This is a momentous phase in Caio Canedo’s remarkable life.
July’s $6 million transfer to Al Ain, ending five years of sterling service at Al Wasl, would represent the standout change for most footballers. The Brazil-born forward and scorer of 71 goals in 122 Arabian Gulf League run-outs, however, has continued to experience an extraordinary existence.
Long-reported rumours of UAE citizenship became real on Monday. This seismic development should see him, and record-breaking Al Wahda striker Sebastian Tagliabue, line-up in March’s pivotal World Cup 2022 qualifiers.
Naturalisation is not unheard of in the Emirates; the ‘golden boy’ of the ‘Golden Generation’, Omar Abdulrahman, for one, was born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents and centre-back Ismail Ahmed landed from Morocco in his 20s. But never before with a pair of South Americans.
FIFA rules that allow residency to be granted after five years, plus domestic changes sparked by Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s historic Presidential decree in November 2017, have combined to allow expatriates to naturalise and represent the national team.
Domestic bliss also reigns supreme in the Canedo household after a first child was welcomed this winter.
Striking moments. Even for a 29-year-old who was born in Brazil, raised in the picture book island of Nantucket on the United States’ east coast, eschewed coveted collegiate scholarships from the likes of University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA] to chase a distant football dream back in his homeland at 16 and would, belatedly, receive formal education from Uruguay icon Diego Forlan.
“Nothing was easy throughout my life,” he reveals to Sport360 at Al Ain’s Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium late last month, when only rumours swirl about the UAE. “A lot of people think ‘Caio went to the United States, his family has a lot of money’ – they are completely wrong.
“In 2001, my father and mum lost their jobs in Brazil. We had to find a way to eat, to pay the bills and everything.
“We had one uncle/cousin, he’s been in the United States for more than 30 years now. He has a painting company and he made an invitation to my father to work there.
“I was 10-years old and I didn’t know how to speak English.
“We left everything behind – it was me, my mum, my father and brother.
“My father went to work, my mum also went to work. She first worked as a janitor at a school and my dad was painting.
“Slowly by slowly, we got money and started to reconstruct ourselves there. It was very difficult.
“It is very emotional, because I see my mum doesn’t have the fingerprints on her hands from the cleaning products. My dad used to scratch the walls and some houses didn’t have a heater, so in the winter you work in the cold.
“When you are little, you don’t have a clue about what it is. This is why everything I do, I do it for them.”
Time spent in Canedo’s ebullient company makes it obvious to see how he successfully deals with every challenge presented – and why he will be such an asset for Ivan Jovanovic’s beleaguered national side. Unlimited ambition abounds, words come at lightning pace and emotions are not left unspoken.
This unbridled enthusiasm also brought him to the attention of a modern great.
Canedo’s ability witnessed him rise from lower-league Volta Redondo to regular fixture at Botafogo when still in his teens. Internacional would come calling in 2013 – a transfer that drew him into Forlan’s sphere.
The legendary former Atletico Madrid player, with a mane of blond hair, had been coaxed back to South America after an unfulfilled stint at Inter Milan. Gravitas, however, remained undimmed.
An eye for talent, also. The then 33-year-old soon took Canedo under his care.
He recollects: “This guy is amazing. I remember when I got there in 2013 and in 2010 he was the best player at the World Cup.
“They had a Jabulani [ball – used at the previous World Cup and infamous for its wild deviations] and he used to shoot like crazy. Both feet, left or right, the same.
“I remember when I met him and I was like… He didn’t talk too much with a lot of the players, he was more, like, reserved.
“With me, I was a young boy. But he talked so much with me.
“After training, I’d go to the locker room and he’d say: ‘Caio, come back.’ We’d stay there alone, me and him, and I do some crosses and he’d control and shoot.
“I was having much fun, even though I was working to get him better. But I was learning so much.
“I saw all his movements and then he would say ‘when you control, put your body lower to shoot the ball.’
“This guy, it was crazy, he gave me so much attention and he didn’t even need this. This made me a big fan of him and respect him even more.”
Forlan joined the managerial ranks for the first time in December at Uruguayan giants Penarol. How will he get on?
Caio replies: “He is a very reserved guy, very polite, intellectual. We used to joke with him that he played in a suit.
“He is a very good guy. All footballers have a little advantage as a coach as they understand what the players are going through.
“I think he will be a great coach. Penarol have a lot of fans and they’ll expect a lot from him – I think he’s ready.”
Links to the UAE can only have been strengthened by the cherished recent addition of a first child.
