Forever a Wanderer: João Morelli announces retirement from football

A former Canadian Premier League Player of the Year is hanging up his boots. Brazilian forward João Morelli, a fan favourite for Halifax Wanderers FC the past four years, announced on Friday that he has decided to retire from football.

Morelli retires as the joint-fifth highest scorer in CPL history (second among international players) with 22 goals in the league, which also makes him the all-time leading scorer for the Wanderers from 43 total games played for the club.

“It’s a mix of emotions,” Morelli told this week. “It was really hard to make that decision, but I’m happy overall. I’m sure that it’s the right decision, I have to take care of my son and he’s the priority right now. Staying home is the best option for my family. I’m happy for everything I’ve done in football, so everything’s good.”

As a new father, Morelli has made it clear that his family is his priority; having struggled with injuries in the past two years, he has come to the bittersweet decision that it’s time to bid farewell to his life as a professional footballer.

The 27-year-old native of Itu, Brazil was a star whenever he took to the pitch in the CPL, having first arrived in Canada ahead of the 2020 bubble campaign in Prince Edward Island. Morelli scored on his Wanderers debut at the Island Games, a penalty in a 2-2 draw against Pacific and the first of four goals he’d score en route to Halifax’s appearance in the CPL Final.

In his first full season as a Wanderer, Morelli took the league by storm and surged to the 2021 Golden Boot with 14 goals that year — still the league’s single-season record. At the end of the 2021 campaign, Morelli was voted Player of the Year for his dominant showing in Halifax, having been the most electrifying player in the league with a staggering six two-goal games, scoring half of the Wanderers’ 28 regular season goals.

Morelli looked set to continue his superstardom as the 2022 season began, scoring the league’s first goal of the year from the penalty spot in a 1-0 win for Halifax at York United on opening night. The very next match, though — a visit to Atlético Ottawa — saw Morelli’s momentum come to an abrupt halt. In almost the final moment of that game, Morelli fell to the ground after a misplaced step. The news was devastating: He had torn his ACL, and he would not play at the Wanderers Grounds in 2022.

Joao Morelli (22) celebrates with fans. (Greg Ellison/HFX Wanderers FC)

Today, Morelli admits that he was certain he would have to retire after that injury; being unsure if he’d even kick a ball again, a return to the pitch felt impossibly far away. That’s not quite where his story ended, though.

“I was 100 per cent sure I was going to retire,” Morelli said. “But then you start thinking, how can I retire after an injury and not try again? So I turned my mindset around and was like, okay, let’s go back to football. It made me prove to myself — not anyone else, just myself — that I could do it again.”

Fifteen months and a whole lot of rehab work later, Morelli finally did return to the pitch in July 2023. After three small cameos as a substitute, he came off the bench at York Lions Stadium for a longer-than-anticipated 56-minute shift, and he scored around the hour mark. Having returned to the scoresheet on the same pitch where he thought he’d scored the last goal of his career, Morelli was brought to tears postmatch.

He would go on to play a major role in the Wanderers’ run to the 2023 postseason, contributing four goals and an assist in nine games that undoubtedly helped spur Halifax into the top half of the table. Morelli’s triumphant return was short-lived, though; his final appearance for the Wanderers was Sept. 13, as further injuries kept him out of the last four regular season matches and, most painfully of all, their playoff game in front of the Halifax crowd that has meant so much to him the past few years.

Morelli has spoken openly about his love for the Nova Scotian community throughout his time with the club, having taken a leap of faith to Canada after spending the challenging early years of his career playing mostly in England and Estonia.

“You can’t even explain, you have to live it to understand it,” Morelli said in July when he returned to the squad. “The city’s amazing, the people there — I’ve said this before, they’re really nice. I feel like Halifax is my home, too. I miss it to be honest; I love Brazil, but I have something there that I love and I want to be there so bad. I hope my family now enjoys it as I do.”

Joao Morelli with his son after a game at the Wanderers Grounds. (Trevor MacMillan/HFX Wanderers FC)

Goals and wins at the Wanderers Grounds occupy many of Morelli’s happiest footballing memories, and he dreamed of playing there again while undergoing his rehab process. For a long time he felt it would never happen again, but his Wanderers story would have one final coda before he said goodbye for good.

“Those moments, they’re going to live forever in my head,” Morelli added back in July, just as he’d rejoined the squad. “Now, my wife and my son can be there, that’ll be unbelievable too.”

Morelli’s family joined him in Halifax in early August, and in his first game with them in attendance (an emphatic 3-0 win over Vancouver FC) he scored twice, pointing to his wife and son in the stands in celebration both times. One of the proudest moments of Morelli’s career was, undoubtedly, was walking out for anthems with the youngster in his arms, as was the lap of the pitch he took with his boy after the win.

Now, the time has come for Morelli to move on from a life in sport. He told he won’t be watching much football — apart from the Wanderers, of course — in an effort to avoid the temptation to return.

At his peak, Morelli was almost unstoppable, able to get into dangerous attacking spaces and finish from inside the box like few others in the league — not to mention his ice-cold ability from the penalty spot. Despite being a natural number 10, more comfortable arriving in the box late and helping create for teammates, he became one of the best goalscorers the CPL has ever seen. Sadly, he never did get that extended run of games in attacking midfield he was hoping to have in 2021, nor did he get a full season playing in the attack-minded system of Patrice Gheisar.

As he departs, though, he leaves behind a legacy as one of the most entertaining players ever to appear in the CPL. Fans across the league — but especially in Halifax — fell in love with Morelli back in 2021, and the feeling is mutual; he’s been open about good the move to Canada was for his mental health after darker days in Europe.

His impact on the league in his four years, especially in a couple of COVID-impacted seasons where people needed some joy, will make him always a crucial figure of the CPL’s early days.

More than anything though, João Morelli will forever be a Halifax Wanderer.

Morelli said it hurts him that he won’t ever play at the Wanderers Grounds again, but he’ll be watching with interest from Brazil, praying they’re able to build their proposed new permanent stadium.

“I told Matt Fegan I’m going to be there to watch in the new stadium with my son, a hundred per cent,” he said.

“That’s a place and people I’ll remember forever, for sure.”

(Trevor MacMillan/HFX Wanderers FC)