The story of Juan Jesus's career is one that will be familiar to many other Brazilian players, so many of whom have trodden the same path.
From the fortunate breaks that saw him join a professional team in his home town, to the rapid rise in his home country that saw him earn a move to Europe before he was barely out of his teenage years, the defender reflects on everything that has taken him to this point in his career.
What were you like as a child?
“I had a lot of energy as a kid and was always getting up to mischief, but I was shy too. If you talk to my parents, they’ll tell you that they were always finding me doing something I shouldn’t have been. I was just in Brazil with my son recently and when I told him off, my dad and my uncles told me that I was just like him in my day so shouldn’t yell at him.”
Where did the family live?
“I was born in Belo Horizonte but I grew up a little outside the city, in Betim. We were never poor – my dad worked and always provided us with everything we needed.
“Where I grew up, we used to play one street against another – like street 6 against street 5. That happened virtually every evening because we would usually study in the morning and then meet up at the local pitch in the afternoon to play. We played hide and seek too – I don’t think kids are free to play like that anymore. There were always like 20 or 25 kids from the neighbourhood playing. We also used to play this game called taco, which is a bit like street cricket. It was great fun. I played it with my family this summer – it had been years since I’d last played it and I realised I’d missed it.
“I always went to school, otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed to play football. My parents were always really clear about that: school came first because there was no knowing what I’d do in the future.”
Did you always want to be a footballer?
“Yes, always, ever since I knew what a football was. My brother is three years older than me and he was a really good player. I remember being five years old, watching him going off to play. I started playing myself when I was seven or eight, at the local club. I played all the time at school too and everyone used to tell me that I would become a footballer. There were other good players too, but I played up front, in midfield… I was good, partly because my dad was a coach back them.
"As I grew up, I got the chance to have a trial at America Mineiro and that’s when I started to be serious about wanting to play football. When I was 14, I would finish school, eat lunch quickly and then catch a bus on my own to the nearest train station. Then it would be 40 minutes on the train to get to the training pitch, which was just a dirt pitch. I did that from the age of 14 to 17, on my own.
"My dad went with me the first three times to show me the way. I would meet up with some of my team-mates and we would go together because there were some dangerous areas we had to go through. We were young, though, and they never bothered us. Plus our goalkeeper lived in one of these neighbourhoods and could vouch for us – that meant we could take a shortcut through them."
Did you feel like you had a chance of making it as a pro footballer?
“Yes, that’s when I really started to believe – though I never imagined I’d reach this level. I thought I’d play for America Mineiro, then move to Cruzeiro – the biggest team in Belo Horizonte – and then go to Holland. That was the path.”
“Yes, that was the route that many Brazilian players took so it was what I envisaged for myself too. But things started to go better and better for me. I was always getting bumped up to play with the older teams – I was born in 1991 but I was playing with kids born in 1989. One day, a friend said he was going for a trial at Internacional in Porto Alegre and asked if I wanted to go too. I thought it over for a week: I was happy at America Mineiro, playing with older kids. Then I decided to go for it.”
And how did it go?
“I had to travel for nearly a day and a half on the coach. I was 15 and my thinking was that if it went badly, I could just go back – I wasn’t under contract or anything so I could do what I wanted. As it happened, it went well. I felt bad for my friend because they took me and didn’t take him – and he was the one they’d wanted to see in the first place. That was when I started to think of myself as a proper player. I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park – I was going to have to give up my teenage years and I wouldn’t be able to go out with my friends. Some guys don’t fully make those sacrifices… I know lots of people who were good back then but now have different jobs or are playing third-tier football in Brazil.”
How did things develop for you from there?
“I’d been there for a year when I was called up to the Brazil U16 team. I was still playing with the older age groups and that helped me a lot, even though I was away from my family. I lived in the shared accommodation under the stadium – you grow up quickly there. You had to take responsibility. It’s a tough life because with no parents there there’s always a risk that you can get into trouble. Near the Internacional stadium there was a mini stadium called Gigantino – I remember one day there was an Ivete Sangalo concert there and we went, even though we weren’t allowed. Security caught us and we nearly got thrown out of the club. They let us off, I stayed and the older I got, the more I realised that I had the potential to go far. I was also part of the Brazil U20 team that won the South American Youth Championship and the World Cup.”
