If I were to buy stocks in which of the new HFX Wanderers signings is going to have the biggest impact this season, I’d be probably spend my money on João Morelli.
The Brazilian is everything you want from a CanPL signing: young, ambitious, and desperate to prove himself.
The 23-year-old arrives in Halifax midway through a career which has taken him from Ituano in Brazil to Middlesbrough and Fleetwood in England, and most recently to Levadia in Estonia. Along the way he’s gained experience playing in League One, the Europa League, the EFL Trophy, the Premium Liga, and more.
Late last week João was kind enough to give up some time for a phone call in which he discussed how Halifax, Nova Scotia has become the latest port of call on his professional journey.
Firstly João, thanks for taking the time to do this. I’d like to start by going back to your childhood in Brazil, a country which – perhaps more than any other – is seen as the spiritual home of football. What are your memories of growing up with the game? Are the South American stereotypes of kids kicking a ball around in the middle of busy streets pretty accurate?
Well, I think I was born with this game in my blood to be honest. I remember being young and playing with my ball around the side of my house, and in the streets as well. This is something I did every day. I just always wanted to play the game as often as I possibly could.
Obviously, I also had a lot friends playing with me in those days as well. We used to do these little games, like 5-a-side or whatever… the big thing we all cared about was playing football. Even if all we had to play with were Coke cans or drink bottles… whatever was available we’d use to play.
Whereabouts in Brazil did you grow up?
Itu – it’s a small city in the state of Sao Paulo
Now, given your age and the country you’re from, I’m there are a lot of players you looked up to as a kid. Who was your favourite?
Well, I had a couple actually. I used to really like Kaka and also Ronaldinho, who I mean was obviously one of the world’s best ever players so that’s no surprise. But firstly it was Kaka because I think my style is much more like his.
Another player I loved was Ronaldo, because when I was young I used to play as a forward and I’d watch him to learn… and there was really no other striker like him. He was just so, so good.
Speaking of heroes, one of mine when I was growing up was Juninho. I remember watching him for Middlesbrough as a kid and he was unlike any other player I’d ever watched at that time. He was tiny, but somehow managed to make big Premier League defenders look like idiots. To come back to you, Juninho was actually the person that scouted you, wasn’t he? Can you talk about how that came about…
Yeah, for sure. So, his first club in Brazil was the same as mine, and he’s actually also from the same city as me and that’s how we’re connected.
When he ended his career he bought a club (Ituano), which at the time was in a really bad way – I don’t think it even belonged to a division at that point actually. But anyway, he bought the club and tried to bring them up again. He even played there at the end of his career I think.
When I was about 15-years-old I was invited for a trial there and managed to get a place in the team. I played U15 for one year and then went off to a different club, but then came back at U17 and U20. At this point I got my first professional contract.
Juninho had been watching me throughout this time and told me that he thought I was good enough to go to play in England, which was very nice because it meant that he thought my style could fit Europe. So, yeah, of course when he said that I was very excited about and grateful, and off I went.
You followed in his footsteps by moving to Middlesbrough. I’m trying to really get my head around the culture shock of a guy from Brazil moving to Middlesbrough, which is certainly one of the more difficult cities in England to live in, particularly for someone who’s used to the sunshine of Brazil. How was that experience for you?
Middlesbrough was hard, you know. At the start, it was totally different from everything I’d ever experienced here (in Brazil). But then again I’ve always had this thing inside of me, this thing of wanting to get to know different cultures and different people. I’ve always had that in me, and I think that helped me get used to things and settle pretty quickly.
How long did it take you to get used to not just the English language, but that very unique Middlesbrough accent, too?
Well, I didn’t know any English when I arrived. And then, I had to like pick it up just from talking and learning and listening to people. I didn’t do lessons or anything like that so it was at first it was hard, because you’re right, the accent is very strong there. So yeah, at first I didn’t understand a thing to be honest!
I guess as a player the two most immediate things you need to learn from a language perspective are firstly, your manager’s instructions, and secondly, the ‘banter’ that occurs in football dressing rooms. How did that go for you?
Again, at first that was pretty hard for me because while you’re on the pitch you can understand gestures, the language of football etc… but inside the dressing room I’d hear them laughing sometimes and think to myself, are they laughing at me or taking the piss out of me or something?
But then luckily after a year I understood perfectly what they were saying and it was all good.
You mainly featured for the U23 side in Middlesbrough. Did you ever feel like you were close to the first team?
Obviously you always think you can make it to the first team. I used to train a lot with them, and at the time Aitar Karank was the boss and, you know, he was Spanish and one of his assistant coaches was Portuguese so it was easy to communicate with them. I always thought eventually they’d say ‘okay, now’s your turn’, but it didn’t happen and I ended up getting pretty frustrated.
You left Middlesbrough to spend a season with Levadia in Estonia before returning to England the following year with Fleetwood Town. Was that when Joey Barton was in charge?
