Friday 25 June 2021, 09:18

Catarino: Junior Negao and Michael Jordan changed my life

  • Catarino inspired Brazil to global glory in 2017

  • He’s eyeing team and individual accolades at Russia 2021

  • South American qualifying begins on Saturday

Diogo Catarino was inconsolable. He’d often sympathised with those suffering last-player-picked degradation. He was now agonising over unthinkably worse: his team had travelled one man short to a beach soccer tournament because they considered him worthless. Catarino was 20 years old. He had no career prospects. He resided in a drug-war-consumed, gunfire-rife Rio de Janeiro favela. What could possibly become of his life? It suddenly turned over a new page – literally and figuratively. A Michael Jordan book, indeed, as well as inspiration from beach soccer legend Junior Negao, transformed Catarino’s world. Now a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup™ winner and firmly established as one of the sport’s best performers, the 31-year-old chats candidly to about the aforementioned humiliation, Bahamas 2017 glory, Russia 2021 and his desire for an individual award, and wanting to use beach soccer to steer youngsters away from crime. Can you tell us about the difficult upbringing you had and how you got into beach soccer?

Catarino: There are two paths children from the favela they can take. There are opportunities, but it’s so easy for them to be led, get pressurised down the wrong path. I was very fortunate to have great parents who never let that even enter my head, but not everyone is. I have lost a number of friends to drugs and crime. That’s why I do my utmost to talk to the children and convince them to follow the right path. It’s something I’m very proud of, talking kids away from that life. I started playing on the beach when I was seven, eight. It wasn’t beach soccer as we know it, but I was practising on the beach. When I was 11, 12, I started playing football as well and started thinking about a career in it. It’s funny because my dad was the only man around who knew absolutely nothing about football. When people saw me playing for Vasco or the Seleção, they would always joke that he needed to take a paternity test! (laughs)

You almost gave up on a career in it, right?

When I was 19, Romario had just assumed control of America, they knew of my talent and made me an offer. Then I fractured my ankle and my big break disappeared. I was gutted. I was really down. I had no clue what I would do in life. I used to play 11-a-side football on the beach, with normal football rules, with Junior Negao. When he heard, he invited me to come and play beach soccer with him at Vasco. Junior Negao and Marcel are my father figures in beach soccer – they motivated me to not give up. However, 11-a-side football on the beach is totally different from beach soccer. It was really, really difficult for me. I was a defensive midfielder, my job was to mark. Everything I did was a foul, any type of contact. When I first went to Vasco there were 16 players. They took 15 to competitions. They could have taken 16, but they didn’t because I wasn’t an asset. I understood why they didn’t take me, but of course it hurt. Then one time the experienced players weren’t available and we only had 12 for a challenge on Copacabana Beach. I remember being excited but they excluded me and only took 11. I felt completely worthless. It destroyed me. I was sat in my bedroom in tears. That was it – I had had enough. But that night I picked up a book about Michael Jordan – Never Stop Trying by Bernardinho. He’d been in the same situation as I was in. He’d locked himself in his room, really upset, but instead of giving up he’d said, ‘I’m not going to let this happen to me again.’ That helped me a lot – a real lot. I said to myself, ‘Right, on Monday I’m going to be the first in to training and the last to leave. I’m going to do everything I can so that nobody will leave me out again.’ I dedicated myself to it thoroughly. I took inspiration from the Michael Jordan book, another by Bernardinho, Transforming Ssweat into Ggold, the Bible and Junior Negao, who was constantly motivating me, telling me I could do it. Every day we had training, I went down from the favela, passed Junior Negao’s house, collected the balls and the flags so that I was helping, and trained on my own for a good time until everyone else arrived. I did this intensively for around a year. A lot of people who see mey today have no idea of what I had to go through to get where I am. It took two years for me to play my first official competition for Vasco.

