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"I want to stay in Korea for two more years" - Nilson Junior

My much-anticipated interview with Nilson Júnior didn't quite go as planned but I still got to hear about his footballing heroes, the best stadiums in Korea, his desire to stay in football after retirement, and the day he faced Ronaldo.

Nilson Júnior was over 30 minutes late when he threw open the door at Bucheon's Media Centre last week. He was wearing bright orange shorts and a matching t-shirt, with the Portuguese translator following closely behind. There was no frustration on my part (I was thrilled for the opportunity to sit down with a K League stalwart), but he defused any hint of lingering tension immediately.

"I am so, so sorry." This was followed by a story about his car.

It is difficult not to like this man. This was our second meeting, but first away from the pressure of the post-match mixed zone. My work commitments could have scuppered any chance of an interview, as Nilson had finished his morning session hours before I arrived. He agreed to return to Bucheon Stadium for an interview in a language he freely admits is difficult. He didn't have to, but he did!


Our 25-minute interview took nearly two hours to complete due to language, technology, and communication issues. When it was all over, we sat in the Media Centre watching pre-HD quality YouTube videos of Nilson sharing the same blades of grass as legends of the game. These were the types of memories I wanted Nilson to share.

Heroes of the Seleção

Nilson Ricardo da Silva Júnior was born in March 1989. Imagine, for a second, you grew up in Brazil as a football fan around the same time. By the time Nilson Júnior turned 20, this was what Brazil had won.

World Cup: Winners in 1994 (USA) and 2002 (South Korea & Japan), Beaten finalists in 1998 (France).
Copa America: Winners in 1989 (Brazil), 1997, 1999, 2004, and 2007. Beaten finalists in 1991 and 1995.

The legendary striker Ronaldo was back in Brazil, and a 17-year-old Neymar Júnior was beginning a journey that would later see him become the most expensive player in history. Other well-known players were plying their trade in Brazil's Série A, including Andrés D'Alessandro, Adriano, and Vanderlei Luxemburgo in the dugout.

Nilson turned five shortly before USA '94. "I don't have a lot of memories from this moment (USA '94 and before) because I was so young, but my family always talked about Pelé, Romário, and Bebeto. I used these players as an example for me." Bebeto starred for Brazil in the final, and he will play in a Legends game in Goyang next month.

By the time South Korea/Japan rolled around, Nilson was a teenager and knew he wanted to forge a career in the game. "Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, and Cafu were my heroes of 2002. That World Cup was very memorable, so we all woke up very early to watch the games, and after that moment, we kept doing the same thing. Those players are very, very legendary in Brazil."

Náutico and family feuds

Nilson's first professional contract was with local club Náutico, then in Série A, despite his family supporting their biggest rivals, Sport Club do Recife. He was 18, but according to Nilson, his family begged him not to sign the contract with Náutico, but that club "will always be in my heart." Nilson spent five years at Náutico, wearing the number 3 or 5.

Later on, Nilson confirmed that most of his family and friends wanted to play professional football, but he felt proud and privileged to represent the people closest in his life, and this, more than anything, drove him to train hard and play well. The rewards for his endeavors came during his initial seasons when some of the sport's biggest names lined up opposite Nilson.

Making his debut in 2009, Nilson shared the pitch "with players I only saw in video games, like Adriano, Ronaldo, and Leo Moura. Adriano was with Flamengo, and Ronaldo was with Corinthians." In one meeting against Ronaldo and Corinthians, "Ronaldo scored a goal, but I couldn't change jersey with him. I provided an assist for my team, so I was happy."

By this point, we were on to our third interpreter, the wife of a current K League 1 player. The easy thing to do as late afternoon approached was to cancel the meeting and say goodbye. But we plowed on even if some questions were not translated as I had hoped. Still, it was a joy to learn more about his apprenticeship in the world's most celebrated football culture.

Náutica slipped into Série B shortly after and then suffered further relegation to the third tier. Recife, one of the biggest cities in Brazil, is currently without a Série A club. The current situation makes Nilson "sad" especially as Sport, Nautico's main rivals, are in the division above. The Estádio dos Aflitos, where Nilson would cycle to as a trainee, is a long way from continental powerhouses Fluminense, Flamengo, and Corinthians now.

Busan: Korea's Recife

In 2013, one year before Brazil hosted the FIFA World Cup (and Recife received its shiny new stadium), Nilson decided to leave his home and travel to the other side of the world. His first stop was a short one, in Japan, but by 2014, he was now settled in K League 1's Busan I-Park. "Like Recife," he says, laughing. You can see why Busan would appeal to Nilson (and most footballers).

Bucheon is grey, overpopulated, and hectic. There are no beaches or world-famous bridges. But he loves the city because of its proximity to Seoul, Incheon, and Suwon. "There are more things to do, and I have more opportunities to travel," he believes. Another aspect of life in Korea as a professional footballer from Brazil is the sheer number of his compatriates here. "I try to meet all the Brazilians before or after games." Nilson is a mentor to fellow Brazilians, as well as his Korean teammates.

Perhaps because of the presence of Bucheon staff in the room, Nilson nominated Bucheon Stadium as the best ground in Korea. Bucheon Stadium is perfectly fine, if far too big, but it probably wouldn't top too many lists. When pushed further, Nilson said Daejeon World Cup and Sangam, home of FC Seoul, were the best of the rest. "They have lovely structures."

Bucheon, he continued, "has more supporters close to the field." K League 2 stadiums, mostly, are government-owned with a running track and limited roof coverage. For some fans, the feeling of being far from the pitch is unappealing, so Bucheon has installed temporary seating on two sides. These stadiums are better, he opined, than the World Cup megastructures because the 2002-era grounds are just too big.

Away from Bucheon, Nilson says, "Anyang, Busan, and Gyeongnam have the most passionate fans." These stadiums have "a lot of fans who like Nilson," added the interpreter, just for extra clarity. 

Coach Nilson?

It seems unthinkable that Nilson would walk away from football when his career ends. There are or have been, foreign coaches and managers in this country, and the next generation of defenders in Bucheon would surely benefit from his know-how and experience, but retirement is far from his thinking just yet. 

"When I finish my career, I want to stay in football. But I haven't decided if that's as coach or trainer but at this moment I don't want to think about retirement." Nilson confirmed he'd like to stay in Korea for two more years but, as of now, there's been no contact with Bucheon FC about a contract extension.

Perhaps one of Korean football's great characters will get his wish to finish his career in this country, before guiding the next generation of centre-backs and sweepers. Football will be a worse place without him, but thankfully he still has a couple more years in him. 

FNR

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