'Post' Interview: Boy from Brazil loving it in J'lem

Betar striker Romulo shines in Israeli soccer but his twin fails to make in Syria.

Romulo 88 (photo credit: )
Romulo 88
(photo credit: )
Romulo is a difficult man to track down. It has taken weeks to secure an interview with Betar Jerusalem's prolific Brazilian striker: endless phone calls, countless near misses and numerous false starts. It's almost as if the club didn't want Romulo to talk to the press. And in a way, it didn't. "If we give you an interview," Betar's press officer explained apologetically during the tortuous negotiations, "then the rest of the world will know how good he is. He might leave us." You can understand his trepidation. Romulo Marques Antoneli has been a revelation since he signed in the close season. Ten goals in his first 10 games saw Betar storm to the top of the Premier League, helping the club end 2007 unbeaten in the league. In short, the 25 year old is currently one of European soccer's best-kept secrets, a cultured target man with exceptional movement and a deft touch. Betar wants to keep it that way. In many ways, he resembles an old fashioned English centre forward with a touch of Latin flair rather than the extravagantly ornate Brazilian strikers the world is accustomed to; more Teddy Sheringham than Ronaldinho. Betar's 2-1 victory over Ashdod last month was ample evidence of that. Romulo scored the first, a flicked header over the on-rushing Ashdod keeper. But he was also at the centre of all of Betar's best moves, intelligently bringing others into play, every touch appreciated by the 4,000 Betar faithful clustered on the HaYud-Alef stadium's crumbling terraces with a rumbling, low chant of "Rrrrrrromulo!". Betar's fans nearly missed out on their new hero. It was blind luck that Romulo ended up in Israel after a proposed loan move from his current club, Brazilian side Cruzeiro, to Deportivo La Coruna fell through. "In soccer, things happen really quickly," he says when we eventually sit down with him in Betar's fortified training ground. "My agent spoke to Betar's people, that was on the Saturday. On the Sunday I was on a plane to Israel." It wasn't a tough choice for Romulo to make. Israel's exploits on the international stage, not to mention the performances of Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben-Haim in the Premiership, had thrust Israeli soccer into the international spotlight. "I heard about the Israeli national team because they were playing really well in the [2006] World Cup [qualifiers]," he explains. "I knew that it was good standard and that soccer was growing. People in Brazil don't know about Israeli soccer. Out of the country the news you get about Israel is all about the conflict. But this is not real life, day-to-day life." The Brazilian is enjoying life in Jerusalem and his soccer at Betar. Yet even he has had to deal with the political realities of living in the Middle East. He wasn't the only Antoneli to make the trip to the region last summer to further his career. Whilst Romulo had a crack at the Champions League to look forward to, his twin brother Rodrigo opted for a spell at Al Karamah, the current champions of Syria. It didn't go well. "We couldn't speak on the phone because there is no line between here and Syria," he says. "The internet was the only way but the internet is really bad in Syria. So we had lots of difficulties. We couldn't visit because we had to travel through Jordan and the passport stamp was an issue." Whilst Romulo was surrounded by Latin speakers at Betar, Rodrigo was isolated and lonely. It was perhaps no surprise that four days before the interview, Rodrigo quit Syria and headed home. The final straw was when their mother came to Jerusalem for New Year. Rodrigo was just the other side of the Golan Heights, in the city of Homs, yet he might well have been in Australia. "I'd like him to come to Israel," he admits. "But we have to find him a club first." The story of the Antoneli brothers is indicative of Brazil's biggest skilled export. Every year thousands of Brazilian soccer players leave their homeland's domestic league to emulate the likes of Kaka. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is Europe, and more importantly, the Champions League. He laughs when I suggest that, on his current form, he won't go unnoticed by the big European teams for long. "I feel really good playing in Betar, the team is growing and I like the fans because they are similar to the fans in Brazil," he says. "[But] I saw the chance to play in a team… so people from other countries could see me playing. Big teams obviously come to Israel to look for new players so I have the chance to be spotted. "But I don't know what is going to happen - go back to Brazil or stay in Europe. I'd like to stay." Where Romulo will be next season is anyone's guess as he is currently on loan, although Betar has the first option on him. The press officer calls time on our interview. "I have dreams and hopes," he admits, as he's ushered out into the car park. "What I am doing now in Betar will decide where I play next." If Romulo can emulate his early season form, Betar fans should make the most of him while they still can.