Anderson: 'I have the qualities to be player of the year next season'

Anderson has been at Manchester United for four years but, the determined Brazilian informs Sam Wallace, his best is still to come

Sam Wallace
Saturday 30 April 2011 00:00

The Manchester United midfielder Anderson has a story about the beginnings of his professional career that tells you everything you need to know about why this talented Brazil international believes that he will be a success in England.

It begins in the canteen that served the youth-team players at his first club Gremio in his hometown of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. Anderson was approached by the first-team manager who demanded to know why he had two mobile phones on that table in front of him. "I said 'Why do you want to know? I'm the one who pays the bills'," Anderson recalls. "He was surprised with my reaction because I was very young. He asked me if I played as much as I spoke. I said: 'I'm better than some of the players you have in your team'."

The Gremio manager was intrigued and rang the former Brazil international Branco, then in charge of the junior national teams, for a reference. "Apparently Branco said about me, 'He's a very good player but he's a bit crazy'," Anderson says. "We had a derby coming up against Internacional. It's like United v City. The Gremio manager told me to go to the hotel and join the first team. I had never even trained with them. I played and scored a goal. We lost 2-1. I was 15 years old."

It is the last detail that stops you in your tracks. Since coming from Porto in 2007 for £18m Anderson has had some ups and downs at United – a point he illustrates with a roller-coaster motion of his arm during the course of our interview – but he is still only 23. There is, Anderson says, still a lot to come.

Tomorrow he faces Arsenal, against whom he had one of the best performances of his United career in the 2009 Champions League semi-final first leg, in yet another pivotal game at the end of the season. For Anderson, the prospect of a glittering end to the season is nothing new: in his four years at the club he has already featured in two Champions League finals and won two Premier League medals.

You might think that you know Anderson: a stroppy expression made worse by a general aversion to being substituted but the character who presented himself at United's training ground yesterday was very different. He has that well-disposed Brazilian attitude to life, was delighted at the rare Mancunian sunshine and joked that he could not possibly have his photograph taken with his hair out of the usual plaits.

It was his performances against Arsenal that inspired the song Old Trafford sings about Anderson – unrepeatable in full – which compares him favourably to Cesc Fabregas. Given how Arsenal's season has tailed off as United have gotten stronger, does he agree with the view that the general lack of experience in Arsène Wenger's team has proved their undoing?

"Arsenal are a great team, everybody knows that," he says. "In the last three years they have been competing with United. They have great players: Fabregas, [Robin] van Persie and [Alex] Song. It will be a tough game for us.

"They have a lot of young players but it is also important to have Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Edwin van der Sar and, in the past, Gary Neville. They have the knowledge and experience and they can transmit that easily to the younger players and that helps a lot.

"Now the Arsenal team doesn't have [Thierry] Henry, [Patrick] Vieira, [Sol] Campbell, [Freddie] Ljungberg – players like that. United has those kind of players, it is important for them to pass their experience to us. I have learned a lot from Scholes. Those players are important.

"They are the type of players who are keen to help and give a word of advice, on and off the pitch. They are like part of the furniture of the club. They are part of the club's history. They helped me adapt to this club and I am thankful for that."

Anderson has a new deal until 2015, signed in December after his return from a cruciate knee ligament injury sustained in February last year. That kept him out until September, a seven-month period that he admits was one of the most frustrating of his career. During that time he was involved in a car accident in Portugal in the summer that he dismisses as unimportant but there was the growing feeling that he needed to prove himself to Sir Alex Ferguson on his return.

He came back with some notable performances and played 22 games before he suffered another knee injury in February that threatened to end his season for the second straight year. Back this month, he was the outstanding player against Everton last Saturday. He may have had some contrasting fortunes over the last 12 months but he is on the brink of a third league title and a third Champions League final appearance.

It is not hard to see that confidence in Anderson and while he admits that United are not at Wembley yet, the possibility of another final against Barcelona is a tantalising prospect. "I think we can do it [beat them]," he says. "Barcelona has a great team and good players like [Lionel] Messi and Xavi... we beat them once and we lost that final [2009] to them. United is one of the top clubs. We are close to them and – if we get there – it will be close again.

