About a week before the 2014 World kicked off in Brazil, NUVO news editor Rebecca Townsend sat down with the one man in Indianapolis who actually knows what it feels like to win a World Cup.
José Kléberson Pereira, known professionally just as Kléberson (following in the Brazilian tradition of going by just one name), was part of Brazil's 2002 World Cup winning national team. He also played on Brazil's 2010 World Cup team in South Africa.
Over about an hour, we covered a lot of territory, including his reflections on the special style that makes Brazilian players famous, the World Cup experience and his thoughts on Indy Eleven's performance so far this year.
NUVO: What is your first memory of soccer?
Kléberson: Since I was a child, I had this dream of my father of becoming a futebol player. My father used to see the Italian championships and the national championships of Brazil. My first present was a futebol. And like every Brazilian guy's dream, my dream was to play futebol.
In the past, the television transmitted the Italian championships and I always watched the championship matches in the morning.
NUVO: When we look at the World Cup – I wonder what makes Brazilian futebol different? What gives it that special edge?
Kléberson: Well, I think there is not a specific thing. There is not a study that you can do to find out why Brazilians are the best. I think it is in Brazilian people's blood. The way Brazilian people play it, it looks like the happiness and joyfulness and relaxed approach of our people. Brazilian people have a high technique with futebol because since they are children they play futebol in the streets and on hard ground. This makes a difference when they go to play at the clubs.
NUVO: If you had a group of Brazilian players and Argentine players, but you didn't know who they were, would you be able to tell the difference in nationality by the way they played?
Kléberson: It's easy to tell one from another because the Brazilian player has more technique and the Argentine player is more blood. The Argentines are fighters and provocateurs. Not Brazilians. We play for fun and for joyfulness.
NUVO: You had a great youth career. How did you make the transition to the national team and how did that change your life?
Kléberson: The difference is to be prepared. When I was called to the national team, I was playing at my best. I was well prepared physically and psychologically. If you stopped to see, also it was a big merit of mine because I was able to stand out among very important players, players with big names like Roberto Carlos, Kafu, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Kaka was beginning to appear ...
The important factor in this case was that I was prepared. I was my best. I got to correspond with everyone's expectation.
It changed my life a lot because I became valued like the other players of the highest caliber. Before I was just a player who was representing my country (in the national team trials), but with few opportunities. And right after the [World Cup] championship, things changed completely.Today I am recognized worldwide in various locations.
NUVO: Was it hard to make the transition?
Kléberson: No, it was a marvelous thing. It was sensational. I have nothing to complain about.
NUVO: The first time you stepped on the field in a World Cup, how did you not pass out from excitement? What was it like?
Kléberson: I realized I was playing a World Cup in my first match when I was on bench against Turkey. That's when I first realized the importance of what the World Cup was. And then in the rest of the games, things went tranquilly. I had [head coach] Felipão's confidence and the other players' confidence. I was doing well in my work and training well to get this opportunity. It sounds funny because I was so young amongst those good players and I managed to be highlighted.I think what helped me is that I kept my head on straight and had the personality to play among those good players.
My mental preparation was that I was representing not only my country, but also a club that was evolving in Brazilian soccer, Atlético Paranaense, [from his home state of Paraná]. And also my dreams, a great opportunity to play and be a world champion. I was very relaxed and focused to represent my club, which was at that time Atlético Paranaense.
NUVO: Is there something special you do to get into "the zone?"
After asking this question, we realize that "the zone" does not really translate to Portuguese, but we make the best of it.
Kléberson: Well, I was never superstitious. I never thought, "I'm going to listen to music and it will go right." What I always consider is what people tell me. I remember in this World Cup, (former champion) Falcão came to talk to me. He told me I was going to play in the World Cup and that Brazilian would be the champions with me on the team. It was something that each time I went to play a game, I thought about what he told me constantly. Hearing this from a man of that caliber, it helped me a lot. He put a lot of confidence in me.
