Jumping in feet first: Brazilian dazzles Thai Premier League

Cleiton Silva didn't have a clue about local football when he first took to the pitch three years ago. But he's more than adjusted _ he's dominated, sharing joint top scoring honours last year and ready to charge ahead with BEC Tero this season

'If Thailand wanted me to play for its national squad, I'd say 'yes' in a heartbeat. Thailand is my second home," said Cleiton Silva. The Brazilian-born BEC Tero Sasana striker has been playing in the Thai Premier League for three years and last year's shared honours as the league's top scorer.

Photos by Thanarak Khoonton

Brazilian talents Rui Ramos and Pepe Deco became naturalised citizens to play for Japan and Portugal respectively and Silva would not hesitate to follow in their footsteps to sign on for Thailand's national squad.

"If they called me up and made it work, I wouldn't even think twice. Football is my life and my life is here now."

His BEC Tero teammate and a defender on Thailand's national team Narubodin Weerawatnodom told Brunch that Silva would bring creativity and depth to the Thai squad. "My bro told me if he becomes a naturalised citizen, he wants to try for our national squad," said Narubodin.

'FOOTBALL IS MY BLOOD'

Silva, 26, started playing football with his brothers in his native Manaus, a small farming hamlet in northwestern Brazil, when he was nine years old.

"As a Brazilian ...," he said, rolling the "r" for effect, "I was born with football in my veins. It was my childhood dream and now I'm living it."

Encouraging his sibling's dream, Silva's eldest brother saved up to buy him his first pair of football boots.

Like many young Brazilians, his dreams of playing professional football were cemented by the triumphs of his national team growing up. "When I was young, we were very poor. We didn't have money to buy tickets to see a football match at the stadium," he said. "As a kid, I always looked up to our World Cup heroes.

"I wanted to be like Ronaldo _ the original one I mean," he added with a wink.

He was referring to the Thai media comparing him to the "other" Ronaldo, the Portuguese-born Real Madrid superstar, by dubbing him the "Cristiano Ronaldo of Thailand".

Comparisons could be made between Silva's agility and explosive playing style and the skills of the Real Madrid key player. But Silva is quick to reject the suggestion. "No, I don't think so," he said, growing shy. "I think it's more about the appearance."

'RONALDO, MY HERO'

He was also reluctant to compare himself to the Brazilian Ronaldo, saying he holds him in too high regard as a good example both off and on the field.

At the age of 17, Ronaldo was part of Brazil's World Cup winning team, though he didn't play. In 1998, he led Brazil to the World Cup final but lost to France. He would make up for that in 2002 when he powered Brazil to their fifth World Cup victory.

The legendary footballer was forced to quit football in 2011 due to a life-threatening thyroid disease that required him to take a medication containing a banned substance, one which also caused him to gain weight.

Silva admires his hero's accomplishments and the strength he has shown in the face of adversity.

"He's the one and only. He's among the world's all-time top five. He's not only a truly talented champion but also a hero [in] life. He has overcome so many obstacles in life and never gives up.

"For me, he's No1. When I'm down, I just watch his games on YouTube and it simply brings back hope. He's like a god. You can come so close but never reach his status."

TURNING POINT

Silva was an offensive midfielder for the Brazlian club Madureira for three years before being invited in 2010 to visit Thailand by his close friend Fabio Leandro Barbosa, a Brazilian midfielder who currently plays for TTM Chiangmai.

After a successful tryout, signed with Osotspa, which he said was the biggest turning point in his career.

At the time he knew nothing about Thai football, but was able to adapt to the game quickly. He switched to the position of striker and hasn't looked back since, scoring his first goal in his debut game. ''It was against Port Authority of Thailand. We [Osotspa] were trailing 0-1. I scored an equaliser from a free kick, just 30 seconds to the whistle. Fans went wild. It was amazing.''

Silva scored 29 goals for Osotspa that season before transferring to BEC Tero Sasana in 2012, scoring 25 goals to share the Thai Premier League top scorer title with Thailand national team striker Teerasil Dangda of SCG Muang Thong United.

He claimed that title in dramatic fashion in the final match of the season.

''At the start of the game, I knew we [Teerasil and Silva] were tied as the league's top scorers. When he scored first from a penalty, I knew it'd be hard to equal him. Muang Thong were unbeaten throughout the season and conceded only a few goals. However, I scored by heading 50 minutes to finish. It was thrilling.''

TERO IS WHERE HIS HEART IS

Silva began this season in a similar fashion, scoring two goals in his first two games. ''I'm happy that we got off to a flying start but it's difficult to score every game. So I always try to take one game at a time. The hardest part of the competition is the next game,'' he said.

BEC Tero manager Thanya Wongnark told Brunch that the Brazilian star has made a stellar addition to the team. ''He's very talented and his tactics are first rate. He's a key player who inspires the offensive line of the team.''

