World Cup winner heads to Manchester

2002 World Cup – First Half

It’s June 30th, 2002. Brazil and Germany are playing in the 2002 World Cup Final at the International Stadium in Yokohama, Japan. The lineups consist of superstars. For Brazil, the likes of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Roberto Carlos. Germany had superstars of their own with the likes of Oliver Kahn and Miroslav Klose.

One Brazilian international who wasn’t known as well was none other than the current U-13 Union academy coach, José Kléberson. Kléberson was in the Starting XI that day and began the game well for his country. He had two high chances to score in the first half; both attempts came close to one another. At the 41st minute, Kléberson’s shot went slightly wide of the post, beating German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn but not the goal. Three minutes later, on the 44th, Kléberson took a shot from nearly 25 yards out, only to be denied by the crossbar. By halftime, Brazil had more opportunities to score than of Germany, mainly due to their striker, Ronaldo.

2002 World Cup – Second Half

Ronaldo had plenty of chances to score for Brazil in the first half. If any player was to score, it had to be him. And in the 67th minute, that opportunity came. But, he didn’t get there without his team’s aid and “a little luck” from goalkeeper Kahn. Attacking midfielder Rivaldo took a shot towards the goal; Kahn made the save. Though the chance came right at Kahn, he couldn’t secure the ball as it ricocheted off his chest.

Strikers shouldn’t always wait for the ball to come to their feet to score. They shouldn’t wait for the perfect cross or a great through ball. Strikers, especially those with the stature and skill of Ronaldo, should have the ability to be “at the right place at the right time.” Sometimes, it’s all about positioning ad timing. And that is what Ronaldo did. Once the ball ricocheted off Kahn’s chest, Ronaldo was right there to secure the ball and put it in the back of the net. It was 1-0, Brazil.

Kléberson was still in the game, and even though he didn’t put away his chances in the first half, he would get his opportunity to help his country towards victory. In the 79th, Kléberson was driving the ball on the ring wing. He crossed the ball via the ground towards Ronaldo. Rivaldo played the dummy for the ball to meet Ronaldo’s feet. Ronaldo took one touch and buried the shot into the bottom right corner past Kahn. With nearly 10 minutes left in regular time, Brazil was up 2-0 thanks to Ronaldo’s two goals and an assist by Kléberson.

2002 World Cup – Brazil Wins

At full time, Brazil won the game and a record-breaking 5th World Cup, a record that still stands nearly 20 years later. Before the World Cup, Kléberson played in his native country, but now, with the limelight on him and his National team, transfer rumors were sky-high for the midfielder. In the summer of 2003, Kléberson left Brazil and went across the Atlantic to join English Premier League giants, Manchester United. Kléberson wasn’t the only player joining the Red Devils that summer. With him, United had decided to sign an 18-year-old Portuguese winger, Cristiano Ronaldo. United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, signed the teenager after a friendly against Sporting Lisbon.

When I asked Kléberson about making his way over to join the Red Devils, he was full of excitement. “When Man United signed me to go there, I got very excited. It’s one of the best clubs in the world. I followed Man United before I went there. They had amazing players like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and David Beckham.” Kléberson later added that he couldn’t pass up his chance with a world-renowned club. “It was a great opportunity for me to show my qualities, my style.”

At that time, Cristiano Ronaldo was one of the up-and-coming young talents in European soccer. When I asked about Ronaldo and his potential, Kléberson said that it was evident that Ronaldo would turn out to be a great player even then. “At that time, he’s only the promise or the future. We can see so clear the quality he has.” Kléberson mentioned how he and Ronaldo helped each other out. Kléberson and Ronaldo speak Portuguese, being that Kléberson is Brazilian and Ronaldo is Portuguese. “I’m very glad to be signed in the same period because, in that period, I was a special player. Everybody talked about Ronaldo and me. We talked together, and we tried to help each other.”

From Manchester to the Istanbul

Joining Beşiktaş J.K.