NUVO: What was it like to win the World Cup?
Kléberson: Wow! My gosh. People ask me this and it is something unexplainable. It is a moment that doesn't have ... when it was over, the referee blew the final whistle, you find yourself lost. You don't know if you run to the fans, if you run to your companions, you feel overwhelmed. That moment for a futebol player is the top. It's the place every player wants to reach and when you reach it, all that fighting and all that struggle to teach that moment and when you get there, it's something you're not prepared for. It's something nobody ... you want to be, but you don't know what can happen after. It was with no explanation, but it was a marvelous thing that I felt. I had this big pride of being a world champion.
NUVO: What did you do?
Kléberson: I remember I raised my arms and went after our Brazilian flag on the bench.
NUVO: To think just only one team can have this experience every four years. How many soccer teams are in this world? Millions? Just one team every four years. That's crazy!
Kléberson: It's something for few people. We can say there are players like the case Zico, one of the greatest players in the world Brazilian futebol, which did not have the opportunity to be a world champion. [Zico played in many World Cups, but not during the years when Brazil won.] It really is God's finger, a choice that God makes and things happen.
NUVO: Is there a lot of communication between former national team players to promote the sport in Brazil?
Kléberson: Each player who played on the national team has his own story. Some retire, some go to work in the clubs or other things. The coolest thing about it is the history because all of these players became part of futebol history.
NUVO: Do you have a Brazilian soccer hero? Is it Pelé or is it all the Brazilian heroes?
Kléberson: In Brazil, each time a new player appears that you like. For example, today it is Neymar. In my time, when I was beginning my career, I was inspired by Pelé, then after a time I became a fan of Zico. Then, at another time, I was inspired by Ronaldo. In Brazil, each time appears a surprise. It's difficult for me to say this player is the best. Each time, there is a better player.
NUVO: Who do you think will win the World Cup?
Kléberson: As every Brazilian guy, I am enthusiastic about Brazil. Brazil has a good team, has great stars. Brazil has everything to do a great competition and to be the world champion. We are on for Neymar to be the best player. At the end of the world championship, we can commemorate the long-awaited cup ... since the '50s. After we lost the World Cup in the '50s, we suffered and we are still suffering. [In 1950, when Brazil last hosted the World Cup, they lost in the final match to neighbor Uruguay; a defeat that still haunts the national consciousness.]
NUVO: I had assumed that Brazil will win, but then I heard a National Public Radio story exploring the question, "What if Brazil doesn't win?"
Kléberson: No one can count on it. We are not going to suffer in advance.
NUVO: Who will play in the final?
Kléberson: I don't know what to say to you, which one will reach the final. We know that the national team is preparing hard for the World Cup, but I'd like so much to have a final with Brazil and Argentina.
NUVO: But then Brazil really, really, really has to win.
Kléberson: I want Argentina because we can beat them and it will be special to the champions beating Argentina. There is nothing better.
NUVO: Are you familiar with any U.S. players' game? Do any of the players excite you?
Kléberson: I know some players on the team. For me, I have a special wishes for Tim Howard who I played with at Manchester United. We have a good friendship; I like him a lot. Also, I've been watching the U.S. selection ... and I am trying to figure out, like every American, why Landon Donovan was cut. But this was coach's decision and I feel positive about the U.S. team and hope they play well, as they played in Confederations Cup in 2009 when the U.S. played in the final against Brazil.
NUVO: Is the world laughing at U.S. soccer or are we ready to be taken seriously?
Kléberson: I think the U.S. has made a big evolution in futebol. Today you see American players playing in Europe and others coming back to play here. The U.S. selection has a good group, an excellent coach that is experienced that knows how to gather a good team. I think everything goes because of motivation. If the players are motivated and prepared, I think that the U.S. team can go further in this Cup because Americans are very hardworking and they know how to execute tactics, though they don't have what other countries have in technique. But they have a big tactical advantage.
NUVO: How are you getting along in the U.S.?
