Alex: the magical Brazilian who became one of Turkish football’s greatest imports

Alex: the magical Brazilian who became one of Turkish football’s greatest imports

IN YOĞURTÇU PARK IN THE KADIKÖY DISTRICT OF ISTANBUL, across the road from Fenerbahçe’s Şükrü Saracoğlu stadium, the amassed crowd begin chanting. The date is 15 September 2012 and a small ceremony has been arranged for the unveiling of a new statue, with a throng of media and supporters present.

Alexsandro de Souza, the man immortalised in bronze, is there too; the small, shaven head figure fighting against his tears as he delivers a small speech. Unusually the player is still actively playing and is not a local, instead hailing from the Brazilian city of Curitiba, some 11,000 km away. “I don’t know how I became an idol for the Turks. I didn’t do anything different from what I did in Brazil. I dedicated myself to the team but didn’t do anything extraordinary for a statue to be commissioned. I was just playing football and fulfilling my duties as well as I could.”

Born in the Paranaense capital on 14 September 1977, Alex burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old for Coritiba in 1995, debuting in Série B and helping his hometown club win promotion in his first season. Following another promising campaign in the Brasileirão, helping his side finish above the likes of traditional giants Fluminense and Santos, he was sold in 1997 to Palmeiras.

Alex starred as the side went on to win their maiden Copa Libertadores in 1999, knocking out fierce rivals Corinthians in the quarter-finals. In the semi-final second leg against River Plate he recorded a brace, whilst also registering an assist in the first leg of the final against Colombian side Deportivo Cali. The following year Alex scored in both semis as Corinthians were again disposed of, although unfortunately the holders lost on penalties to Boca Juniors.

A series of short stints then befell Alex, with 10 appearances on loan at Flamengo followed by a permanent switch to Cruzeiro. After an impressive start in Belo Horizonte, in 2001 Alex made the long overdue move to Europe, aged 24. His transfer to Italian side Parma was another brief stay, due to a disagreement with coach Cesare Prandelli. Without making a competitive appearance in Italy, he returned to Cruzeiro.

Instantly made captain, in 2003 he led his troops to a domestic treble of Brasileirão, Copa do Brasil and Mineiro State Championship. Alex scored an exquisite back-heel in the Copa final against Flamengo as Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s side broke the records for Brasileirão points (100) and goals scored (102). “He was head and shoulders above the rest,” said Brazilian football expert Tim Vickery of Alex in that side, “like a chess master who could see what was going to happen five moves ahead.”

With a low centre of gravity, supreme close control and dead ball expertise, Alex had the ability to play as a number 10, further up the pitch as second striker, or on the left flank. Regardless of the specific role on paper, he often drifted as a trequartista, using his unmatched vision for a pass to yield maximum reward as opposed to blistering pace and power.

Having been awarded the Bola de Ouro for the league’s best player, Alex was appointed Brazil captain for the 2004 Copa América. The Seleçao won the tournament in Peru, with Alex starring in the semi-final against Uruguay, both setting Luís Fabiano free to cross to Adriano for Brazil’s equaliser and scoring the winning spot-kick in the shoot-out.

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At the age of 26, it seemed as if time was running out on a move back to Europe though, and following the tournament, Alex linked up with Turkish champions Fenerbahçe for the fee of £5 million.

In his first season with Fenerbahçe, he helped the club retain the Süper Lig title as well as reach the Turkish Cup final, although they lost heavily to Galatasaray. Scoring in just his third match against İstanbulspor, he went on to record 24 goals in a highly promising debut season. A league-best 16 assists also won the Asist Kral title, and at the end of the year he picked up the inaugural Milliyet Footballer of the Year award.

The following season yielded runners-up spots in both the league and cup, the latter of which Alex scored in the final. He either scored or assisted a remarkable 47 goals in 43 appearances that season, comfortably retaining his Asist Kral crown with 26. This record of having a hand in more than a goal per game was not sufficient enough, however, to earn a call-up to Carlos Alberto Parreira’s squad for the World Cup in Germany.

