When Mauricio dos Santos Nascimento by Johor Darul Ta’zim before the start of the 2019 Malaysia Super League (MSL) season, he had a gigantic task of replacing the incredible Marcos Antonio at the heart of the then five-time MSL champions.
For five seasons, Antonio was a rock for JDT as they crushed all before them to elevate themselves to the top of the MSL perch as well as helping the team to an incredible AFC Cup success back in 2015. Mauricio had a lot to live up to but the adaptation had been seamless.
In his first season, Mauricio played a big part in JDT retaining the league title on top of being part of the team becoming Malaysia’s first ever participant in the AFC Champions League group (ACL) stage. Going into his second season in 2020, the former Lazio man looked like he has found his momentum.
He scored in the opening match of the season, becoming the first ever player to score at the brand-new Sultan Ibrahim Stadium to give JDT a 1-0 win over Kedah that came with three MSL points and the Charity Shield. Then the big Brazilian came up with the good again to send Suwon Bluewings packing in the ACL.
“Yes before that stop, I was doing good games, I managed to make two important goals and that gave us one trophy and a victory in ACL. All this was thanks to God and my teammates, and the great job we did in the pre season.
“This year I was feeling better physically and adapted as well, as I was a few months away from playing when I got here and football, as everyone knows, we need game rhythm and confidence to do a good job. But I trained a lot in those months to get back well and help JDT achieve the goals,” Mauricio told Goal.
So when the news broke that the Covid-19 pandemic was enveloping Malaysian borders and football being brought to a standstill, it came at the wrong moment for Mauricio and his team who had quickly assumed pole position in the 2020 MSL after four rounds of matches played.
This was a whole new experience for the 31-year-old who had spent his career in Brazil, Portugal, Italy, Russia and Poland prior to moving to Johor Bahru. For some, losing that routine of going into training and preparing the mental side of things for matches and recovery can be a daunting prospect.
But Mauricio is at the other end of the spectrum, not only knowing what his job requires him to do in those partial lockdown period in Malaysia but also having the necessary discipline to conform to the requirements set out by the football club to their players in the period when everyone had to stay at home.
“In 12 years I have never really been away from doing what I love – playing football. It was very difficult at the beginning because before we were in a sequence of training sessions and games that were very big and where the rapport was improving every day. Difficult also being at home every day without being able to go to the club and without having contact with anyone.
“The easiest side for me was home training. I was always very focused on my training since I was a child, and when I went to play in Europe I learned even more to take care of myself and prepare myself better for the matches. And the help of our technical staff who helped us every day in training via Zoom was also very important.
“To tell you the truth, I was very excited about this return to training. I miss everything and everyone. My companions and I always kept in touch because we trained every day via video and gave a little talk there, of course it was not the same thing that being together more. I always speak with them from home. I learned to like the club and my teammates a lot.”
Everyone has a different coping mechanism in these extraordinary times. While some turn to more technological things like streaming movies or playing online games, it was a more traditional approach for Mauricio in trying to fill up the time away from the pitch.
“I have a phrase that I always carry with me – ‘In difficult times, we always have to take the good side out of the situation’. In these months we had at home I took full advantage of it to spend time with my family that I couldn’t before. I took the opportunity to dedicate myself to the religion I believe in.
“I took the opportunity to do some book readings. Reflect a lot about being a better human being every day. I trained a lot to not get out of shape. In short, for me and my family it was very profitable when it stopped.”
Like the other teams in MSL, JDT had already returned to individual training in June and subsequently contact training by the middle of July. They are set to return to action starting with a tricky away trip to Pahang on August 26 and wrapping up a shortened league season away to Melaka on September 22.
There’s the Malaysia Cup competition that begins after the end of the Super League season but JDT and Mauricio’s focus will very much be on the return of the ACL where they have been picked as one of the centralised host of the group stages. It gives rise to the hope that JDT could yet break more barriers at the highest stage in Asian club football, to which Mauricio very much agrees.
“Of course (it’s possible), yes. Playing at home. I have always told myself and my companions that it is possible to have an excellent campaign this year at ACL if we just believe in ourselves and give the most every day in training. Everything is possible,” explained a hopeful Mauricio.