When did you become a defender?
“When I went for my trial at Internacional, my dad told me not to play in central midfield but as a defensive midfielder in front of the defence, because defending was one of my strengths. It went well and I continued to play in front of the defence, then this one time one of our defenders got sent off right at the start of the game and the coach asked me to drop back into defence. I did well and they kept me there. Sometimes I played at full-back, like I do here, and sometimes at centre-back. There are lots of kids who start off in attack, then become midfielders before finally dropping back into defence."
When did you move up to the first-team squad?
“I was in the Juniores team, which is like the Primavera here, so I was only one category below the first team. I used to train with the first team at times, but then we had a change of coach and Jorge Fossati came in. I was a centre-back at the time but he saw me when I happened to be playing at full-back – he asked after me and then moved me up to the first-team squad. I wasn’t expecting that so I’m very grateful to Fossati because he was the one who gave me my first chance. I didn’t feel ready – I was scared – but he pushed me and helped me a lot. We won the Libertadores in 2010 and I was getting more and more playing time.”
Was that when you started to look to Europe?
“There had already been interest. Napoli enquired about me in 2011, but the Internacional president wanted me to stay. He told me I was an important player and that he’d let me go in December. That was when the chance to join Inter came up. I was 20 years old when I came to Europe. I have fond memories of it – everything was so different, Milan was covered with snow when I arrived and that was the first time I’d ever seen snow. I played a lot at Inter and became one of the youngest players to reach 100 appearances for the club at 23, beating Adriano who did it at 24. I had some issues too but that’s good in life – it helps you to mature. Then I had the opportunity to join Roma and I didn’t think twice. This is a big club, we’d been playing in the Champions League for years, [Luciano] Spalletti was the coach at the time… I said yes straight away because I needed a change of scenery. My time at Inter had come to an end.
“I’ve had great experiences at Roma and we’ve achieved a lot: second place, third place, a Champions League semi-final after many years… I still want to do a lot at this club and I’d like to stay here for many years. I like it here and so does my family – my son was born here. I have no reason to want to leave.”
You had the chance to play alongside your idol at Inter…
“That’s right, my favourite player was always Lucio. Playing with him at Inter was like a dream and after two or three months we became room mates. That was the ultimate for me. I have other idols, like Ivan Cordoba and Walter Samuel, who really helped me when I arrived too. They’re fantastic people. Then there was [Daniele] De Rossi, who I met here after having played against him for many years. He was the kind of person that had something new to tell you every day – he was always on the ball. I see these guys as idols because they’ve done so much to help me both as a player and as a person.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?
“There’s been a lot. There was one thing Spalletti always used to say: ‘Before being great footballers, we have to be great people.’ Spalletti is someone I have a lot of respect for because he gave me lots of opportunities. I try to teach my son how important it is to try to be a good, polite, humble person. That’s something I try to live by.”
How did your life change when you left Brazil for Italy?
“Everything changed. I was just married and had to move to a different city, so it really was a lot of new things all at once. It allowed me to mature. The European mentality, the mentality in training, the mentality of life… it changed me for the better and helped me become more responsible.
"My wife and I were very young and living far away from everyone we knew. Looking back, I think the experience did us the world of good. We’re better people now and now we have a son who we need to bring up well.”
Do you miss Brazil?
“Yes, I miss my mother’s cooking – my Aunt Consuela is a great cook too. I miss my family, being together… Sadly Brazil is going through a tough time at the moment, so I don’t plan on going back there, but I still miss my family. My daughter Maria Sofia lives in Porto Alegre so I can’t see her much – only at Christmas or when we go on holiday. When I’m there, I go to my mother’s house and we get everyone over. We play cards and spend time together – it does us good.
"Having said that, I love it here in Rome and we basically feel Italian. We’ve been here for eight years… we’ve grown up here. My wife says that feels more like home than Brazil too, even though we’re always heading back to see everyone. We feel at home here.”
Do you have more friends in football or away from the game?