Unlike today, with players such as Oscar, Renato Augusto and Diego Tardelli still involved with the Seleção despite playing in the arguably weaker Chinese Super League, Alex’s move to Turkey could be viewed to have cost him his rightful place in the Brazilian side. Of his 49 caps, only five of these came following his move to Fener, with a final cap in October 2005.

Admittedly competition for places was high in 2006, with the mercurial Ronaldinho augmented by Kaká, Juninho Pernambucano and Roberto, but a case can more than be put forward for Alex’s impressive numbers. This argument becomes even stronger considering the relatively unknown Brazil-based duo of Mineiro and Ricardinho, a childhood friend of Alex, were chosen above the Fenerbahçe man in the final squad.

Unmoved by this situation, at least publicly, he argues that he was never wronged by Brazil, content with close to half a century of caps and two Copa América titles. Ever humble, a quality that has endeared him to not just Fenerbahçe fans but the Turkish nation as a whole, in 2016 he stated to,I just happened to be overlooked by the respective coaches whenever the time came to play a World Cup. But that’s normal, it’s a football thing.”

Despite losing his Asist Kral crown in 2006/07 to Trabzonspor’s Gökdeniz, Alex instead finished top scorer as Fenerbahçe ended nine points ahead of Beşiktaş, meaning a second title in three years. In October, his second child was born, with the Brazilian present at the 4:30am birth before scoring twice that evening in a 4-1 victory over Kayserispor. There was also a memorable 84th-minute winner against Galatasaray in the cup, as a free-kick from the edge of the area wrong-footed Aykut Erçetin and sent Fener through.

Following the departures of Ümit Özat to Köln, Tuncay Şanlı to Middlesbrough, and Rüştü’s transfer to Beşiktaş in the summer of 2007, Alex became captain of Fenerbahçe. Only the second non-Turkish player in club history to hold the honour after Toni Schumacher and the first from outside Europe, in his first season he spearheaded Fenerbahçe’s charge to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

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Their best ever performance in Europe’s elite competition started with Belgian champions Anderlecht being easily dealt with in the qualifiers, with Alex scoring in both legs. Drawn in a group alongside Inter Milan, CSKA Moscow and PSV, Alex set about ensuring Fenerbahçe reached the knockout stages for the first time in their history. Starting at home to Inter, he got the assist in a 1-0 win before scoring in the 2-2 draw in Moscow, assisting Şemih Sentürk in the 2-0 against PSV, and both scoring and assisting in the 3-1 victory over CSKA.

Advancing as group G runners-up with a Turkish record of 11 points, Fenerbahçe were paired against Sevilla in the round of 16, edging through on penalties after a 5-5 aggregate score, with Alex registering three assists across the two matches. In the quarter-finals they narrowly succumbed to eventual runners-up Chelsea. Despite exiting at this stage, Alex’s six assists still meant he ended the competition as the leading goal source.

Domestically he also finished as top assister to regain his Asist Kral crown, although the next few years were to be less successful domestically for the club. A runner-up placed finish that season was followed by fourth the following year, a major disappointment considering the fanfare surrounding Luis Aragonés’ arrival having won Euro 2008 with Spain.

Another second place in 2009/10 meant, bar the 2009 Super Cup, Fenerbahçe were now without a trophy in three seasons. On a personal level, though, Alex was no less consistent, scoring twice in a 3-1 home win over Galatasaray in October 2009 and still reaching double figures in both goals and assists during those three barren years.

Club fortunes changed in 2010/11, with new coach Aykut Kocaman giving the now 33-year-old Alex licence to roam. As unlike many players in his position Alex relied on cunning and not speed, he did not endure a drop in standards. A highest Süper Lig return of 28 goals, including an 87th-minute winner at Galatasaray, a 23-minute hat-trick against Bucaspor, and five goals in a 6-0 rout of Ankaragücü, secured his third league title. His fantastic start to the season ensured a second Turkish Footballer of the Year award for 2010, although the season ended under a cloud of corruption allegations for the club.

