Igor Coronado proves his class at Sharjah after graduating from football's school of hard knocks
From Londrina to London to Arabian Gulf League glory with Sharjah, the Brazilian's journey to the summit of UAE football has been a winding one
Igor Coronado’s route to the summit of UAE football is a road less travelled.
He was born in Brazil, but cut his teeth in Milton Keynes, England. Then followed a brief spell in Switzerland, a stint back in England – this time in the country’s seventh tier – almost three years in Malta, where he survived a career-threatening injury, and another three in Italy’s Serie B.
Coronado moved to Sharjah in July last year. Ten months later, he was an Arabian Gulf League champion and the division’s foreign player of the year.
Such has been his form this season – six goals, six assists from five games – that some are even pushing his case as the greatest import of the professional era.
Londrina to London to league luminary. It’s been some journey.
“You know, football has helped me my whole life,” says Coronado, having settled into his chair alongside Sharjah's training pitch. “I arrived in England when I was 13, knowing nothing.
“When I joined school it was all scary, especially when you don't speak the language. But then lunchtime came, people play football and it's like ‘You play?’ And then when they saw me playing, everyone wanted to talk to me and they became my friends, without speaking the language.
“Everything has made me grow as a player on the pitch and inside the changing room. There were some tough times, but good experiences as well.”
Clearly, each has combined to shape the person he is today. The move to the UK, as a nascent teenager with no English, because his parents struggled with work back in Brazil; the five years at MK Dons after impressing so much during a trial that they signed him three days later.
The senior debut, aged 15 and having never trained with the first team, in a closed-doors friendly against Glasgow Celtic. Coronado was so nervous that he could barely complete the warm-up.
“I was shaking a little bit; I literally couldn’t stretch my leg,” he says.
Yet he lasted 60 minutes, with his very first touch tried to nutmeg his marker. Predictably, it didn’t go down well, and Coronado still laughs at having to hurdle the left-back’s lunge.
“He was not looking for the ball at all,” he says. “After that I just kept it simple.
“England definitely helped me because it was very tough. I used to hog the ball, but today I know when to make decisions to pass and when to keep it. Obviously because of the tackles as well. But it definitely made me grow as a person also.”
So, too, other experiences.
The six months with the Under 21s at Grasshoppers Zurich while the first team battled relegation; the short return to England with Banbury United FC, in the uncompromising confines of the semi-professional Southern League Premier Division.
The two-and-a-half years at Floriana in Malta, chosen simply because he craved pro football. Coronado won the league’s player of the season on debut, but the club refused to allow him to further his career elsewhere.
The sports hernia that inflamed his lower stomach and groin and sidelined him for seven months, enough time for Coronado to question if his career was finished. Floriana ceased paying his salary and eventually ordered him to leave his house.
The recovery in the UK and Italy, then the play-off defeats at Trapani and Palermo that robbed him, agonisingly, of the chance to play in Serie A.
Still, it’s made last season’s success at Sharjah – the club’s first UAE championship in 23 years and his Arabian Gulf League (AGL) foreign player of the year award – all the more sweet.
“That’s definitely the biggest achievement in my career because it's a league title,” Coronado says. “We know how hard it is to go a whole year on top of the league and we managed to do that. The feeling of being champion it's unique. Hopefully in my career I can have more feelings of that.”
It took a while for that sensation to subside. Sharjah had been expected to battle for mid-table at best, but went unbeaten through the opening 23 of 26 rounds to head the table. A first defeat, away to Al Wasl, frayed the nerves, but they got over the line in their penultimate fixture against Al Wahda.
Dutifully, Coronado did his bit, scoring twice in the 3-2 win to spark wild scenes at the Khaled bin Mohammed Stadium.
“First, in the changing room after the game, it was madness,” he says. “I don't know how long we stayed there celebrating. And I was celebrating too, like after a month, everything.
“I stayed here another week with my family and friends. So every day people are calling you out for dinner and you're enjoying your time. And sometimes maybe you're home sitting on the sofa watching TV and then you just get the memories, you start smiling alone.