Off the pitch, Thanya said Silva is very friendly, down to earth and good-humoured. ''He gets along well with teammates, especially the younger ones. He even cut Chanathip Songkrasin's [a rising Thai star, nicknamed Messi Jay] hair.''

Narubodin, who is Silva's closest Thai friend here, is full of admiration. ''He's a fantastic player _ very skilful and talented. He is also good at assists. Off the field, he is a very nice guy. He's compassionate, thoughtful and funny. I think he's adjusted well to Thai culture.''

That seemed to be the case when a group of young fans greeted their favourite Brazilian at the training stadium. ''Waddee [hi!] Clee-ton,'' said one of them, waving.

He gave them a broad smile and returned the greeting.

''I'm grateful our fans embrace me. It's good to have someone believe in you. As for the team, we're very close like brothers. We never fight,'' said Silva. ''I can't help thinking it's pretty much like when I played for a Brazilian club back home. The atmosphere is pretty much the same.''

Is he homesick?

''Not at all. I just miss my parents, brothers and some friends,'' he said.

ALMOST A GOOD-BYE

However, before the season started, Silva almost left Tero for Qatar's star-studded Al Sadd club in a buzz-generating US$1 million (29.2 million baht) deal, which would have been the costliest transfer ever of a player from the Thai Premier League. In the end the two parties couldn't reach an agreement, which doesn't seem to trouble Silva.

''If you ask me where I want to play for [the rest of] my life, it's Thailand for sure. If the deal went through, I'd go because of the money. I might be a bit disappointed because it could be a good [opportunity]. But I'm now more than 100% happy to be here.''

With this season off to a promising start, Silva has set his sights on his team's success. ''Team comes first. Everybody shares the same goal. We want to win and we help each other,'' he said. ''Muang Thong and Buriram are the teams to beat, especially Muang Thong. They didn't lose a single game last year. We have to respect that, but I think BEC is stronger this season as well. We're aiming to make the AFC berth, too.''

Silva tries not to dwell too much on the long term.

''Now it's all about playing well game by game so I can hopefully maintain the level of clout where I can continue to contribute to the team. I don't know how long I'll stay in Thailand. You never know when it's time to move.''

Despite wanting to focus on immediate goals, there is no doubt that he's where he wants to be and doing exactly what he wants to do.

''I love it here. I can play here for the rest of my life and that,'' he paused, searching for the right word, ''completes me, too. I'll still carry on living my dream, playing football. The same dream that little farmboy had. That's my goal.''

CLEITON SILVA FACTFILE

Full name: Cleiton Augusto Oliveira Silva

Hometown: Manaus, Brazil

Age: 26

Position: Striker

Style in brief: Fast, explosive, opportunity-seeking

Shirt Number: 23

Club: BEC Tero Sasana

All-time idol: Ronaldo (Brazil)

Nickname in Thai media: "The Cristiano Ronaldo of Thailand"

Honour: 2012 Thai Premier League's joint top scorer (25 goals)

Aggregate goals scored in TPL: 56 (2010-March, 2013)

Favourite Thai footballer: Teerasil Daeng-da (SCG-Muang Thong FC), who was last year's other top scorer

Close friend: Narubodin Weerawatnodom (Thailand national team defender and BEC Tero teammate)

Favourite past-time: Ping-pong

Favourite hangout spot: RCA

Favourite restaurant: Zico, a Brazilian restaurant in Pattaya

Favourite getaways: Koh Samui and Krabi

Favourite English club: Manchester City

Favourite footballer: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

SILVA'S DREAM TEAM

One of Silva's childhood dreams was to play for Brazil. But in reality, with a surplus of world-class Brazilian footballers playing for the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, he knows it's practically impossible.

"Too many big stars. Let's face it. I play in Thailand, it's off the radar and I'm 26 already, so it's not going to happen for me."

Brunch asked him to name his dream team consisting of his fellow countrymen, including himself.

He laughs. "I like it. Well, I would want to field myself as left back."

As for the rest:

BRAZIL, CHAMPS ON HOME SOIL?

Next year, Brazil will host the World Cup and the five-time champs are among the favourites to win it all. The football-crazed country would go mad if they were to win on home soil and Silva is rooting for them, but says it won't be an easy task.

"We're dominant in terms of players but we don't have good teamwork now. That's what we need to improve as soon as possible, otherwise we will surely spoil our home advantage. It's beyond anything [imaginable] if we're able to win in front of our people."

The Brazilian rates his team as No4 among competitors. He sees his country's arch-rivals and two-time champions Argentina as the biggest threat, followed by two European powerhouses: three-time champions Germany and title-holders Spain. "Argentina is the team to beat because they have the best player in the world. Lionel Messi is four times better than he was in the last World Cup. I also think Messi is hungry to win because it's the only missing trophy. He's won everything apart from this," he said. "I want Brazil to triumph but I think Argentina could well win it. I doubt Spain will retain the title but you can never write them off _ they are still strong."

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kritini Upayokin
Position: Brunch Editor