The evergreen Alex continued to excel the following season, managing 17 goals, including the fourth and final one in the Turkish Cup final victory over Bursaspor, a game in which he was named man of the match. Arguably the moment of the season was a wonder goal in the 2-2 draw with Galatasaray. Bringing the ball down with one touch, he fired an unstoppable drive past Fernando Muslera and into the Uruguayan’s top corner from 30 yards out.

Another fine goal against Gala in the 2012 Super Cup loss kicked off what was to be Alex’s final season in Turkey. Approaching his 35th birthday, the hard truth was the romantic fairy-tale was drawing to a close. Just how it ended, though, is extremely sad.

Going into the season, it appeared as if the diminutive playmaker was due to continue his career at Fenerbahçe, with Alex planning to extend his contract and retire in Turkey. On 136 Süper Lig goals, in his sights was the figure of 140, the highest number scored by a single player in Fenerbahçe history. The holder of the record was none other than his own manager.

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Not denying his professionalism, one has to question the motives of Kocaman. Coming into this season off the back of another stellar scoring campaign, confusingly Kocaman made it clear Alex would be used sparingly due to his age. Trouble began prior to the season even kicking off, with Alex omitted from the starting line-up to face Spartak Moscow in the Champions League qualifiers and matchday squad against Gaziantepspor.

In response, he hit out on Twitter – admittedly not the best response – questioning his manager and accusing him of being jealous of having his record surpassed. In defence of Kocaman, one could argue that the Brazilian was a player known for his lack of defensive contribution and perhaps he was looking to change the style of play, but to suddenly dump an icon of the terraces seems illogical, especially given he was still one of Fenerbahçe’s most talented individuals.

The vast majority of fans sided with their number 10, chanting against Kocaman during the opening Europa League group match against Marseille and calling for him to be sacked. Alex was involved in this match, scoring his last goal for the club in the process. A further problem arose when the Brazilian was substituted in a 2-0 league loss to Kasımpaşa on 29 September. Rather than going to sit next to his manager on the bench, Alex chose to sit away from him in the stands.

The situation was unsustainable and, just two days later, on the morning of 1 October 2012, Fenerbahçe announced Alex would no longer be involved with first-team affairs. Instead, their iconic number 10 would train indefinitely with the reserves. That same morning the Brazilian drove to the training ground and terminated his association with the club. “I have ended my contract, it was the saddest signature of my life,” Fenerbahçe’s longest-serving non-Turkish player wrote later that day on Twitter.

Alex went on to add: “Fenerbahçe has lost a player but it has won a supporter, thanks for everything.” In response, throngs of Fener fans made their way to his house. He was one of them. Protests were held against Kocaman and Aziz Yıldırım, with several t-shirts bearing the club chairman’s face being burned. The outpouring of emotion, with fans chanting “we love you”, was mutual, with a teary-eyed Alex appearing in a window with his family to salute the adoring crowd.

One only has to look at his statue, unveiled a day after Alex’s 35th birthday and funded entirely by Fenerbahçe fans, to see the enormous impact he had on Turkish football. Once quoted as saying “my family and I lived according to their culture, respecting the country”, that is perhaps why he is so idolised. Unlike many foreign footballers who head to Turkey, Alex fully integrated himself in his temporary home, learning the language and becoming an ambassador for his club.

Having wound down his career back with Coritiba, Alex retired in 2014 and has since been linked with a move back to his adopted homeland. He has in the past stated “it is possible I could return to Fenerbahçe or Turkey in general”, with this either being in a coaching or administrative role. He would certainly be welcomed back by his Fenerbahçe fans, although it may have to wait for the time being as Kocaman is back in charge.

A mixture of his unmatched ability and conduct as an exemplary sportsman earnt Alex a unique position of respect from arch rivals. Outside his house that night, several Beşiktaş and Galatasaray shirts were spotted amongst the sea of yellow and blue; a nation united in appreciation to the player who undeniably stands alone as Turkish football’s greatest import.

By James Kelly  

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