Sporting KC's Igor Juliao lauds MLS, says soccer in native Brazil "needs to start to change"
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The news conference started simply enough, with Igor Julião discussing his adjustment to the defensive demands of Sporting Kansas City's high press while still retaining his attacking creativity.
And then, it took a turn, with the young right back delivering a soft-spoken, matter-of-fact – but unflinching and sometimes scathing – critique of player development in his native Brazil, and saying the only country with five World Cup championships to its name could learn a few things from MLS, on and off the pitch.
“It needs to start to change in our country,” Julião said through a translator on Thursday, during the club's weekly news conference ahead of Friday's home matchup with the Philadelphia Union (8 pm ET; NBCSN, stream on NBCSports.com). “In our culture, the Brazilian players have a tendency of being a bit selfish and thinking they're big-time, and a little bit of hiding behind the five stars that we have on our jersey, and forgetting that there's a never-ending process of change in sport. Sport is adapting, and we have to adapt in the same way.
“So it's important for players to get out and experience and bring that back, but it's also very important for those changes to happen at a higher level, with the coaches and the presidents and the actual structure of the clubs,” he added. “They need to adapt to what the Europeans and the Americans are doing because that's clearly the way to go.”
That lesson got hammered home in this summer's World Cup, when Brazil got trounced 7-1 by eventual champion Germany in the semifinals and blanked 3-0 by the Netherlands in the third-place match.
“From a talent perspective, yes, we have some very talented players,” said the 19-year-old fullback, who joined Sporting this spring on loan from Brazilian side Fluminense and took over the starting spot when Chance Myers suffered a season-ending Achilles tear on May 23. “The problem is that talent only takes you so far, right? There have to be systems in place that take that talent and turn it into something actually productive.
“That's what I feel is missing in our country: the systems in place, the infrastructure, the knowledge, the ability to put all that together and transform that talent into something truly magnificent like we experienced with Germany in this last World Cup.”
He's found that structure and discipline with Sporting, Julião said.
“I'm getting to experience and feeling of being in an infrastructure which actually supports the athlete from top to bottom,” he said. “I've learned a lot about my body, too – things I haven't learned in the past in Brazil – just because of different techniques and assessments and technologies that we have available here in the US that they don't have there.
"So I've learned to look at myself a lot differently, and that's definitely going to help me in my development as I go on back to Brazil or to a different league. I feel like I've grown tremendously since I've been here.”
What if he doesn't have to leave right away, though? Sporting have an option to buy Julião when his loan term expires at the end of this season, although manager Peter Vermes said that situation remains up in the air.
“I really have no idea what'll transpire,” Vermes said earlier in Thursday's news conference. “That's a discussion that we'll have with Fluminense at the end of the season. There's a lot of interest in bringing him back.”
Julião said he's interested in staying – if the numbers can be worked out in a way that lets him take care of his family.
“I'm very happy here, and yeah, I can see a future here in the club,” he said. “The only thing is the fact that financially, I've been supporting my family since I was 14, 15 years old. We come from a very poor background, and my mom to this day doesn't work.
"So I've been the main financial backup of the family. If everything lines up from a financial perspective, yeah, I'd love to stay here. But the family's very important for me.”
One thing he appreciates about Sporting, Julião said, is the personal relationship he has not only with his teammates, but with the coaching staff as well.
“Peter has played a major role in my development while I've been here,” he said. “One big difference between the relationship of players and the club in Brazil is that because of the corruption and because of the money that's involved in the sport, there's a lot of dishonesty – a lot of hiding behind doors – and players are treated more as numbers and less like people.
“I feel that total difference here,” Julião went on. “It's very evident that the coaching staff is doing everything in their capacity to help him evolve, and I felt that connection right away. So for me, it's been a wonderful experience to be able to feel that honesty and just closeness to the staff that I didn't have in Brazil.”
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And those defensive adjustments? They'll come, Vermes said.
“He's 19 years old. I think he's doing a hell of a job,” he said. “He's got a lot of really good qualities. He comes from a place, which I think they just have pure natural talent.
"What sometimes Brazilian players lack is a bit of organization and discipline in their game, and understanding the shape of a team. And those are things, tactically, that he's becoming much better at. The great thing about him is that he has this appetite to want to be a good player. So he knows that's a piece of his game that he's got to get better at.”
And while he's doing that, Vermes said, Sporting's staff are taking pains not to blunt the instincts that – combined with the best foot skills on the team – make Julião such a threat when his side is on the attack.
“If you overwhelm a player with too much information, then you start to confuse him,” Vermes said. “Now, all of a sudden, they get off their game and start thinking too much, and they get away from their instincts, and now they have a big lull in their play.
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.