The setting is the training grounds of Sport Club Corinthians Paulista.
One of the more historic teams that competes in Brasileriao Serie A, Corinthians has 30 state championships in Brazil and won the FIFA Club World Cup in 2000 and 2012.
The year is 2009 and on one side of the field the first team practices, led by their three-time FIFA Player of the Year Ronaldo, who is entering the later stages of his career.
On the other side of field, young kids who are coming up in the Corinthians Academy practice. One of those kids is Malcolm, who in the 2018-2019 season made 24 appearances for FC Barcelona including a goal in the Champions League.
Another one of those kids practices with the midfielders. He weaves in an out of cones and perfects each drill the kids are supposed to be doing. The kid looks like he was born to be a soccer player.
His name is Ualefi.
Ualefi, a current member of Chattanooga Red Wolves SC, came into the Corinthians Academy at age 13 after impressing coaches and scouts at a tournament in Brazil.
Leaving his house and family, Ualefi spent the next seven years of his life at the Corinthians Academy and with their first team.
“It was a great experience for me,” Ualefi said. “I had to grow up a lot and mature. I won a lot of championships there with the youth teams and so growing up with the team was really good for me.”
While at Corinthians, Ualefi got to train with Brazil stars such as Paulinho and Roberto Carlos. However, Ronaldo, despite joining Corinthians for just the last three years of his playing career, was the player who stood out the most to Ualefi.
“Training with him was unbelievable,” Ualefi said. “The best I have ever seen. He was smarter than everyone else and just better at everything. Training with him helped in my development just because I could absorb everything that he did.”
Corinthians Junior team won the 2012 Copa Sao Paulo De Juniores, the 2011 Copa Ouro and the Mundialito de Clubes U-17 tournaments while Ualefi was with them. Ualefi traveled the world with the team and, in one of the tournaments, even played with a young Malcolm. Ualefi thought Malcolm was good at the time but had no idea just how good he was going to be.
“I played in a state championship in Sao Paulo with Malcolm,” Ualefi said. “He was good then but he was still so young so he wasn’t anything like the player he is today. He was still developing.”
After his time at Corinthians came to a close, Ualefi moved on to Japan to play there. It was a culture change for him who had been used to playing in the premier league of Brazilian soccer where skill is really important. In Japan, the game was more so about running.
After coming back from Japan, Ualefi struggled with his soccer identity. Contemplating on whether to quit the game or not, Ualefi received a call from Marc Dos Santos, who was with Sporting KC and Swope Park Rangers at the time. Dos Santos asked Ualefi if he was interested in playing and so he moved to the United States.
Ualefi spent two years with USL Championship side Swope Park Rangers, and even got called up to the team’s MLS side, Sporting KC, at one point. With Swope Park, he started every single regular season match in 2016 and tallied four assists. At Sporting KC, Ualefi got to play in two matches in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“The level of play in the MLS is a little better,” Ualefi said. “There’s more skill and quality. The rhythm of the game was a little bit faster. But I still say that the highest quality of soccer I have played in was the first division in Brazil.”
Ualefi returned to Brazil in 2018 for a season playing for Barretos where he appeared in every match and tallied nine assists.
After the season ended, Ualefi had offers to stay in Brazil. However, wanting to go back to the United States, his agent got in touch with Red Wolves head coach Tim Hankinson who offered Ualefi a chance to play.
“I love my experience here,” Ualefi said. “Me and my wife love the city. I love the fact that the team has a plan and a vision to grow in the future. That was one of the huge factors of why I was wanting to come here.”
Trying to model his defensive game after Casemiro and his offensive game after Sergio Busquets, Ualefi has been the heart and soul of the Red Wolves midfield in their inaugural season. He currently leads the team in interceptions with 19 and is second on the team in tackles with 24.
“Individually, I want to play all the games and win the games,” Ualefi said. “For the team, I want us to make the playoff and win the championship. Since we are a new club, if we win the championship, it would go a long way for the development of the club.”
Ualefi and the Red Wolves will be back in action in Richmond on Saturday as they take on the Richmond Kickers. Kickoff for that match is set for 7 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN+.