Orlando City Mid-Fielder Júnior Urso’s Unique Journey, ‘A World Traveler of the World’s Game’
By Orlando City SC // May 18, 2020
Urso has always done whatever it takes to achieve greatness.
ORLANDO, FLORIDA – From humble beginnings in the shadows of São Paulo, Brazil–”rice with onion was all we had to eat”–Orlando City midfielder Júnior Urso has always done whatever it takes to achieve greatness.
Even if that means venturing halfway across the world.
“I consider myself a winner,” Urso said in Portuguese through a translator. “I like to think that I won, because I come from a place where I had nothing, and today I am able to help my family.”
Urso has followed an unconventional path for a Brazilian soccer player, rising through the ranks in his home country before taking a risk and bringing his talents to China.
But Urso made good on his bet, adapting seamlessly to a brand new culture and becoming a champion in his first season abroad.
His experience and success in China, and his drive to win on and off the pitch, are enormous reasons why Urso finds himself in Orlando today.
In February 2014, Urso faced a crossroads. Then approaching his 25th birthday, the midfielder had played his entire career in his native Brazil, recently finding a home as a regular starter for first division club Coritiba.
Coming off perhaps the best season of his career, there was no compelling football reason for Urso to leave Coritiba, much less Brazil altogether.
When a proposal from Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng came to Urso’s attention, his immediate reaction was to decline.
“I didn’t want to go at all,” he said. “I was experiencing a special moment, experiencing a very big growth and evolution in my career.”
But there were circumstances beyond the pitch that beckoned Urso to make a drastic change.
“I lived a reality in which I still didn’t have a home of my own,” he recalled. “Nor did my mother have a home of her own. And [Shandong Luneng] offered me exactly that to leave. A roof for my family. I would no longer need to pay rent.”
Urso was recruited to Shandong by Cuca, a 15-year veteran Brazilian manager who had been at the helm of rival Brasileirão side Atletico Mineiro when Urso was at Coritiba.
It’s the norm for most global soccer managers, particularly in Brazil, to spend only a couple years at any given club, and despite winning the 2013 Copa Libertadores, Mineiro dismissed Cuca in December 2013 after two-and-a-half seasons in charge.
Three days later, he was on his way to China.
With the Chinese transfer window rapidly closing, Cuca had to act quickly to bring in new players. Urso was among those at the top of the list.
“The proposal came on the day the window was going to close,” Urso said. “I went to São Paulo and stayed in a four-hour meeting to get everything settled. Everything was signed by Friday, and on Monday I was on my way to China.”
Shandong Luneng is based in Jinan, whose estimated population of 5.3 million inhabitants ranks just 18th among Chinese cities. Called the “City of Springs” for its 72 natural springs, records of which have been kept for nearly a thousand years, Jinan is not an international megalopolis like Beijing or Shanghai.
“It is a totally Chinese city,” Urso said. “It is not a city of international cuisine, for example. For the first two or three months I was inside the training center. My only outings were to go to the mall, because they had an Italian restaurant.”
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As time progressed, Urso began to immerse himself more into the culture of his new home. He joined the rest of the squad on a trip to Mount Taishan, the foremost of the Five Sacred Mountains of China.
“This mountain is frozen at the beginning of the year,” he remembered. “It was a hard way to get to the peak. We got to the top and there were ancient sculptures, made of gold, and various other sacred things.
I thought it was amazing, that many years ago, with few resources, people reached such a high place and did all that. For me it was incredible to know something of such importance for the people and their civilization.”
Urso wasn’t alone as he slowly eased into a new culture.
Star Brazilian striker Vagner Love had signed for Shandong the previous summer, while Cuca also brought fellow Brazilian Aloíso with Urso at the end of the transfer window.
But though he could speak his native Portuguese with his fellow Brazilians, it was a different teammate to whom he was drawn the most.
“In China, I had my first experience of really being alone and living really far from my country, so I wanted to use this opportunity to grow as a human being,” Urso said. “The club provided translators, which was necessary because Mandarin is a very difficult language. But I was always very curious to learn English.
If you just wanted to speak Portuguese, it would be easy. But there was also an Australian on the team, Ryan McGowan. He ended up being one of the people I identified with the most.”
McGowan, a central defender, had come to Shandong from Hearts in the Scottish Premier League and was angling for a place in Australia’s 2014 World Cup side. He was the only native English speaker on the roster.
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