And by 2015 you were off to the Beach Soccer World Cup…

I didn’t play in the qualifiers or the Copa America. I was part of the squad for training for the World Cup. I didn’t think I’d make the final squad, but I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be 100 per cent prepared in case I do.’ I was cut from the final squad, but the first thing that I did was go and work out with my wife. Then I got a phone call. Someone had got injured. I tried not to get excited, to focus on football. Then at our first game, when I heard the Brazilian national anthem, that’s when it sunk in. It was emotional. I started thinking back to hearing the national anthem when I went to watch Junior Negao, Jorginho play on the Copacabana when I was a kid. Now here I was playing in the World Cup. It wasn’t the competition we hoped for, but for me personally it was true justification of everything I’d been through to become a beach football player. I was representing Brazil at a World Cup, representing the Chapéu Mangueira favela, and representing all the kids from the favela who have dreams. That made me feel extremely proud.

In 2017 you scored in every game, contributed eight goals overall, and helped Brazil win the competition for the first time in eight years…

As soon as the 2015 World Cup finished I was focusing on being the best I could possibly be in 2017. In 2015 I had just got into the Seleção. In 2017 I was established, I knew everyone. Before our debut – I remember this vividly, like it was yesterday – Junior Negao came into our dressing room and said, ‘Catarino, today you will have a day like Junior Negao.’ We were up against Tahiti, runners-up in 2015, and I told him I just wanted to win. But then I scored a bicycle-kick and a thumping volley and we won 4-1 from behind. After the game Junior Negao was screaming, ‘I told you so!’ It just kept getting better and better. I kept scoring and we won the title. I’m a defender and I finished as the tournament’s third-top scorer – it was a dream. The only thing I was a little sad about was not winning an individual award. Everybody was telling me – even opposition players – that I deserved one. The title was more important, but I’d had a spectacular World Cup and recognition would have been amazing.

Brazil were upset by Russia in the 2019 quarter-finals. How are preparations going for the South American qualifiers for Russia 2021?

2019 was a big disappointment. We were so good in the group stage. You can have excellent players, an outstanding coach, but that can happen. We’re obviously determined to regain the crown, but first we have to qualify. We’re without some big, Europe-based players, but Brazil has an enormous pool to select from. You can lose five and draft in another five of the same quality. Preparations are going really well. We have a great coach and we’re very confident.

How confident are you Brazil can win Russia 2021 and who do you think are your biggest rivals for the crown?

Every tournament I enter, for club or country, I’m always very confident. But right now I’m only thinking about the qualifiers. Portugal are on a superb run, they have a lot of quality, and Russia are really strong too.

Who’s the best player you’ve seen in your life and who’s the best player in the world right now?

It’s difficult to compare because every player has their own attributes, but for both I’m going to go with a player who has everything: Mauricinho. He’s tremendous. Do you think you’re the best player in the world in your position? Can I be really sincere? I believe so. Ozu is an unbelievable player. I had the honour of playing with him. He inspired me a lot. He worked so hard to become a defender who does everything. I train hard every day to do the same. To defend, to set up goals, to shoot with my right, with my left, to execute bicycle-kicks, to be unpredictable. Ozu has amazing ability, but he doesn’t play as an individual but gives everything for the team to win. He’s a phenomenal player and an excellent person. He deserves all the recognition he’s got and more.

Finally, what are your goals for 2021?

How long have you got? (laughs) I’m going to become a father for the first time – what a dream. I want to become a Libertadores and world champion with Vasco. I want to win the South American qualifiers and the World Cup. Helping the Seleção win the title is the most important thing, and I know players don’t say this, but I’m going to be honest: I’d love to win one of the individual awards at the World Cup. I train really hard, every day, thinking about this. I’d love to be able to show my child the Golden, Silver or Bronze Ball. And a big dream of mine is to launch a project to help kids from the favelas, to give them an opportunity to play beach soccer. I’ve already managed to take three youngsters to play with me in Portugal. As I said, I feel really grateful that I have the parents I have, that I had a person like Junior Negao in my life, and I’d love to be able to help other kids in the same way.