"I think United is the only team that Barcelona respect a lot. They are always careful with us because we also have a great team. We have great players who can stop Messi, in defence, midfield and attack. We can face Barcelona and cope. They are well aware of that and they have a lot of respect for us. It will not be easy for them to beat us. It will be 50-50.

"Messi is an out-of-this-world player but we cannot just worry about Messi, we have to worry about other players too. Nowadays football is a lot about details and if you make a mistake you can lose a trophy or a championship."

That self-belief comes from a childhood that, by his own admission, was deprived. You get the impression that if Anderson had not stood his ground in that canteen in Gremio, he might never have made it. He is no different when it comes to his own career at United during which, he points out, he has never had the benefit of a proper pre-season preparation.

He came to United, signed in May 2007, still recovering from a broken leg. The following summer he played for Brazil at the Beijing Olympics and the last two summers have been interrupted by injury. "This year I will do a pre-season," he says, "I will maintain 100 per cent performance in every match and there will be matches I hope I will be able to be the decisive players."

It is delivered in a matter-of-fact way in the manner of someone who has no reason to doubt himself. Are we, I enquire, talking player of the year material? "Definitely," he says. "I have the qualities for that. I know that. I know that I have qualities to be a great player. I am still young, if I am physically well, and if I want to, I can be a great player."

He wants to go back to Brazil one day but sees a long-term future for himself at United – "I want to be a part of United's history like Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, at least a little part of the club's history." He joined, he said, mainly because of the influence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Queiroz, and admitted that he did not know much about United before he signed.

"Ronaldo is an exceptional person and fantastic player," he says. "He was able to win everything at United. He was attracted to Real Madrid but this doesn't mean that one day he will not be able to return. He likes the football in the Premier League. He likes this football club and you never know, he might come back one day." I exchange a surprised glance with our interpreter. "I think so," says Anderson. "He loved United and still loves them. Anything can happen. You never know."

Finally we move on to his childhood in Porto Alegre. The father of two daughters, Anderson is well accustomed to being the breadwinner, a role he took on, on behalf of his parents and three siblings at 11 as a schoolboy player at Gremio. His father died at 41 when Anderson was just 14. When I ask what his father did for a living, Anderson makes a drinking motion with his hand.

"I come from a background where I suffered a lot of deprivation," he says. "Not only me but my family also suffered a lot and now they are happy for me because they have everything that they need. I have been able to support my whole family. They have apartments, houses, cars – they are sorted out for life.

"I had to leave home when I was 12 to fulfil my dream of being a footballer and thank God I was able to do that. I put my belongings in a bin bag and moved to a friend's house. Then I moved to the Gremio academy. I was earning the equivalent of £300 a month. I kept £100 and gave the rest to my mother.

"I lost my father when I was 14 years old. My father lived next door to me in an apartment with my grandmother. I was sad because no one knocked on my door to ask for help because me and my brother would have taken him to hospital even though he didn't want to go. He thought his life was finished. He didn't want to live anymore. That is my only regret."

He tells the story with a philosophical shrug. I put it to him that some people are too quick to judge wealthy young footballers. He agrees. "People see a young footballer buy a car or a house and say, 'He's moody, he's not nice'. But maybe they don't know what this player suffered in the past. Maybe he starved, maybe he missed out on a lot of things that a 12-year-old shouldn't miss out on.

"People don't think about this. Nowadays if I need to buy something I will do. The people who judge me never put food in my fridge [when I was young]. I have my own money and I worked for it and as long as I don't tread on anyone else – that's fine."

As we go to leave, I ask him if he is in the team for tomorrow. He replies that he cannot tell me that kind of information. Ferguson would nod in approval. Anderson might have had his ups and downs but if he delivers as he says he will over the next months, there will be no looking back.

My Other Life

At home I play my old PlayStation, talk to my daughters and watch TV. In the past when I had a day off I liked to go out and chat up a few girls but I cannot do that anymore because I have a steady girlfriend!

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