MADRID (AP) — Soares, the Brazilian striker who earned the diminutive nickname “Tiquinho” for being too skinny as a kid, is about to become the new Hulk for FC Porto.
The new sensation in Portuguese soccer has already prompted comparisons to the club’s former Brazilian idol, who was nicknamed after the Marvel superhero.
Soares comes from the same poor Brazilian region as Hulk, and has been displaying the same offensive prowess that his countryman showed when he starred for the Portuguese club from 2008-12.
The 6-foot, 198-pound (1.84 meter, 90 kilograms) Soares scored nine goals in six league games since joining Porto from minnow Portuguese club Vitoria Guimaraes in January. The 5-foot-11, 187-pound (1.80 meter, 85 kilograms) Hulk scored nearly 80 goals in his stint in Portugal.
Though the two have a friend in common, they have never met.
“We have the same strength,” Soares told The Associated Press. “He is a great player, an idol. I’m very happy to be compared to him. I try to have my own style, but he is a star, someone I look up to.”
Both players are from the northeastern Brazilian state of Paraiba. Neither played for top Brazilian clubs before making it to European football. They were virtually unknown in Brazil when they left the country, and didn’t carry the high expectations that usually accompany Brazilian players.
The 26-year-old Soares, who as a kid used to sell ice pops to help the family make ends meet, fulfilled a dream when he joined Porto.
“It meant everything to me. I always worked very hard to make it to a top club. My entire family knows how difficult it was, for everybody, to get me to where I am now,” Soares said. “I had only played in smaller clubs in Brazil. I wanted to one day have this feeling of wearing the jersey of a big club. And it happened. I made it.”
Soares, whose full name is Francisco das Chagas Soares dos Santos, had to help his parents from a young age. He also helped his father, who was a bricklayer. Every spare moment he had was spent playing soccer with his neighborhood friends on the dirt fields of the small northeastern city of Sousa.
Soares said he still talks with his mom about how hard she had to work to be able to buy his first soccer shoes, which at the time cost only a few dollars.
“When I look at my past and at my family’s past, it motivates me to keep working hard and to keep going after my goals,” said Soares, whose contract with Porto carries a buyout clause of 40 million euros ($42.5 million). “Everything was hard but I never gave up. Every time I score a goal today, I think of my family.”
It was Soares’ mom who started calling him “Tiquinho” because of his small stature. Only after Soares began playing professionally he started gaining the type of strength and speed that have led to the comparisons to Hulk, who now plays for Chinese club Shanghai SIPG.
As a child, Soares liked playing as a goalkeeper, but quickly switched to forward once he realized he had the talent to score.
He played for more than 10 clubs in Brazil before getting a chance to move to Portugal, which is the usual entrance into Europe for lesser-known Latin American players.
He joined Nacional in the second half of the 2014-15 season, and quickly attracted the attention of former Portugal and Porto great Deco, who now works as an agent. Deco took Soares to Vitoria Guimaraes in the middle of last year, and to Porto at this winter’s transfer window.
“I had an offer from a club in China, but when Deco came to me to talk about the possibility of wearing Porto’s jersey, I didn’t think twice,” Soares said. “I told him to take care of everything and thankfully it all worked out.”
The goal is to continue thriving with Porto and repeat some of the success achieved by Hulk, who eventually made it to Brazil’s national team. Hulk played at the 2012 London Olympics, the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup.
“If I keep doing my job, if I remain focused, hopefully I’ll have a chance to one day represent my country,” Soares said.