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The ex-factor – Marcelo

Brazilian striker Marcelo in action for Blues.
Brazilian striker Marcelo in action for Blues.

I was unlucky because Birmingham got promotion. Of course I was happy for Birmingham but I was unhappy with my decision because I could have been in the Premier League with them.

Marcelo

During the close season we will be running a series of interviews with ex-Blues players that appeared in last season’s matchday programme.

First up is former striker Marcelo. Sean Cole spoke to the Brazilian about his three-year spell at St. Andrew’s between 1999-2002.

Promotion to the Premier League, finally secured in 2002, was several years in the making for Birmingham City. There was plenty of play-off disappointment along the way, but even though Marcelo had left the club by the time they reached the top flight, he still played his part in getting them there.

In his third season as a Blues player, the Brazilian striker enjoyed his best run of form, scoring 12 league goals in 21 appearances before departing for Walsall at the start of February. Martin O’Connor and David Holdsworth also joined the Saddlers in pursuit of guaranteed game time, although Marcelo wonders what might have been if he’d stayed at St. Andrew’s.

“It was my mistake,” he says. “I wanted to play more first team football because my contract with Blues was finishing. Steve Bruce came in and we had six or seven strikers with good quality. He wanted to change the strikers every game and I was afraid that without playing games and scoring goals, maybe I would have trouble renewing my contract with the club. So, I accepted the offer to finish the season at Walsall.

“I was unlucky because Birmingham got promotion. Of course I was happy for Birmingham but I was unhappy with my decision because I could have been in the Premier League with them.”

Marcelo’s goalscoring contributions, including a hat-trick against Bradford City, had helped to reignite Blues’ campaign after a stuttering start which saw Trevor Francis lose his job. A difficult decision for the owners, it proved to be the right one as Steve Bruce arrived to lift spirits and steer the club back up the table.

While Marcelo enjoyed working with Francis, he felt that he could let his emotions got the better of him at crucial moments. “He has a big passion for the game, and he loves the club, but sometimes that worked against him. He could have been a little bit calmer at certain times, but he was always a very nice person to me and all the players. He was top class.”

Born in Brazil, to Portuguese parents, Marcelo brought an exotic air to the sometimes parochial First Division during the five years he spent fighting for promotion with Sheffield United and Birmingham City. It was a far cry from Rio de Janiero, where he grew up, but Marcelo embraced the peculiarities of English football and found that it suited him.

“There was a big intensity to the game. All the players were very fair but aggressive on the ball. I loved to play in front of the supporters at both clubs – Sheffield United and Birmingham City. They were always very good to me and the atmosphere at the grounds was incredible,” recalls Marcelo.

“I was in the semi-finals of the FA Cup with Sheffield United at Old Trafford, against Newcastle. We lost 1-0 but the atmosphere was fantastic. And in the League Cup final with Birmingham, against Liverpool in Cardiff, it was tremendous. There were 80,000 people there – 40,000 from Blues – and we were really unlucky to lose on penalties.”

Marcelo was 28 when he arrived in England and had spent the vast majority of his playing career in Portugal up until that point. Having returned there from Brazil as a 12-year-old, he progressed through the academies of Beira-Mar and Academica, honing his craft.

The two seasons he had at Tirsense would be the making of Marcelo, as he helped the minnows into the Primeira Liga and then scored an impressive 17 goals to catch the eye of his boyhood club Benfica. Although he failed to win the title with them, simply playing at the Estadio da Luz in their famous red shirt was a wonderful feeling. He managed to lift some silverware too.

“To sign with the club that you support as a kid is a dream. It’s a big, big club. The situation financially, and in terms of the team, wasn’t as strong as it is now. Porto were winning all the championships at that time but we finished second and won the Portuguese Cup against Sporting Lisbon so it was a very good season for me.”

After a disappointing year in Spain with Deportivo Alaves, Marcelo moved to England in October 1997. Five goals in two trial games was enough to convince Sheffield United to pay £400,000 for his services, and he quickly settled in as the club finished sixth in the league and enjoyed a run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

More memories were made in the same competition a year later. “I scored at Highbury against Arsenal. They had a good team with Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams, David Seaman and Dennis Bergkamp. It was 2-1 but there was a replay because of the fair play situation,” says Marcelo, in reference to a bizarre incident that left Sheffield United players and management seething.

Goalkeeper Alan Kelly had cleared the ball into touch so that his teammate could be treated for an injury, but rather than returning it to their opponents as expected, Arsenal pounced to score in a strangely unsporting move. A replay ensued and Arsene Wenger’s side eventually prevailed to cap off a compelling saga.

Marcelo was the Blades’ top scorer in that second season at Bramall Lane, with 20 goals in total. Suitably impressed by his all-round game and attacking threat, Blues soon came calling. As Sheffield United looked to rebuild in the wake of Steve Bruce’s shock departure, Marcelo was one of several key players who left.

His Birmingham debut came at Loftus Road. Trailing Queen’s Park Rangers by two goals, Marcelo scored twice in the space of three minutes to rescue an unexpected point and immediately endear himself to supporters. His second goal, a fierce shot from distance, was quite the benchmark to set so early on.

The next couple of years would feature two frustrating play-off semi-final defeats and an unforgettable march to the League Cup final. Blues lost to Liverpool on penalties despite Marcelo scoring with his effort. Unfortunately he wasn’t quite as assured from the spot at Deepdale a few months later as the club’s promotion push came to a similarly heart-breaking conclusion.

“I was in three play-offs in five seasons and I never got to the Premier League. But life is like that. I still have very good memories of being in England and that was a very nice period of my life,” says Marcelo, who will turn 50 later this year.

“I was born in Brazil and spent almost all of my career in Portugal. But to come to England and spend almost five seasons there, and score over 70 goals, is a proud achievement for me because the football is very hard and very professional. Of course it wasn’t the Premier League, but even in the Championship the quality was always very good and I’m very proud to have played how I did at that level.”

Despite his good form during the following season, Marcelo’s contract was coming to an end and he wanted to be playing regularly. With Geoff Horsfield, Tommy Mooney and Andrew Johnson amongst those competing for a place up front, and negotiations ongoing to bring in Stern John, he couldn’t be sure of his spot so moved to Walsall.

Marcelo then returned to Portugal, finishing his career back at his first club, Academica. He completed his degree in civil engineering and embarked on life outside of football before he was drawn back in by his love of the game.

For the last 14 years he has been an agent, developing a portfolio of clients at top clubs in Portugal and abroad. More than just negotiating deals, Marcelo is keen to emphasise the other side of his work – using his own experiences to guide young players and help them to avoid the pitfalls of an often unforgiving industry.

“The best thing about being an agent is when you start working with a young player and after so many years you see him become a good player and a big star. It’s very good. Of course, the financial side is important but seeing a player do well because of your work is very nice,” he says.

“The way I work as an agent is not just to find clubs and work for a contract. At the moment I have a lot of players who are under 18 and I look to share my knowledge about what to do, how to behave on and off the pitch, and how to build relationships with coaches and other players. These things are really important.”

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