Mirandinha interview: The first Brazilian to play in England

I meet Mirandinha on a blustery Brazilian spring day at the Sociedade Esportiva Sanjoanense, a multi-sport club in the sleepy town of São João da Boa Vista, about 200km north of the sprawling metropolis of São Paulo.

I take my seat across from our welcoming host, along with his wife and young son, on the veranda of the club’s restaurant. He points to a statue behind him. “You see that?” he asks. “The first two Brazilian World Cup winning captains, Bellini and Mauro Ramos, both started their careers here. That statue is for them.”

It seems a fitting place, then, to interview a man who wrote his own chapter in the history of Brazilian football when he was transferred from Palmeiras to Newcastle in the summer of 1987, making him the first player from the país do futebol to don the kit of an English team. He is still renowned in his homeland for his spell in England as it broke a path which many have since trodden, and he recalls his time there with great fondness and appreciation.

Mirandinha’s journey, however, started in another, very different North-East, the burningly hot and grindingly poor North-East of Brazil. He was born in the Fortaleza neighbourhood of Aerolândia – “one of the poorest, most humble bairros”, he tells me – and grew up with seven brothers and sisters, his dad working collecting salt from evaporated sea water on a derisory wage.

Of his dad’s job he says, “Apart from the low salary working in that industry, half the year, during the rainy season, there is no work. In those periods it was really tough, for us to survive my dad had to go and buy fish on the beach and then try to sell it again. The kids had to help. In my case I went to work selling things at traffic lights, selling limes, selling grapes, cleaning car windscreens to try and help sustain the family.”

By this point Mirandinha already had a plan to drag his family out of poverty. “I was predestined. I came here to play football. I used football as my salvation. I was poor, from a humble family, my mum and dad were semi-illiterate. I got it in my head that I was going to play football to help them. I created impetus for myself. I had to score goals. Since I was a boy I went out to knock everyone out of my way and go straight towards the goal.”

He got his first chance playing for the Under-21 team of local club Ferroviário before moving to Ponte Preta in São Paulo state, where he made his goal-scoring senior debut against the Tunisian national team who “were passing through, preparing for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina”. In the following years he went on to bigger clubs such as Botafogo, Náutico of Recife and São Paulo giants Palmeiras, who recently won the Brazilian title for a record ninth time.

It was whilst he was with Palmeiras that destiny would bring him the opportunity that defined his career. A good friend, and big Palmeiras fan, Humberto Silva, went to England on a university exchange programme. The family he stayed with knew a man named Bev Walker, who was Nigel Mansell’s agent and also a close friend of Newcastle United legend Malcolm MacDonald.

“My friend started to take things about me, like newspaper and magazine articles and VHS tapes that his dad made and sent over, and give them to Bev Walker, who started to show them to Malcolm MacDonald.” Super Mac was clearly impressed by what he saw and started to use his influence at St. James’ Park to draw the club’s attention to the free-scoring Brazilian.

Another twist of fate then intervened. “In 1987 I was selected for my first full Brazil squad, for the Stanley Rous Cup in England. I scored a goal in the draw against England and was man of the match. And then in the game against Scotland I was man of the match again and we won 2-0.

“They could see me close up; they were all there watching me. Malcolm MacDonald, Kevin Keegan and our manager at the time Willie McFaul, who was a great guy, really nice. After those two games they made it official and gave me a contract.”

The Tyneside club paid Palmeiras £575,000 for the Brazilian’s signature without a single football agent or scout involved in the deal. It is unimaginable in today’s game that a transfer could happen through such seemingly desultory chance, and all the more unimaginable that anything could happen without the involvement of a Mr 10%.

The first few months in his new surroundings were not easy for Mirandinha. Adapting to the cold and the language were both barriers he needed to overcome. He tells me his first game was “against Norwich City”, at which point he switches to speaking English, seemingly in an effort to emphasise his point. It was, he recalls, “very cold weather. Very, very cold. I’m sorry for this: fucking freezing.”

Learning English and getting used to the tundra-like Geordie winter were not the toughest challenges, though. “The hardest part was the food. At the beginning it was painful; there were no beans, no rice, I felt a bit lost. Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. Carrots, cornflour, Brussels sprouts.”

After a while he plucked up the courage to start ordering rice in the team hotels, and then, he says, “It started to catch on and a lot of the other players wanted to eat my rice. A lot them started to eat it and we ended up with everyone having rice on match day for our pre-match meal.”

The subject of food is one that pops up repeatedly throughout our conversation and, with the twinkling eyes of a man remembering a period of true personal and professional contentment, Mirandinha regales me with a few more culinary tales.

After the first game against Norwich he got his first taste of the famed English fish and chips. They stopped the team coach by a chip shop near the stadium and Derek Wright, Newcastle’s physio, went in to get the food. “It was taking a long time to arrive and Gazza looked over to me and said, ‘Mira, Mira, come here.’ Humberto translated for me and Gazza went, ‘Mira, go to the gaffer and say: ‘Mr. Willie, I’m fucking starving’’. I learned it perfectly and went over; ‘Mr. Willie, I’m fucking starving.’ Everybody fell about laughing. That was my first English lesson from Gazza.”