Bags under Canedo’s eyes are ubiquitous among new parents. This situation has also provided further focus from a markedly driven individual.
He explains: “Everybody says: ‘Caio when your son or daughter is born, you’re going to go crazy’.
“When my daughter came to life, it made me another man. More responsible.
“There are no words to describe. Whoever has a kid, they know what I’m talking about.
“Today my life is surrounded by my daughter – everything I do is for her. I love her, I’m just having fun and waiting for her to grow.
“I hope to make her a very good woman, Inshallah [Arabic for ‘God willing’.]”
Canedo is now part Brazilian/part Emirati. He was, though, made in the USA.
Economic strife sent his family from Volta Redonda to Massachusetts when he was 10-years old.
Nantucket is anything but a traditional football proving ground. From this tourist-inhabited island with a population of approximately 10,000 about 50 kilometres south from Cape Cod, however, a ‘soccer’ star would rise and prestigious institutions come knocking.
None more so than UCLA, whose idyllic Westwood campus houses, arguably, the USA’s best athletic program.
Em 2014 desembarquei nos Emirados Arabes com o objetivo de fazer história. Depois de 6 anos jogando aqui, só tenho a agradecer a todos que me receberam tão bem no país. É uma honra receber esse convite e espero continuar representando esse lugar maravilhoso. 🇦🇪 ⚽️ #AlAin pic.twitter.com/1d6PajTFRc— Caio Canedo (@caiocanedo) January 21, 2020
This particular path took the likes of American internationals Carlos Bocanegra, Cobi Jones and Joe-Max Moore into the professional ranks. It was not, though, for Canedo.
He says: “The [school] team was not so good, but we still beat the other teams as I made the difference. I started catching the attention of a lot of people.
“Consequentially, I got so many [university] offers – UCLA, Notre Dame, St. John’s. I still have the brochures in my house.
“My father has a big book of all the newspapers and it is something memorable. When I was 16, I said: ‘I want to try in Brazil, here is getting too small for me.’
“My father said that if I wanted to go, the time was now. My mum said: ‘Are you crazy, you’ve got all these offers here, you’re going to leave everything behind.’
“I went back to Brazil at 16 and I struggled so much. The players were 200-per-cent physically and technically, even at 16.
“I was always a guy who can think he can do it. Step-by-step, I conquered my way to some clubs.”
Internacional, despite Forlan’s coaxing, would prove to be just a stepping stone. Loans to Vitoria and Wasl followed, the second changing the course of Canedo’s career – and life.
A fine tally of 16 goals in 22 top-flight fixtures during 2014/15 convinced the impressed Cheetahs administration to permanently acquire the Brazilian. They made the same, inspired, call about compatriot Fabio De Lima.
This double act would light up Zabeel Stadium, rousing a fallen giant that had been lurching towards relegation before their arrivals. Consecutive top-three finishes, plus agonised defeats in President’s Cup and Arabian Gulf Cup showpieces, during Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s tenure from 2016-18 would prove the high point.
An unravelling in 2018/19 made Canedo a prime target for suitors. When the UAE’s most-decorated outfit, Al Ain, presented an offer last summer, a point of departure appeared.
His revelations about how the transfer unfolded provide insight into how social media has redefined football.
“I thought it was a joke,” he says. “First of all, I looked at Instagram and I saw many things pop up, like ‘Caio Al Ain’.
“Then I received a massive invasion of Al Ain fans on my Instagram and social media. I was like, ‘maybe this can be true’.
“Of course, you always dream to play in such a powerful club. In the UAE, we know what Al Ain represents.
“Maybe this can be true, but you know Instagram, social media. But then I see the fans…
“I was hoping it could be true, but I also took a step back. Then things started getting more intense and we did receive a phone call.
“Then, it was a matter of negotiation. It got a little twisted, as Wasl fans were also disappointed.
“But I gave my response to that. Al Wasl needed the money, going through a difficult period…
“I am happy that I could help Al Wasl back, at least with the money from my transfer. I am sure Al Wasl can regroup and do a good season.”
Hampered by a wide role under – now dismissed – coach Ivan Leko and bedevilled by a niggling injury, it took until October for the ‘real’ Canedo to emerge in the Garden City.
In all competitions, he stands on nine strikes from 16 games. He’s also proved an effective foil for Togo centre forward Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba, the AGL’s 10-goal leading marksman.
The Boss sit third in the league, eight points off leaders Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, and suffered semi-final elimination in the AG Cup this month. Not good enough for a side of their exacting standards.
Canedo’s vigour, renewed focus and proficiency ensures, however, they should soon be well placed in the race for silverware.
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