Kléberson: I arrived in the cold season. I don't know when the cold comes again ... [He laughs.]
NUVO: About Indy Eleven ... What did you make of what the team put together so far last season?
Kléberson: First, I, as all the Indy Eleven players, we are a bit sad because we have not won and have lost matches at home, but as a team we are showing some progress with new players and young players and others that came from other countries and still getting acclimated. I think this World Cup break will be a good thing for us to train and practice and have a better fall season.
Before we conclude our session, I pull out a magazine, "The 50 Greatest Players of all Time" and marvel at how many are Brazilian, three of them in the top 10. [Based on a formula involving matches played and goals scored, though several goalies also made the cut: Pelé, No. 1 on the list, had a ratio of 0.86 in the World Cup matches, meaning he scored in 12 of the 14 matches he played. The others Brazilians in the top 10 were Garrincha at No. 4; Ronaldo at No. 6; Romario at No. 13; Cafu at No. 16; Jairzinho at No. 20; Didi at No. 31; Vavá at No. 34.]
When we get to a picture of Cafu hoisting the World Cup trophy, it dawns on me: Kléberson was there that day! When I say this, he smiles. I ask what he remembers about Cafu.
Kléberson: It was a special time; unbelievable. He was a leader – not harsh, more lifting up everybody. In Brazil, after the coach talks in the locker room, you put on your jersey, everybody hugs and prays. After this, everyone begins to get excited and pump each other up.
I ask who his hero was growing up and he remarked that in 1994, when he faced one of his first tests as a player, he was watching Romario and thinking that to actually make it to a World Cup must be so hard.
But two World Cups later, I was there.
NUVO: In this WSJ Magazine interview with Brazil's current superstar, Neymar, he said that Brazilians "play with happiness, with emotion, and we have an expression—com o coração a ponta da chuteira," or playing "with the heart at the tip of the cleat." Is this true? Do you know this?
Kléberson: Yes. [He smiles.] This is true.
NUVO: About soccer in the U.S., what will it take for us to win a World Cup?
Kléberson: Soccer here ... the level is very different from basketball or baseball. But other people from different countries are coming ... it will progress.
Soccer is never dead. You can learn, learn, learn. It is different; it's hard.[
NUVO: So, you will go back to Brazil for the World Cup?
Kléberson: Yes, I'll watch the games in Brazil and stay with my family in Paraná.
I have my wife and two kids, a 10-year-old son and daughter of 6 years there. They stayed with me for a little while in Philadelphia, but they will live here with me.
NUVO: What are you hearing about the World Cup in Brazil? I know there have been protests.
Kléberson: It is a big event in Brazil. A lot of nice stadiums were built in different parts of Brazil. It's a little hard. It's a good country, but not a lot of money. Some people like the World Cup and some people don't like. I think the problem is not the World Cup. The problem is more the president and the government in Brazil.
NUVO: What was it like playing in Brazil? You once played for Flamengo, one of the most famous clubs in the country!
Kléberson: When I played Flamengo ... it's a nice life — every day, go to the beach and play soccer. It's always hot, a nice stadium, a lot of fans. When I'm in Brazil, I play in the morning and in the night – sometimes in my dreams. The kids in Brazil, it's soccer, soccer, soccer. Here, I drive, I don't see so many fields. In Brazil when you drive you see field, field, field, kids playing in the street. Here is a different level.
NUVO: Does the money associated with being a professional athlete ruin the pure joy or make things complicated in other ways?
Kléberson: When you're young, you're not thinking money. You are playing for status, you walk to the club, you get noticed. After that, you have a girlfriend, then a wife and kids, it's very different. You think, "I need money. I play 10-15 years ... when I stop, then what?"
NUVO: What will you do when you stop playing?
Kléberson: Soccer is my life. I'll never work in anything else. I like this. This is my passion. I like my life. God gave me this, I need to work. I need to play more and help Indy Eleven. Now I miss my family. I will come back a new Kleberson.