“After I went to Brazil to my family. I had some big parties as well because I became champion. Yeah, it definitely was a great feeling.”
Despite the itinerant career, Brazil remains home. It is where Coronado honed the skills in the street or for his professional futsal team that have carried him forward: the expert dribbling, the even better set-piece execution. During his time with Sharjah, free-kicks against Al Ain and Kalba rank among his best goals.
“Since I was young, I was very passionate about football,” he says. “When I was five, six years old, I was staying at home, kicking the ball at the walls, breaking everything. And so I worked very hard since I was young. I was playing, but at the same time let's say I was working because I took it to the future, so now I'm still using the skills from when I was 10.
“I was the guy who takes the ball to school and makes the teams. Probably I should have studied more, but I was very focused on football. Thank God I managed to be a professional player because I don't know what else I could have been doing.”
Sharjah celebrate AGL title success
Patently, the endeavour is paying off. Coronado has been comfortably the league’s best player this season, something he puts down to becoming more familiar with the league. Until Kodjo Laba’s four goals for Al Ain at the weekend, he led both the goal and assist charts. It has lifted Sharjah to the top of the table after five rounds.
For the recent rise, Coronado credits in particular manager Abdulaziz Al Anbari, the softly spoken Emirati who in May became the first local manager to win the top-flight crown in the professional era.
“For me, it’s not just winning with an Emirati coach, but for the person that he is,” Coronado says. “His personality, he doesn't show a lot of feeling during the match. He knows how to keep the club nice and relaxed. There's no craziness going on around. That's all thanks to him.”
Most certainly, Coronado is thankful for his opportunities in Sharjah, on and off the pitch. With the club, he is close not only to the eight to 10 Brazilians there but to the local players, even though he concedes he knows only a few phrases and choice words in Arabic.
“Honestly, I thought English and Italian were hard, but Arabic has taken me the longest to pick up,” he says. “It’s incredible. It’s very tough.”
Away from football, he has wife Karyn, whom he’s known since he was aged 10, the pair later brought together by a mutual friend and MSN messenger by the time Coronado had left for Europe. Last year, the couple welcomed son Enrico to the family.
Coronado’s left arm is a dedication to his firstborn, who this week celebrated his first birthday. Underneath the religious tattoos that adorn his upper arm resides a clock commemorating the time Enrico was brought into the world, while the Burj Al Arab represents his city of birth.
Nearby, there's a silhouette of Coronado holding aloft Enrico, lifted from a photograph taken in Sharjah. It is close to a large depiction of Enrico’s face, which dominates the collection despite losing colour. Coronado took to the swimming pool days after it was inked, so will correct it next time he’s in Brazil.
At least, though, he’s got the real thing to cradle every day.
“Obviously I won many titles last year, but definitely this is the biggest title of my life,” Coronado says, beaming. “It's something very special because you cannot describe the feeling of a son or daughter.
"I believe that definitely made me work harder for him, for his future, and for my family. I thank God every day for the boy he has given me because he's brought me such a joy.”
Presumably, Coronado can’t wait until Enrico is old enough to appreciate what dad does for a living. He and Karyn love the Emirates – “it's an amazing country, amazing people. We're very happy here” – but as his stock rises so does the sense he could soon outgrow the AGL.
Coronado, 27, signed a contract extension last month. Yet his talent seems to demand another crack at Europe, this time in a major league.
“Career-wise, I always had the dream to play in the big stadiums, with a lot of fans, fighting for new challenges all the time,” he says. “Obviously, I have a lot of respect for Sharjah; I'm giving everything I can here and we have the league, the President's Cup, after so many years we'll be playing again the Asian Champions League.
“Europe’s definitely a dream of mine. I want to play in the big clubs. Why not? When you’re a player you must dream big. But you have to work hard so you achieve something. Last year we managed to achieve something I’m going to take for the rest of my life. Hopefully there’s more to come.
“I have to keep dreaming; belief is a big part. Big dreams keep pushing you to work hard. Hopefully I can achieve them. And if not I believe I gave 100 per cent – I’m giving 100 per cent – so in the end I can be happy no matter what.”
Updated: October 31, 2019 08:28 PM