No, when I was signed by the club there was a German coach and it was him who discovered me. Unfortunately, after one game he was sacked because Fleetwood were in the relegation zone, and after him there was this guy… this English guy, like one of those English ‘Proper Football Men’ and with him I was a little bit lost. And then Joey Barton arrived but I was already on my way out so didn’t really experience him.
I think that while the English Premier League is now played at this increasingly high technical level thanks to foreign influence over the years, the lower leagues still have a bit of a reputation for long ball football. People think it’s all 25-yard diagonal passes, knock downs, fighting for the second ball etc. Is it really like that or is it actually becoming a bit more technical?
No, it’s exactly like that!
It was difficult because I went there as a no.10 but quickly I had to change my position because it was impossible to even touch the ball in some games. I remember thinking, like, I can’t play here unless I play the game in the air and challenge with my elbows or something. It was just so physical. Always with the long balls, every single time.
So I changed my position to winger and ended up playing a lot of games there in the first XI. But all I had to do in them games was run into space, that’s all… every time! The coach would always just tell me to make that same run so I could receive the diagonal ball. I wasn’t comfortable playing this sort of football.
Did you play on the left-wing or the right?
I was on the right side – I can play on the left – but the coach preferred me on the right.
That’s interesting because I’d assume you’d be far better on the left as an inside-winger. You’re right-footed so if you’re on the left you can cut inside and have the whole pitch open up for you. That seems like it’d be perfect for a player like you instead of being stuck on the right where all you can do really is hug the touchline and stick crosses in.
Yeah, well that’s why he said he put me there because he just wanted me to cross it all the time. I used to ask him to put me out on the left instead but he’d say ‘No, because all you’ll do is cut inside instead of crossing - and you’re a good crosser so I want you to do that’
It was back to the Estonian top-tier with Levadia in 2018 and two-years of great success. 57 games, 28 goals, 17 assists… that’s a fantastic record. What do you put that down to?
I think my style really matched the team I was with. They’re one of the best teams in Estonia and when you’re playing on the best team you can play out from the back on the ground every time, and that’s the style which suits me. So I think that’s why I was successful there. The team worked so I could receive the ball to my feet and turn into dangerous positions to create and score. That was a really good style for me.
Were you back to playing as a no.10 in Estonia?
What do you think your best position is?
I think my best position is just behind the striker as a no.10, but I can play in most positions in midfield and attack, even as a no.6… but to be honest playing as a 6 is hard because defending one against one is a little difficult! But then the positive side of that is at 6 you get to receive the ball from your defenders and build play with a lot more space to work with than you get at 10.
But if I have to say where I’m best it’s definitely as a no.10 where I can be close to the box and close to the goal. That way I’m able to finish and create chances.
Do you have any preference when it comes to scoring or assisting?
If I had to choose one, I’d say that I like scoring the most. But if there’s a balance between these two, that’s great… but I think if I had to pick, I’d say scoring.
It’s the best feeling in the world, isn’t it…
Yeah, it really is.
Now you find yourself about to begin a new adventure in Halifax and Canada. How did that come about?
Well, Halifax got in touch with me and, you know, when we’re talking about signing to this league it’s hard because there are lots of agents always trying to get in touch with you. But when someone from an interested club gets in touch directly, like Matt (Fegan – Vice President of Football Operations for HFX Wanderers) did, then it definitely makes you more interested. So when he got in touch I connected him with my agent, and after that it was pretty easy to make a decision and organize everything.
I had a feeling it was going to be a good move for me straight away.
Have you had the chance to watch any HFX Wanderers matches from last season?
I’ve found some games on YouTube and watched as many highlights as I can, yeah.
One thing you’d have noticed from that footage is with Wanderers you’re almost guaranteed a sell-out every home game. Is that something that’s important to you?
Yeah, I heard that and I think it’s really, really nice to play in this kind of atmosphere. It’s one of the things that makes me feel more and more excited about playing in Halifax, too. I can’t wait to play in front of that crowd.
What kind of player is HFX Wanderers getting? How would you describe yourself stylistically?
I think I can do everything with the ball well. Passing, scoring, going one-on-one… I’m all about playing with the ball at my feet. I love playing one-twos, finding the right pass inside the box, finishing chances. Actually, I think that my biggest strength is probably finishing.
Another thing is vision, because to play in my position you need good vision, and I think I have this quality as well. Finally, set pieces, free kicks, corners. These are all things I feel very good about doing, too.
What do you know about Halifax – had you heard of it before signing?
I’d never heard of it actually! Obviously now I’m moving there I’ve tried to find stuff out, and yeah I’m really impressed with what I’ve read about it. I know there are a few Brazilians living there because they’ve already messaged me on Instagram to talk about me playing for Wanderers, so yeah I’m really excited to arrive!
Out of everyone I’ve talked to about it here in Brazil – everyone - not a single soul has anything bad to say about Canada. Everyone is really, really positive about this country, so I’m very happy to go to a massive place like that to play football. It’s really exciting.
It’s exciting for the fans to have you here too, João. Thanks for taking the time to do this, it’s much appreciated. No problem mate, thanks!
You can also find a review of the entire 2020 HFX Wanderers squad here.
Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86 or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.