On transfer deadline day in August 2006, Arsenal completed a loan move for Real Madrid attacker Julio Baptista, which saw Spaniard Jose Antonio Reyes moving the other way.
A Brazil international, who had earned his European spurs playing for Reyes’ old club Sevilla, before switching to the Spanish capital, Baptista was a versatile attacker, powerfully built, and tantalisingly, known as ‘the Beast’. He spent a season in north London, and while he struggled to make a major impact in the Premier League, he had a big say in Arsenal’s fortunes in cup competition, opening his scoring account against Hamburg in the Champions League in November 2006.
However, it was in the League Cup that he truly came into his own, racking up six goals in the competition, including four goals in Arsenal’s quarter-final victory against Liverpool at Anfield, in a memorable 6-3 victory in January 2007. He went on to bag a double in the semi-final against Spurs, but was unable to produce the same lethal form in the final, as a young Gunners team went down 2–1 to Chelsea. Having notched 10 goals in 35 appearances, Baptista returned to Real Madrid, later enjoying two seasons with Roma, before heading home to join Cruzeiro, where Jefferson Rodrigues caught up with him for us.
Firstly Julio, what are your abiding memories of the season that you spent at Arsenal?
I had a great time at Arsenal. Each day I spent there is memorable. Especially memorable was being able to work with Mr. Arsene Wenger. He is one of the best managers in the world, and it was a pleasure for me to be able to learn from him. Another thing that I always remember is how the club and the fans treat the players: with a lot of respect and love. That is something that only a few clubs have and Arsenal is one of them. That’s something that stays with you when you leave the club.
How did your move to Arsenal actually come about?
Real Madrid were going through some difficult times. The season before they had had four managers! So it was an uncertain time for everyone. The club’s President, Florentino Perez, resigned and the new board wanted to make a lot of changes, including to the squad at the club. They wanted to bring fresh blood into the club and so I was loaned to Arsenal for a season. When my loan spell came to an end, I wanted to stay at Arsenal, but the price Real wanted for me was too high, and Arsenal and Real Madrid couldn’t reach an agreement. That was a shame, because I liked the idea of playing for many more seasons with Arsenal.
Your arrival coincided with Arsenal’s first season at the Emirates Stadium. What was that like?
Emirates Stadium is remarkable, spectacular. I know Highbury had its own special identity and the fans loved the old stadium, but Emirates is one of the most modern stadiums in the world, a reference point when people talk about the top football venues. I think nowadays the fans are used to Emirates too and they have helped give the stadium its own energy and atmosphere. When I was there I remember feeling during every game the fans showed us that they really knew how to support Arsenal.
"When my loan spell came to an end, I wanted to stay at Arsenal, but the price Real wanted for me was too high"
Did it feel like a new beginning for the club?
For sure. A new stadium is always the beginning of a new era. And as we see now, the decision to build Emirates Stadium was the right one in the long term. Arsenal were one of the leading clubs in Europe during the 1990s and 2000s, with great players like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Ian Wright... So it took time to rebuild the squad when you are used to players like them. But I look at Arsenal now and I see a squad with huge promise – they look to have a very competitive team and one that is capable of bringing trophies back to Emirates Stadium.
Brazil used to play their European friendlies at the Emirates. Did it feel like a “home from home”?
We always wanted to play at the Emirates because we knew the facilities would be great. We would feel at home and comfortable. The pitch was always perfect, and that always helps when you play the way Brazil like to play the game. And certainly for me personally, as an Arsenal player at that time, I felt like I was playing at home when I played for Brazil. I was involved in four of the six Selecao games there. I love London. It’s been a while since my last visit. It’s hard to find the time when you are playing, otherwise I’d be a regular visitor.
Were you surprised that it took until this year for Arsenal to win a trophy?
Of course. It’s a big club, but we have to remember that the Premier League is probably the toughest league in Europe, if not the world. You always have five or six teams that can win the title. And it’s even more open when you talk about the cup competitions. So winning silverware is not easy in England.
You scored four goals during a League Cup game at Anfield, to help Arsenal to a memorable 6-3 win. Was that the highlight of your time with the club?
That was one of the greatest games of my career. I think after that match the other players and the fans started to see me differently. I think I left my mark on the club in that game. It was an incredible match. It’s not usual to see rival fans celebrating your team, but that is what happened at Anfield that night. Can you imagine? Liverpool fans applauding players in Arsenal shirts. Liverpool v Arsenal games are special anyway as they are two legendary clubs. And I could have scored more, if I hadn’t missed a penalty kick. I remember Thierry Henry was injured and when we were travelling back to London I got a message from him congratulating me and telling me that I should enjoy that incredible night, because scoring four goals against Liverpool at Anfield is something only a few players achieve in their careers.