“I don’t have many friends, but the ones I do have are good ones. I’ve had lots of team-mates who I wouldn’t call friends but that I’ve had a really good relationship with, such as Oscar, [Philippe] Coutinho and Alisson, who I’m still in contact with. I have five friends, two here and three in Brazil, but none of them are in football. In terms of my team-mates, I get on very well with Bryan [Cristante] and we go out to dinner together, but in football there’s always a risk that you end up going your separate ways.
"Once, when there were lots of Brazilians here, so myself, Emerson [Palmieri], [Leandro] Castan, Gerson, Bruno Peres and Alisson, I said to them: ‘We’re not friends, we’re team-mates.’ I saw Alisson every day, with our wives too, and we had a close friendship. We’re a little less in contact now, but that’s normal. We have different lives so we barely speak now.”
How have you found lockdown?
“It’s been tough for everyone to stay at home for so long. Personally I consider myself very fortunate because I have a garden so there’s some space for me to let off steam. I’m also lucky because of the job I do, which I see as a blessing. I can’t complain, but obviously it’s a shame not to have been able to train and that we’ve got out of our routine. That said, the most important thing is people’s health, so I’ve tried to adopt as positive an outlook as possible. It’s tough to think that our sport and other sports won’t be able to provide people with an opportunity to meet up and be together in the coming months, but it’s something we have to accept because it’s being done to protect the health of the most vulnerable.”
Have you started doing anything new during lockdown?
“I’ve learned to make things like cheesecake and other desserts. I’ve done some gardening too – I’ve bought lots of tools so I cut trim my hedges. I’ve sorted the house out, the pantry, the swimming pool changing room… I’ve tried to create new games for my son too, as well as reading him books and the Bible.”
What about TV series and videogames?
“I’ve played a bit of Xbox online with my friend from Milan – we play Apex. I’ve also watched a lot of TV series. My wife and I watched all three seasons of Designated Survivor in the space of two weeks. It’s a great series about politics, a bit like House of Cards. Now I’m watching Money Heist and before that I watched Queen of the South, which features a Brazilian actress playing a Mexican woman who works for a cartel. It’s a bit like Narcos.”
Are you in contact with your family in Brazil every day?
“Yes, they’re shut up at home but thankfully they’re all healthy. My mother is vulnerable because she’s of a certain age and she has diabetes. My sister has to work from time to time, but she takes very good care. Sadly the situation is more serious there and the hospitals aren’t as well prepared as they are here in Italy. I hope the coronavirus emergency passes as soon as possible.”
Has the club and the coaching staff been in close contact with you during this period?
“Yes, before we could go back to Trigoria I was doing our weekly training programmes. Throughout this period, the club has done a lot to help its employees, the players and our families, as well as running lots of initiatives for the city. We’re doing everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and stay in shape. Now that we’ve been able to return to the training ground, we’re getting back to what we were used to doing before – albeit on an individual basis. The club has monitored us closely and continues to do so.”
How did it feel, returning to Trigoria last week?
“It was a bit weird returning – obviously we have got used to be able to great each other, joke around, hug. Right now of course we have to keep our distance. Even with the training, I really miss so many of the group ball exercises we would do. Right now that’s how things have to be – but training is going well, we’ve starting to build up our bodies again to be ready to go.”
To mark the anniversary of Roma v Barcelona, you shared your memories of the run-up to the game in a post on Instagram. How did that idea come about?
“I wanted to share my emotions, but I had to get help from a friend to write it – otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to write so well in Italian. It had been two years and I wanted to commemorate that victory with something special. He asked me how I felt in the dressing room and what I was thinking and I told him what I felt… then little by little we created a nice post. That match will always live on in my heart and in the history of Roma.”
Check out earlier entries in our Big Interview series:
AS Roma x Diego Perotti
AS Roma x Justin Kluivert
AS Roma x Amadou Diawara
AS Roma x Jordan Veretout
AS Roma x Elisa Bartoli
AS Roma x Betty Bavagnoli
AS Roma x Chris Smalling
AS Roma x Edin Dzeko
AS Roma x Gianluca Mancini
AS Roma x Aleksandar Kolarov
AS Roma x Nicolo Zaniolo
AS Roma x Jim Pallotta
AS Roma x Cengiz Under
AS Roma x Paulo Fonseca
AS Roma x Leonardo Spinazzola