SPOTLIGHT SERIES: ALFREDO MORELOS
This weekend Scotland will welcome the return of professional soccer, with the start of the 2020/21 season.
During the long break brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Scottish soccer fans have been speculating on who may come in and what players they may have to watch leave. There are few players in the country, however, whose future has been more clouded in speculation, than that of Rangers' Colombian striker Alfredo Morelos (@morelos2106).
On the field, many see him as a young hot-head, who is a proven goal scorer destined for bigger things. Despite what soccer fans and pundits think, 2020 appears to have shone a light on the real Alfredo Morelos.
Alfredo José Morelos Aviléz was born on June 21st, 1996, in the rural northern Colombian town of Cereté. The town has a population of around 60,000 and is considered the fourth poorest region in the whole country and one with an economy geared towards agriculture and cattle-farming.
He was the only boy of Alfredo Morelos Sáenz and Martha Inés Aviléz's four children. However, tragedy would strike the Morelos household as his younger sister Dali Luz passed away aged only six years old.
Morelos would not attend school at a young age, instead, he would help his family by selling fruit along with his father from a wheelbarrow, around the local community.
By the time Morelos was five years old, his father had approached Vicente 'Chente' Fernández, the coach of the local soccer team Fumigadores de Cereté, to see if his son could join the team. This was despite the family being unable to afford the monthly costs.
Surprised by his ability Fernández allowed Morelos to join the team and took him under his wing and offered to pay for his coaching.
"I saw his talent, his quality and I got him in on a scholarship. Alfredo started playing as a midfielder, he knew what to do with the ball, but he was so good that I decided to send him further forward", Fernandez told Colombian newspaper El Espectador.
"Alfredo’s family was short on resources and we always supported him so he could move forward. Alfredo’s development was very impressive, I would take him to play with older age group sides," added Fernandez.
When Morelos was aged 15, Fernandez along with coach Astolfo Montes arranged an audition with Colombian Primera A club Deportivo Independiente Medellín.
"The first thing I noticed," said Don Luis Fernando Jiminez, then-Sporting Director of Independiente Medellin, "was that every time he touched the ball he tried to score. He was strong fast and powerful. The locals called him El Buffalo."
"I immediately said I wanted him and within a week he was in Medellin. We agreed a deal with the academy and he started with our under 16s."
Morelos' time in the Independiente youth system was a success, quickly becoming the top scorer. Within 18 months of joining the Primera A club, he had made his debut for the senior team, scoring in only his second senior appearance.
In his first senior season, he would manage 6 goals in 14 league appearances, along with scoring 5 goals in 4 starts in the Copa Colombia. The early success would see Morelos receiving a call-up to Colombia's under-20 national team.
However, his second professional season was less successful. Morelos would only receive a total of 6 substitute appearances.
After becoming disillusioned with his place on the Independiente bench he set his heart on a move to Europe.
“The dream of all Colombian players is to come and play in Europe, that was my biggest dream since I started this process as a professional athlete,” Morelos said. “I wanted to do things well with Deportivo Independiente Medellin because they were a club that opened doors for me, for my career, and it gave me the opportunity to play.
“I’m so thankful to them and I enjoyed the continuity with them, they gave me a lot of continuity, the chance to play full games and to play every weekend, or even midweek."
Despite being motivated to make a move to Europe, his lack of time on the field made any transfer had, as there was a lack of video footage which could be used to showcase his talents.
It would come down to Morelos' then-agent Jonne Lindblom (@JonneLindblom) to figure out how to make a deal happen.
"I spoke to probably every club in Scandinavia but they weren't willing to take the risk due to that lack of footage," Lindblom said.
Finally, Lindblom managed to persuade HJK Helsinki CEO, Aki Riihilahti (@akiriihilahti) to take the risk.
"We were looking for an established number 9 who would score us the 20 goals we needed to win the title," said Riihilahti. "Morelos was at Medellin but there were only small bits of footage from 6 to 8 months ago, but we worked with Jonne to make a deal as we trusted him. We did a loan so we could postpone the contract after three months rather than sign him permanently."
Morelos would arrive in Finland in February 2016 and would make an immediate impact for his new team.
The Colombian would find himself on the bench for HJK's Liiga Cup derby game against HIFK before any of his teammates could see him play. After seeing his new team fall 3-2 behind, Morelos would manage to score a last-minute goal to make it 3-3.
"After that he just didn't stop scoring. he was phenomenal. we couldn't believe our luck," Riihilahti added. "We didn't cancel the contract."
In his first season, Morelos would see a return of 26 goals from 37 appearances. Followed by 20 goals from 25 games the next years.
