Football: Marcelo's brio from Rio

Simon Turnbull meets the stylish Sheffield Blade made in Brazil
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The Independent Online
MIXING with Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and company on the FA Cup stage at Highbury next Saturday is unlikely to be an overwhelming experience for Marcelo Cipriano Dos Santos. Facing a few big shot Gunners is not such a big deal when you played your school team football alongside Leonardo. "We grew up together in Rio de Janeiro," Marcelo said. "We studied at the same school, played in the school team together and were in the same five-a-side football club."

From their roots in Rio, the football road has taken Leonardo to Milan and a World Cup final and Marcelo to Sheffield and an FA Cup semi-final. The Blade from Brazil may not have been as pointed a success as his former schoolmate but he has been displaying a cutting edge of late. With nine goals this season, Marcelo has already eclipsed his tally from his first season with Sheffield United.

"Nine goals in 16 starts, I think, is not a bad rate for a striker," he said. "Last season was my first in England and that was a bit difficult. I scored eight goals. But I thought I could do better. I wanted to prove to myself and to the other people here that I can do much better for the club. At the start of this season I had a thigh injury and it was a problem for me to recover my form and everything. But now things are going well."

Marcelo is not, of course, the first South American to play for Sheffield United. Alex Sabella, signed from River Plate by Harry Haslam in 1978, spent two years at Bramall Lane before moving on to Leeds. He was not a resounding success. "He was a magnificent player," Danny Bergara, Haslam's Uruguayan assistant, said of the Argentine midfielder, "but when we didn't have the ball we only had 10 men. Alex just waited for someone to fetch it and give it back to him."

It might have been different if the Bramall Lane board had not balked at the pounds 750,000 fee Boca Juniors wanted for Haslam's first-choice transfer target from Argentina - a 17-year-old called Diego Maradona. What the divine-handed one would have made of South Yorkshire and Second Division English is anyone's guess but it has not been such a cultural or climatic shock to Marcelo's system. He has lived in Europe for 17 of his 29 years.

"I was born in Brazil," he said, "but all my family are Portuguese. I went to Portugal when I was 12, to live in Aveiro. I love Brazil. I was born there and it is such a wonderful country. I did have a Brazilian passport but I have not renewed it. I consider myself Portuguese. I think of myself as a Portuguese footballer."

Marcelo started his football career in Portugal with Acade-mica. He also played for Benfica before joining Deportivo Alaves in Spain and moving on to Sheffield United for pounds 400,000 in October 1997. "I have played for Benfica in front of 80,000 in the Stadium of Light," he said. "It was an incredible experience. It is different to Sunderland's Stadium of Light, yes. It is much bigger. But the Sunderland stadium is incredible too. The supporters give it a great atmosphere."

They certainly did the night Sheffield United's promotion dream perished last season. Leading 2-1 from the first leg of their First Division play- off semi-final, thanks to goals by Marcelo and Vassilis Borbokis, they were beaten 3-2 on aggregate. It was nevertheless a brush with big-time English football for Marcelo, and not his first. He was a member of the Sheffield United team beaten by an Alan Shearer goal in the FA Cup semi- final at Old Trafford last April.

"We were unlucky to lose to Newcastle," Marcelo reflected. "But the experience was good for me and for the rest of the players. We have a difficult game against Arsenal next week. Everyone at the club knows it will be very difficult to get through. But there is the capacity in the FA Cup for anything to happen. We showed that last season by beating Coventry in the sixth round."

Marcelo and his team-mates will be backed by 5,300 Blades at the Clock End when they bid to beat the holders at Highbury. A famous victory, and a quarter- final place, might do much to revive a season that has not gone as well as expected under Steve Bruce's management at Bramall Lane. It could give Bruce's Blades the momentum they need to push from mid-table into an end- of-season play-off place.

"The play-offs are still possible for us," Marcelo maintained. "The players at Sheffield United are good enough for the Premier League in my opinion. But, of course, we must win games to put the club there. It's where a big club like Sheffield United should be." It is also where someone schooled with Leonardo really ought to be.