English champions and win titles. To make the supporters, who steer us forward and always  fill the stadium, happy. Ensure that Arsenal get back to where they belong: at the top. And yes, the World Cup is also part of my ambition.

15 June 2009 is definitely a day etched into your memory!

AS: Playing for your country and pulling on the yellow shirt  – those are intense emotions! But it is also a recognition of your hard work. I was very happy with my debut and I have kept that feeling until today: every time I pull on the shirt of Brazil it is like making my debut again. I am extremely grateful to everyone who has given me opportunities with the Seleção: Dunga and Jorginho, Mano Menezes and Sidnei [Lobo, assistant to Mano Menezes]. They are great moments and memories, and I’ll keep working at Arsenal to make my return to the Seleção as soon as possible. That’s always my goal – to play for the Seleção.

Winning the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup was your first taste of international success with Brazil, but unfortunately Dunga omitted you from the squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Is it true that Dunga didn’t select you because you missed a bus in La Paz during the qualifiers?

AS: I don’t not know if it’s true. Under Dunga, indeed, I won the Confederation Cup. A World Cup qualifier against Bolivia in La Paz followed. Brazil stayed in a very big hotel and the team arrived along the main entrance of the hotel. On the day of the flight many people came down at the same time and I left my room. The fact is I did miss the bus.  I thought the team would leave the hotel through the main entrance, the same one we had arrived at, but all the players had left the hotel through the side entrance. I never received a reason from Dunga as to why I was not selected for the World Cup. It was sad for me and I always want to play in a World Cup. I don’t know the motive as to why I was not in the squad. But I’m not a vindictive person:  it happened and Dunga decided not to include me in the World Cup squad . In any case, I remain grateful to Dunga for giving me my Brazil debut, and as mentioned I won the Confederations Cup with him. You must ask Dunga why I didn’t go to South Africa.

Dunga and current Brazil coach Mano Menezes seem to have rather different personalities. Mano is calm, relaxed and goes in a natural way about his things. Dunga was strict, and some say perhaps so strict it backfired in the World Cup. Was it from your point of view not a bit ironic that the Netherlands, through Arjen Robben, exposed the left-back position of Brazil with Michel Bastos and Felipe Melo? You were not there, but Holland found it easy to expose this weakness in Brazil’s team.

AS: It’s hard to talk about this issue. Every coach has his own style. Dunga had his own way of working and I liked his method. He is a closed and withdrawn person, but that being said, he is excellent in dealing with players: very calm and open. Mano is calmer and relaxed. He has a better relationship with the fans and the media. He is open and communicates better. This shows that each trainer has his own character, but I respect both Dunga and Mano. They are both winners. The players respect these coaches. I couldn’t go to the World Cup in South Africa, but I repeat that I remain grateful for Dunga for giving me a chance with the Seleção. It is true that I have a better relationship with Mano Menezes, but that’s logical because I worked at Corinthians with Mano and won titles for two years with him. I played many matches under him at Corinthians and know him very well. Ultimately, Dunga and Mano are two excellent coaches, but both have their own methods. 

After the World Cup Mano recalled you to the Seleção and you represented Brazil at the Copa America and in numerous friendlies, but against Germany it was your error that led to Germany’s third goal, which proved to be the winning goal [Germany v Brazil, 10 August 2011, 3-2]. Since then Mano has left you out of the team. Do you feel that is a little bit hard on you?

AS: Most players were returning from holidays and I too was missing match sharpness at the time. Mano had called me up to gain confidence and I played well in the Copa America and also in some friendly matches. Mano always called me up. It was perhaps not the best option at that time, but I started in the team against Germany and blundered. Actually I committed a defensive error. I’m not sure that is the reason why Mano hasn’t called me up since, but I have also moved from Fenerbahce to Arsenal. I do not think Mano with his affection and friendship imposed this as a punishment. You have to earn your place in the Seleção. By playing well at Arsenal I will certainly get another chance  to show what I can do in the yellow shirt.

Mano told me last month that Marcelo from Real is currently the better player for the left-back position. You want to shine in the yellow shirt, but how will you convince Mano from now on that you are his left-back?

AS: If Mano has said that, he has so deliberately. He is open, knows  a lot about football and follows the game closely. Marcelo had a great season at Real Madrid. He was always in the starting line-up. Mano prefers  Marcelo because he is currently better. If I want Mano to call me up again, I need to be a regular at Arsenal and show Mano that I have the qualities to return to the Brazil side. By playing well next season, I can make that happen. Mano will observe me and recall me. I have no doubt about it.

Is part of it an issue that no Brazilian left-back has been able to step out of the footmarks of Roberto Carlos? In that sense Ney Franco [Brazil U-20 manager] recently voiced his concern at the fact that Brazil are not producing enough quality full-backs.

AS: The positions of Roberto Carlos and Cafu were unquestionable. There were no real substitutes for them. They came to Europe early on and both had glorious careers with Brazil. Now all full-backs are compared with Roberto Carlos and Cafu and that is very difficult for these players. Today Brazil doesn’t produce a lot of  laterais. Every child, whichever you ask, wants to be Neymar, Ronaldinho or Ronaldo, not a left-back. And that is a part of the problem, and when you are finally called up for the Seleção the first question you get is whether you will be the next Roberto Carlos or Cafu. This pressure is not fair, because Roberto Carlos and Cafu were unique. That comparison should not be made so that new players can develop and wear the number 2 or 6 at the Seleçao.

Allow me to pull on the shirt of a Brazilian journalist. Back in 2003 when you played at Figueirense Pelé said that you were the next Roberto Carlos.  You don’t like to be compared with him, but do you think that at this stage in your career  you are close to fulfilling Pelé’s prophecy?

AS: I am glad to hear that, because I didn’t know that Pele said so. I do not know him personally, but Ronaldo has told me that he is a great man. He is an  icon and I am delighted with his words. Today I hope to return to the Brazil side and to seize my chance there. I have more experience today: I moved from Fenerbahce to Arsenal,  I played against the world’s best players in the best league in the world, the Premier League. I may not be a new Roberto Carlos, but I want to show people that there are other players with qualities as good or even better than his. 

You are definitely André Santos and the comparison with Roberto Carlos shouldn’t be made. You have had a great career so far and perhaps the 2014 FIFA World Cup is awaiting you, but that is a question for the future. Perhaps there is an even bigger question for the future: will Arthur be as good as a left-back as his father?

AS: It’s my dream to play at the 2014 World Cup and be Brazil’s left-back. As I said earlier, every left-back who makes his debut for Brazil is compared to Roberto Carlos, but each player is also aware that at the same time he must leave Roberto Carlos behind him and make him disappear, and that’s good. A certain part of the press doesn’t understand this. Hopefully my son Arthur will be much better than his dad. He will not be like his father, but much better. Within a few years  I will know if Arthur will play football. I hope to return to the Seleção and for Arthur to grow up healthy, whether he turns out to be a football player or not.

Radio Scorpio would like to thank André Santos for taking the time to talk to us, and wish him the best of luck next season and thereafter.

Note: this interview is also available at The Elastico website.