Although Kléberson was with United for a short time (20 league appearances), he was happy he played for one of the world’s best teams and best young talents. “I had the opportunity to start together with him. Maybe, I don’t know, he got something from me when I was there. That was a good time for me.” In 2005, Kléberson made his way to Istanbul, Turkey to join Turkish giants, Beşiktaş J.K. Beşiktaş is one of the more historic and successful clubs in Turkish soccer. The club was founded in 1903 and has won 15 league titles. Once Kléberson arrived in Istanbul, he couldn’t believe the passion the fans and the Turkish people had for the sport. “On the street, in the games there, many, many people around the stadium. I remember when I stayed in Beşiktaş, I would go outside, and the stadium is completely full. People love, love soccer.”

As Kléberson officially signed and joined the team, he began to significantly see the intense passion the country had for soccer, especially Beşiktaş fans. “I remember when we would fly to a different city, each city we’re going, as soon as you get in the airport, the fans, they go inside to the airport, take the players, put the players on some flowers, they show a warm reception, that’s great. When I saw the kids, every kid loves the players. Every kid knows who the players are, the quality of the players.”

Beşiktaş vs. Fenerbahçe

I started to watch the Turkish Super Lig as an 11-year old. My parents are Turkish immigrants and, well, soccer fanatics. My dad got me into the sport over the years. Eventually, I started to watch the league with him. While scrolling through YouTube, I came across a Beşiktaş -Fenerbahçe highlight reel from a 2005 derby. Beşiktaş vs. Fenerbahçe is one of the most competitive derbies in the world.

On September 18th, 2005, Fener was up 1-0 in the dying minutes of the game, but Beşiktaş earned a freekick. The freekick was more than 30 yards out, and to make matters more robust, it was indirect. Meaning, a player had to either roll the ball to another player to have a shot on goal, or the player taking the freekick had to cross the ball into the 18-yard box.

The Goal

Beşiktaş winger, Tümer Metin, was on the ball, with Kléberson to his right. Metin decided to roll the ball to his Brazilian teammate to have a shot on goal. As the ball reached Kléberson, he shot it with immense power. While heading towards the net, the ball curled into the upper 90 (top corner of the net). It was 1-1, and being that it was a home game for Beşiktaş at İnönü Stadium, the fans were on cloud nine. When I asked Kelberson about that goal, he went on to tell me that it was one of his personal favorite goals of all-time. “That’s a special goal for me too. I think, in my opinion, that’s an important goal that I scored for Beşiktaş, especially against Fenerbahçe.”

That goal from a fan’s perspective is one thing, but being responsible for putting the ball in the net is another. After taking the shot, Kléberson was able to curve the ball into the upper right corner of the net. Fenerbahçe goalkeeper, Volkan Demirel, wasn’t able to even move a slight inch on making a save. I asked Kléberson to go into detail. “When I took the freekick, I kicked the ball the direction towards the goal, the goalie, and as soon as the ball gets close to the goalie, the ball changed direction. If you saw the clip, the goalkeeper for Fenerbahçe looks like he sees the ball, and as soon as Anelka gets in front of the ball, the ball gets a little bit away from the goalie and he cannot move it.”

Taking and scoring such a goal from a far distance is not an easy feat. Kléberson mentioned the training he did while attending a soccer academy and playing in the domestic league in his native Brazil. “That’s the shooting I did a lot in my career, and I scored many, many goals when I was at [Athletico] Paranaense, even at Flamengo.” Though he didn’t have a lengthy stay in Istanbul (45 league appearances), looking back at his time with the Black Eagles, Beşiktaş always meant something special to Kléberson. “Of course at Beşiktaş, that was special.”

Making his way across the Atlantic

After Kléberson left Beşiktaş in 2007, he made his way back to Brazil to play in the domestic league, the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A. He played at Flamengo from 2007-2012, making 63 league appearances. In between, he had a short loan spell at his boyhood club, Athletico Paranaense. Then, in 2013, the World Cup winner and former Man United player made his way to the States to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Kléberson first visited the United States in 2010. He and his family came to visit Disney World in Orlando, Florida. While vacationing in Orlando, Kléberson couldn’t help but notice a group of young kids practicing and playing soccer near the Disney World theme park.