The first of many? “Nossa Senhora”, he says, before once more moving the conversation into English. “Only things that were wrong. Only bad words. Bad words, bad words and more bad words.” He looks around, thinking about repeating them, but seems put off by the presence of his young son.

His friendship with the troubled star would flourish throughout his first season. “Gazza was my partner. We were always together. Almost every day after training was finished I would go home and then a little bit later the doorbell would go and it was Gazza wanting to eat Brazilian food. He ate everything, farofa [fried manioc flour] – the lot. He liked it a lot when we had black beans, he would eat until he got ill.”

But what of the tabloid reports at the time claiming a rift between the pair? “We created a rivalry to get media attention so we could go to restaurants and all that. It was something we did deliberately. We spent a lot of time and did a lot of stuff together, even hating each other, as we used to say. Those were great times.”

Even after Gazza went to Tottenham at the end of Mirandinha’s first season on Tyneside the pair remained close. “When I was about to leave England Gazza gave us a dog, as a present to my daughter.”

His daughter, who was born in Newcastle, is called Sarah, after Princess Sarah Ferguson. “[The dog] was female and he wanted us to call it Gazza. No, it’s female Gazza, it’s a girl. Gazza said, ‘No, give the dog my name.’ No, no, no, no, no Gazza. So we called her Belly, in homage to Gazza’s mate who drove him around, Fat Jim, who we used to call Fat Belly.”

Mirandinha’s first season was a relative success, despite the period required for adaptation. He scored 13 goals, including two against Manchester United at Old Trafford, making him the team’s joint top-scorer. At the end of the season he was even selected as part of the English Football League XI. “I played with all those monsters of English football. You had Peter Shilton, Gary Stevens, Stuart Pearce, Terry Butcher. It was an English national team, me and Ossie Ardiles. You had John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker as well. We played an Irish XI in Dublin and drew 1-1.”

The second season, however, was nowhere near as good for the diminutive front man. His friend and main goal provider Gazza was sold to Tottenham in the summer and Willie McFaul, the manager who had been instrumental in his arrival, was sacked in October, despite having won 2-1 at Anfield in the previous game thanks to a 92nd minute penalty from the Brazilian striker.

Mirandinha remembers the moment well. “[It was] in front of the Kop. I put the ball on the spot, ran up and when I was about to shoot Bruce Grobbelaar dived to his right, so I just stroked the ball down the middle and ran to the Liverpool fans. They weren’t angry, they applauded me. One of the most memorable things from my time in England is the affection the supporters have for the players, even the opposition. If you’re having a good game and behaving well they applaud you, which is really beautiful.”

Even so, it wasn’t enough to save his manager’s job and Newcastle brought in Jim Smith from QPR as his replacement. Smith didn’t trust the tricky Brazilian and his second season is not a period he remembers fondly, describing Smith as “aggressive, violent, and cursed.”

Smith brought in a raft of new players and in doing so turned McFaul’s passing side into a direct and unsophisticated one, which, Mirandinha says, “killed our team”. His motivational methods were also alien to the man from Fortaleza.

One week, before a home game against Liverpool, Smith sent Mirandinha to train with the reserves. Then, on the day of the game, “He changed everything and put me in the team. I scored one and had another shot that kept getting replayed on TV for the whole year. It hit one post, went behind Bruce Grobbelaar, hit the other post and bounced into his hands. Afterwards [Smith] said it had been his strategy to motivate me. Crazy. How are you going to leave me thinking for the whole week that I won’t be playing and then change your mind at the last minute?”

Newcastle would eventually be relegated, finishing bottom of the league and nine points from safety. At this point Mirandinha agreed to be loaned back to Palmeiras, something he tells me was “the biggest mistake” of his career. Despite his hope of one day returning to the club and city that he so quickly took to heart, a move back never materialised. To this day, he says, he dreams of once more living and working on Tyneside.

In April this year he had the chance to at least go back and visit, returning for several days to inaugurate the first Brazilian restaurant in the city. Whilst he was there he was invited to watch the game between Newcastle and Manchester City, with his adopted club once more fighting to avoid relegation.

“I went just to watch the match but they organised a surprise. When I arrived it was arranged for me to go to all the boxes and say a few words and then at half time they took me onto the pitch to be presented to the fans. 55,000 people sang my little song.”

I ask him to repeat it for us. He takes a deep breath, looking slightly reluctant before bursting out in the chant: “We’ve got Mirandinha, he’s not from Argentina. He’s from Brazil, he’s fucking brill.” After our laughter subsides he continues, looking a little emotional, “It was a special moment for me. I don’t receive that sort of reception in my own country. They organised the surprise and I felt…I welled up, without doubt.”

Since he left Newcastle in 1989 Mirandinha has played or worked as a manager all over the world, including spells in Japan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the Brazilian Amazon and Sudan, but the only subject he really wanted to focus on during our few hours together was his time in the North-East of England.

His achievement of being the first Brazilian to play in the English top division is something of which he is extremely proud. The affection and appreciation he feels for Newcastle and the Geordie nation is clear with every word that comes out of his mouth.

Part of this interview first appeared on leiacorner.com.br.

Mirandinha interview: The first Brazilian to play in England
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