Named as Get French Football News’ Ligue 1 left-back of the year, Clermont’s Neto Borges will have defied all expectations in his first season in France – and is hungry for more.
Speaking exclusively to GFFN’s Raphael Jucobin, the Brazilian looks back on a season’s that’s seen the Auvergne outfit take on and beat the likes of Lyon, Nice and Rennes, putting them on track for a first-ever top-half finish.
The 26-year-old, whose career has already seen him feature in five different countries, says he continues to aim high. It’s that ambition that has Borges aiming to help Clermont qualify for European competition next season – a goal that appears eminently possible, off the back of the team’s sensational spring streak.
RJ: Congratulations Neto, you’ve been named in GFFN’s Team of the Year. How do you judge your season on a personal level?
NB: It’s been a great season for me personally, and for the club as well. We’ve achieved our goals. It’s amazing to be named in your team of the season. I wasn’t imagining this for my first year in the league. It’s a huge achievement, I wasn’t expecting it and I’m grateful for it.
How did you move last summer play out, what were your reasons for choosing Clermont?
My agent called me while I was in Portugal, and the talks started then, when I was playing for Tondela. They knew my contract was expiring, they made a good offer and then we talked. We came to visit the city and the club. I saw their facilities and it really attracted me. Their project, as well – I spoke with the club president and the director, and they told me about the project that they had for the near future. They’ve proved to me that what they were saying is true – we’ve done really well this season, and I hope we can keep going like this, and that the club keeps growing.
The team notably went on a seven-game unbeaten run in the spring – how did it all come together for you to reach this kind of form?
It was really about working hard and our commitment to each other. We’re a family in the dressing room – if someone’s going through a tough time, we’ll try to help him out and keep everyone involved. That’s the key to team sports, I think – we’re all really good guys in the dressing room. We talk a lot, we make adjustments when we need to. Everyone is humble enough to listen and keep working hard.
We have to give credit to the coach as well, he made the adjustments and they worked out impressively for us. We weren’t expecting to go on a run like this, but if you work hard and everything goes well in training, it’s only natural that you would then earn those points. During the run we beat Nice and Lyon, which are big clubs in France. The other clubs were also playing well and we managed to beat them. I think our commitment to each other was the key to the run we had.
I scored in the last game, but unfortunately we lost [2-1 against Brest], but that’s the nature of this league. Two mistakes can cost you the game. We’ll make the adjustments that we need for the next game to get the three points again.
How would you describe coach Pascal Gastien’s approach, how does he want you playing?
He’s an amazing guy. He understands that it’s first about being a human being, and a coach after. Once you understand that he wants the wellbeing of all the players in the dressing room, we all embrace his ideas and run for him. In terms of what happens on the pitch, he’s a really smart guy.
We adapt ourselves according to each game – OK, we have our style of play, but we’re open to changes depending on the opponent and the different situations. The guys are smart enough to listen and carry out the coach’s instructions – there’s a really impressive connection between ourselves and the coach, and he’s really happy about that. It doesn’t matter who plays, everyone in the team has a good level – everyone responds positively when we need them, and that’s what a team needs.
If at the start of the season we’d held on to some points that we dropped, right now we could be fighting for European competition. If everyone sticks around for next season, we could make some huge improvements on this season, so let’s see – we hope for the best for the club.
What were your first impressions of Ligue 1, in terms of the style of play?
I’d watched some Ligue 1 games in the past, and I knew it was fast and physical. Coming into the league, I had to adapt myself because of how physical the league is, and the players are so good technically. You have to be 100% concentrated all the time, if you lose focus for even one minute then you concede and you lose the game from that.
And the players! Some of them can decide the game in a matter of minutes. The technical and tactical stuff, it’s just impressive at this level. I doubted myself before coming to the league, but now I want to see where I can go. When you make the team of the season, you want to keep improving to see how far you can go.
Maybe even a place in the national team, one day?
I’m open to the opportunity, you never know. Obviously it’s very hard to make it to the Brazil team, but if the chance comes, I’ll grab it, as I’ve done with every opportunity that’s come up in my life. We’ll see, I’ll keep growing and improving, and then it will be down to the guys who make that decision.
What’s it been like settling in France, off the pitch?
At the beginning it was really challenging, because we don’t speak French. Now, we’re trying to learn the language. But as for the rest, people in Clermont are really friendly and trying to make it easy for us. I think from now it’ll be easier since we’re learning the language. I would say that we’re happy here, with my family. We’re stable, my kids are growing up here, and we’re very happy.
You moved early on in your career from Brazil to Sweden – that must have been quite a dramatic change of scenery!
When I was 12 years old, I was playing for Vitória, in Salvador. But at some point my parents couldn’t afford for me to travel there anymore and I had to stop to focus on my studies. I thought that my dream was over. But then a guy – who to do this day is a friend of mine – came and told me that he would give me an opportunity in [the Brazilian state of] Sergipe. I played for six months at one club there, then six months for another, and then I got my opportunity at Tubarão in Santa Catarina, back in 2017. Then my agent brought the guys from Hammarby over to watch a training match, and then they started to watch my games. After we won the state cup, they asked me whether I was interested in going to Sweden, and I just accepted the challenge.
When I went to Sweden, it was very, very cold! It was the first time I’d seen snow in my life. It was a shock, and it was really impressive. But I could adapt quickly, I don’t know how I managed!
I have good memories and nostalgia when it comes to Hammarby, because it was my first club with a great fanbase. The organisation at the club was amazing, I played a lot of games, and they loved me there. I just felt at home there. One day, I want to go back there, to feel that warm welcome again. People still beg me on Instagram to go back, it’s amazing to feel that love! I don’t know what the future holds, but my wish is to go there again one day. But what a journey that season was for me, in 2018! I only played there for 10 months, but it was amazing.
What are your goals for next season?
I have a contract with Clermont, so my goals involve Clermont. My goal is to keep improving. We’re fighting for a top ten finish this season, next season I want to go higher. Whether that’s here or elsewhere, you never know. I want to win titles and aim for the best as a player. I’m with Clermont right now and I wish the best for the club, we have to dream together. We have to stick together like a family. My personal goal is to win titles, I know it’s aiming high, but we have to dream!
GFFN | Raphaël Jucobin