Klerberson was aware of the stereotype put on most Americans: Americans don’t care about soccer. Though he wasn’t a firm believer in this, he knew that soccer wasn’t the dominant sport in the States. “I’m so surprised at how people talk about soccer. We know soccer here in America doesn’t compare with football, basketball, baseball; it’s far from them.” After going back to Brazil, Kléberson started to contact his friends and colleagues who were living and working in the U.S. Rather than being pessimistic about the state of soccer in the U.S., Kléberson’s contacts encouraged him. “Soccer here in America is starting to grow. Everyone is starting to play soccer; everyone starts at a young age.” Kleberson then started to follow the MLS and began to ask himself what his next move in his career would be.

Kléberson thought it would be best to play in the MLS and, and after retiring, maybe taking up a role as a coach. “I started to see the opportunity to come here to America, sign with a club, and continue to stay here in America and continue working on soccer.” During that time, Kléberson didn’t know whether he would be a soccer coach or work in youth development. He did know that he was up for the challenge of continuing his career in a country where soccer isn’t the most popular game. “I wanted to set that challenge – to play in America until I retire. And I had the opportunity with the Philadelphia Union. I got excited when I came here. I came to a young club. The club started in 2010, and I came in 2013. It’s a big challenge for me in that period.”

Taking a role in the Union Academy

Kléberson signed as a loanee and only made 11 league appearances for the Union and scored one goal. But, that one goal was critical and, to say the least, memorable. Kleberson scored a freekick against Toronto F.C. at the 95th minute to win the game for Philly. After leaving the Union, Kléberson played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) for the Indy Eleven before finishing his career with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. A year after his retirement from professional soccer, Kleberson joined the Union Academy as a youth coach. Specifically, he took the role of the U-12 coach.

Last month, he took up the part as the coach for the U-13. When I asked Kléberson about the academy and how they’re developing players, he remarked on how well and fast players are developing. When I specifically asked about Union Academy product and current Union midfielder, Brenden Aaronson, Kléberson praised the South Jersey native on how fast he’s developing. “I have the opportunity to talk with him sometimes. He asked me for some advice, like that. It’s unbelievable how he’s growing.”

Kléberson believes that if Aaronson keeps developing at his current pace, the midfielder could do great things on the national level. “I’m so interested to see how far he’s going because he’s a prospect. I think the USA national team in the future could have a very good player in a midfielder.” If the U.S. were to qualify for the World Cup in 2022, Aaronson could have a significant impact on the team that goes to Qatar, according to Kléberson. “I hope he keeps growing, keeps bringing a solid game like he did it for Union, and I hope to see how plays in the World Cup for the U.S. national team because he has a lot of potential.”

Youth development is heading in the right direction

Aaronson isn’t the only prospect that the Union Academy prides itself on; Aaronson’s younger brother, Paxten, is another notable Union product. Paxten signed with the Union on a Homegrown contract this past Wednesday. Kléberson believes that more prospects will move up in the ranks for years to come, and that has a lot to do with Aaronson. “In this period, the Union environment, we’re growing too; we learned a lot. Now, we have different ideas about building players. We got a lot of things from Brenden Aaronson.”

Kléberson only hopes that this development continues to grow. “I hope, year by year, we’re still building players like Brenden Aaronson to make the first team. I think we have six or seven young players coming from our academy. It’s showing that we’re going the right way to build a professional soccer player.”

From the Uraí, Brazil, Klerberson was able to help his country lift a World Cup in 2002 and play for English giant Manchester United and Turkish giant Beşiktaş. Now, Kléberson hopes to continue in his role as a youth development coach for the Philadelphia Union. And if the Union continue to develop players like Brenden and Paxten Aaronson, Kléberson, among others, will be the one who deserves the most praise and credit for the paving the path for the next generation of Union players.