During his spell with HJK Morelos would capture the eye of Jonatan Johansson
However, Helsinki fans would only get to enjoy the Colombian for a season and a half, as he was soon singled out by the new Rangers assistant coach Jonatan Johansson. Prior to moving back to Ibrox, Johansson had been an assistant coach with the Finland national team.
"I was watching a lot of the games there, mainly in Helsinki," Johansson said.
"I was obviously there with the intention of watching the Finnish players but Alfredo stood out".
"He was so quick over short spaces. he had a real appetite for scoring goals and had that selfishness you need. He wasn't afraid of missing chances."
Rangers would end-up sanctioning a deal for around $1.3 million.
"I want to show the fans here what I did every day in Finland - to grow more as a player and as a person," he said when he arrived in Scotland.
"I did some research on the internet about the history and games - I know that it's a really big club and that they've played in really big tournaments.
"I want to do things the best way and try to do well in very match and every training session, to win trophies and to be a regular first-team player.
"I know it won't be easy- it's going to be difficult because other team-mates will also be focused on this too.
"The most important thing is that I score goals - when the opportunity is there, I score."
At Rangers Morelos made a profound impact. In his first season in Scotland, he would score 18 goals in all competitions, followed by 30 goals in his second. It looked like he was set to exceed his record in his third season if the Scottish Premiership had not been stopped early due to the COVID pandemic, as he was already on 29.
His performances for Rangers were rewarded after Morelos started to receive call-ups to represent Colombia on the international stage.
“Right now I’m focused on Rangers, to keep adding, to keeping doing things right, and in the long term to be with my national team, to be fixed with the Colombian national team, and hopefully things will work out in the best way,” Morelos said.
When Morelos moved to Europe he chose to channel his energies into supporting the community in Cereté.
When he received his first paycheck from HJK, of around $3,500 he began funding projects in Cereté and sending back gifts.
When he made the move to Glasgow he would set up his own charitable foundation, Fundacion Alfredo Morelos.
"It is a privilege for me to open this marvelous foundation where children from Cereté can achieve their dreams, like I did in my childhood.
"If you believe it you can achieve it, I'm proud to be the mediator of this great project and be a reference for it, which will help a lot of people and uncover great talents from my homeland," Morelos stated on his Instagram account.
Initially, he would run the charity remotely from Europe. As the foundation grew he would appoint Franklin Gonzalez to manage the foundation's day to day operations. The foundation now has around 5 or six full-time employees, which are supported by volunteers.
"We talk every day," Gonzalez says. "He likes to be involved in which music teacher is hired or deciding how a new building is going to look."
The foundation has progressed to larger projects for the local community of Cereté. "We are constructing a 20,00-square meter complex," says Gonzalez. "It's going to have football pitches, a gym, classrooms, art rooms, psychology, technology area, green spaces and a park to service hundreds of kids."
"The foundation is set up to help the most vulnerable in society, especially kids. the goal is to have a transformation on this next generation," Gonzalez added.
Although the development of the local community complex has been paused due to the pandemic, Morelos has not stopped his support. As soccer stopped in Europe Morelos moved back to Colombia, to help those in need.
Initially, the foundation helped the community by delivering food parcels, so that no vulnerable people had to put themselves at risk by leaving their homes.
"In this crisis, we do not forget the vulnerable families of Cereté.
“The Alfredo Morelos Foundation is no stranger to the situation that exists in the world due to Covid-19 and for this reason, it has helped the population with food to cope with this crisis.
“More than 500 markets have been delivered to in various sectors, sidewalks and townships, delivered by Alfredo Morelos and the foundation’s volunteers, complying with biosafety regulations to prevent the spread of the virus,” a statement said on the foundation's Facebook page.
While they were working with the community the foundation recognized the new challenges that the crisis had created in the community. Therefore, the charity began providing psychological help to people online and also through a telephone support network.
Additionally, the Rangers striker set up multiple charity exhibition soccer games, where locals were kitted out in Rangers uniforms. The foundation would then request attendees to donate food as their admission fee.
"It's been beautiful to see how the community has become fans of Rangers," said Gonzalez. "Everywhere you go someone is wearing a Morelos shirt."
This appears to be the real Alfredo Morelos, the one how wants to give opportunity and provide for the less fortunate.
"The first thing he told me when I met him," Gonzalez explained "was that he didn't want other kids to have to suffer the level of poverty and lack of resources he had to endure"
"He wants to make a permanent change so that kids can pursue their dreams of becoming a lawyer or a teacher or anything they want to be."