The Canadian Premier League’s reigning Golden Boot winner wasn’t expecting to score as much as he did last year.
João Morelli was a dominant attacking force for HFX Wanderers in 2021, scoring 14 times in league play, despite being a natural attacking midfielder. In fact, he was really the club’s only attacking force last season — no other player had more than three goals — which was part of the reason they missed out on a playoff spot by a point.
Still, the Brazilian enjoyed an excellent individual season — good enough to earn himself CPL Player of the Year honours on top of the Golden Boot — and he’s hoping to carry that same momentum into the 2022 season.
“For me, I was happy with my performances, I got the awards and everything, but as I said before I’d change that for the team to win the league,” he told CanPL.ca in an interview during preseason.
Morelli added: “I’m excited again to play here. Hopefully this year we can get things right and make less mistakes; if we make less mistakes we’re gonna be in the top four. There’s a lot of pressure on me to do again what I did, which is really hard, but I’m training the hardest I can and taking care of myself as much as I can to do it again, and hopefully this time with more help from my teammates. We have a lot to prove; it’s funny, we’re always the underdogs for the league, but it’s okay. We’re gonna prove a lot of people wrong for sure this year.”
It’s possible we see a slightly different version of Morelli in 2022. For most of his career, he’s played a little deeper on the pitch than he tended to last year, creating chances for teammates as much as he scores them himself. If you ask him, his best position on the pitch is the number 10 spot.
“This is one of my qualities in the game, even playing as a 10 I arrive in the box a lot of times and this is a thing I learned in Europe,” Morelli explained. “In my seasons before, in Estonia, and even in England, I had that quality to arrive in the box and to finish goals. No one expects a number 10 to score more than the strikers, but I think this is one of the things I can help a lot with the team. And obviously I have the other side as a midfielder to distribute the game and to find key passes.
“This is where I feel most comfortable playing because I think it’s just more natural for me. But all I want is to be playing, so if coach Stephen wants me to be playing as a nine, as a winger, even as an eight I’ve practiced sometimes; wherever it is, I’m just going to try to be my best and put out my best qualities.”
When speaking of where Morelli feels most comfortable, no specific position fits that description as well as Halifax itself. Morelli, a native of Itu in Brazil, has a globetrotting resumé, having played in England for the likes of Middlesbrough and Fleetwood Town as well as for FC Levadia in Estonia.
Unexpectedly, though, it’s Canada where Morelli has found his footballing home. He’s become fast friends with his teammates at the Wanderers, and perhaps most importantly, he’s enjoying his soccer here after some truly difficult times in Europe.
“This is a thing that I learned throughout the years,” Morelli explained. “I’m getting old now, 26, but when I was 18 all I wanted was to play in Europe. I went to a big club, but my expectations were too high. Not related to the club, nothing related to football; I thought my life would be perfect, and it’s not like that.”
He added: “Everywhere you go you have problems, hard times with people, and if you don’t adapt yourself to how they live then it’s hard. I was a stubborn kid, I was 18, and it was hard to make friends and everything. Here I’ve found friendly people, friends for life. My teammates, I can literally call them brothers.
“This is something that makes me feel happy, because if you’re good off the pitch, then on the pitch it’s more than 50% that you’re gonna be at your best. I wanted to come back because of my mental health; I had problems in England, it was really hard for me. Being here, being happy, I know I can perform good and take it to the next level maybe.”
Though he didn’t get the chance to play in Halifax in 2020, with the CPL season played entirely on Prince Edward Island due to the pandemic, Morelli did at last get to step onto the pitch at Wanderers Grounds in 2021. He’d heard a lot from his teammates about the stadium and the fanbase, but according to him, the experience at his first game — a 2-1 win over Atlético Ottawa, in which Morelli scored twice — surpassed his own expectations.
“It was raining so much, and they were still there and cheering us on, and I was like, yeah, these guys are right, this is amazing,” Morelli said of his first game in Halifax. “To be honest, people don’t know the league properly; there’s a lot of good players, good potential, young Canadian players growing a lot. You can see the improvement from the first year to last year already.
“I love Halifax. My friends always ask me — even people that are not too close to me see me and they’re like, ‘How is it there?’ and I always tell them it’s amazing. Canada is a really nice country, people are nice, everyone treats you well. I’m having the best time of my life; all good stuff, man. I don’t think there’s a bad thing I can say to people in Brazil.”
It seems that Morelli and the Wanderers are even more perfect a match than either could’ve hoped — both on and off the pitch.
Now, the MVP-calibre Brazilian is hoping to repay the Halifax fans with a championship.