You also scored another couple of goals in the Carling Cup semi final to help see Arsenal through to the final, where you finished on the losing side to Chelsea... was that a major disappointment?
It was definitely the low point of my time at Arsenal. I really wanted to win a trophy with the club. Arsenal deserved something after the way we reached the final, but Chelsea did better in the final. Arse?ne Wenger had built a great squad for that season and created a perfect atmosphere for the players, everyone played, everyone was given a chance. So we wanted to win for him, but it wasn’t possible. Losing that final match to Chelsea was hard and my lowest moment at Arsenal.
A young Theo Walcott scored his first goal in that final. He was then a raw talent. Did he look like he had big potential back then?
I have no doubt about that. He was already a player to watch back then. Thierry always talked with him and said how Theo could use his speed and technique to help us. He was always a very skilful player. We always talked to him so he could use that to help us. He is a different player, and has that something that only the best players have. I’m glad to see that he became the player we thought he would be: a key player for Arsenal and England.
"I’m glad to see Theo became the player we thought he would be: a key player for Arsenal and England"
You played up front as a striker for Arsenal and also in midfield. What was your best position?
I actually played just a few games as striker. I really liked to play as an offensive midfielder. Arse?ne Wenger knew that and liked to play me in that role. I always had this strong physique which helped me to attack and defend when needed. Arse?ne Wenger recognised that and tried to use that part of my game.
You used to play music with Gilberto and Denilson. Was it good having a Brazilian ‘gang’ in North London?
Having Gilberto and Denilson there helped me a lot. They were like brothers to me. When you arrive in a different country and city it’s always difficult to adapt to the culture, to understand the language... and both of them helped me to adapt quickly. Gilberto in particular made me feel home. He was at Arsenal for a long time and understood well how the club, the fans and the city work. It was amazing to have them there to help me I had a great time in Arsenal. I think each day I spent there is a day to remember.
There are currently no Brazilians in the Arsenal squad – is it perhaps time for Arsenal to explore the Brazilian market again?
I think Arsenal can look a little more to Brazil. It depends on the kind of player Arse?ne Wenger wants. But we are always producing new stars and talented players. So why not sign a few Brazilians?
Did you appreciate being called ‘the Beast’? Do you feel it was a good fit?
The nickname was given to me in Spain, because of my physical strength and my stamina. When I got hold of the ball and started running towards the goal, it was hard to stop me. So I became “La Bestia” or The Beast. I kind of feel that it was something I earned and that it was given as a sign of respect. So I liked it.
Do you stay in touch with anyone at Arsenal?
A lot of my friends have left the club, but I always talk to Fabregas, who plays for Chelsea now. And of course Gilberto. I lost touch with Thierry Henry when he went to the United States. But I have great memories of the times I went back to Arsenal with Real Madrid: the respect and the love the fans showed to me – that is something that I will never forget.
How did things unfold for you after you left Arsenal?
After my season at Arsenal, I had to go back to Real Madrid. We won a title there and I had the chance to play at Emirates Stadium again in the Champions League when Arsenal fans received me with applause. That attitude showed me the respect that the British fans have for the game. That is something other countries can learn from. When a player experiences that kind of welcome from a former club it is very gratifying; it let’s him know that his time at the club meant something. After Real Madrid, I spent two great seasons with AS Roma in Italy. A very different league and a tough one. Then I came back to Spain and played at Malaga under Manuel Pellegrini, another great manager. We took Malaga to the last eight in the Champions League, which was something that no-one could have imagined possible before. When my contract finished I decided to come back to Brazil and I signed with Cruzeiro.
What’s it like being back home? Was the World Cup a good thing for Brazilian football?
I think the World Cup will definitely benefit the Brazilian League. Now we have a lot of great stadiums, so the infrastructure is better. The league is strong at the moment, but I think Brazilian clubs should try to bring in more international standard players so it helps to bring back the fans to the stadium. Brazil needed the World Cup spirit and that definitely helped.
You turn 33 on October 1, what are your future goals?
I’m taking things one season at a time. My main concern is to see how my body is working and if I’m still fit to play at the highest level. While I can do this, I will keep playing. When I feel that my body doesn’t allow me to play my best I will call time on my career.
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