You’ve achieved so much in your career but was there ever a moment when you thought “Yeah I’m good at this, I’m going to be one of the best footballers in the world?”
I started playing football when I was a very young child and fell in love with it immediately. From that young age, it was clear that among my friends I was the best. I was always picked first when we chose teams so that told me that I could play the game well. I went on to play for my country aged just 16, and that was a dream come true and underlined how far I might go in the game. I was always so ambitious as a young footballer and that helped me put in the hard work that had to be done to achieve my goals.
This Nike campaign celebrates the talented and fearless players in football from the last 20 years. Speaking of fearless, you went to America for the World Cup in 1994 aged only 17. How did you feel embarking on such a journey?
I was very afraid that summer but there was no better way to learn. I always say that the summer of 1994 was my university, the time I learnt the most about football. There I was with some of the greatest players on the planet, training with them and watching them take on the world. To be amongst that at such a young age was an incredible opportunity and one that helped shape my own career. Some people wondered if I would play and whilst I was ready, it wasn’t to be and so I just took everything in. It was an amazing chapter in my life. Nike gave me my first contract that summer and I began to realize my dreams.
What was it like moving to the Netherlands at the same young age?
It was cold! I was very excited to be there. I went to PSV not knowing what my life would be like in Holland but because I loved football and because I had dreamt of one day playing in Europe’s biggest leagues, I left home full of hope. Any fear I had was replaced with the sense that my dreams were coming true.
People immediately expected great things from you. Did that put pressure on you or were you inspired by the confidence people had in your ability?
No, you use that expectation and pressure as a motivational tool. I used it to push myself. The more that people talked about what I might achieve, the harder I worked to prove them right.
I was always so ambitious as a young footballer and that helped me put in the hard work that had to be done to achieve my goals.”
You scored goals, you won trophies, you played at the best clubs. If you could go back to a single moment in your career, what would it be?
Tokyo in 2002. The World Cup final. I had watched Romario and Bebeto score goals to help Brazil win the World Cup in 1994 and hoped I might one day do the same. I never expected to go that far though. I was ambitious and had dreams but some people don’t achieve all their dreams do they? So to score the two goals in the final and make that dream a reality was just unbelievable. Much better in fact than I ever imagined.
There was the goal you scored for Barcelona in 1996 against Compostela, where you beat defender after defender before scoring. While your teammates were screaming for the ball and defenders were kicking at your ankles, how brave were you to score that goal? After all there is “No victory without risk.”
I always try to play with freedom but the pro game always throws up some pressures and tactics that don’t make that freedom possible. That goal was different though. It was all intuition. I won the ball and the game opened up for me and I took my chance to go at the goal. You can’t really train or plan for goals like that. It was certainly the most beautiful one I ever scored.
You’ve played with some truly great players including attackers such as Figo and Totti, and defenders like Thuram and Cannavaro. When you get together now is there still a competitive atmosphere amongst you?
No, now it’s just fun to be around these guys. It’s great to have shared the most exciting times with players like Figo, and when we all get together we’re immediately laughing and talking about old games and moments. They are friends now and it’s always fantastic to get together with them.
Do you secretly take pleasure from knowing you were better than any of them?
No! I never felt like that. I always worked hard and tried to be the best I could be but the competition was never with anyone else, it was with myself. That expectation I put on myself was what made me work so hard every day to improve.
Even as a teenager, you never seemed to be in awe too much. How impressed are you with today’s youngsters, who despite their age are taking the game by storm? What advice would you give the younger generation, players like Jack Wilshere in England and Dani Osvaldo of Italy?
It’s a matter of focus and concentration. These young players have the opportunity to create their own moments and fulfill their dreams. They have the talent, that is obvious. Now they have to put in the hard work if they are to enjoy wonderful moments.
There is also of course your fellow countryman, Neymar, who will have to show no fear in order to deliver to an expectant nation this summer. How good is he, and as someone who has dealt with such huge pressures before what advice would you give him?
Neymar has proven by going to Barcelona that he is not only a fantastic footballer, but he can cope with big pressure. There will be huge pressure on him this summer. I know all about that but big players utilize it to make them perform at even higher levels. I know Neymar will do well for Brazil this summer.
How much would you love to be playing alongside him?
Oh wow, I would love to but the knees won’t allow it. I’m getting old!