'Hearts fans are not racist' - Isma Goncalves opens up on Tynecastle abuse and returning to Scottish football with Livingston

A player who has plied his trade in 11 countries and represented a 12th at international level, there is something that keeps luring Isma Goncalves back to Scottish football.

A 2013 League Cup winner with St Mirren, he returned four years later for a stint with Hearts and, after spells in Uzbekistan, Iran, Japan, India and Bangladesh over the past four and a bit years, the Guinea Bissau-born player, who was raised in Portugal, has now landed at Livingston, on a two-year deal, with the option of another year if all goes to plan, looking for some permanence.

There was embarrassment when he departed Tynecastle after just 12 months, citing racist abuse from a minority of fans as a factor in his decision, with club officials insisting they had been unaware and offering a heartfelt apology to the striker and his family, who had started to stay away on match days.

“That didn’t make me think ‘I don’t want to come back’ because it is part of football just now. But, even after what happened at Hearts I cannot say that Hearts fans are racist because that is not the case. I am happy for Hearts that they are doing so well.

“There were one or two people who said a lot and it did bother my family at the time because it is difficult to listen to that. But I don’t keep that hate in my heart and neither do my family because life is like this. It is not right but that is how life is.

“We teach it to our kids, even at a young age, that, you know, life is like this and you have to try not to listen. That is difficult because they don’t understand but they have to be prepared. I have been listening to this since I was a kid playing in Portugal.

“It is not nice and it is even more difficult because I think kids now are a little bit softer. That makes it difficult to explain to them what it is and how to handle it. It shouldn’t have to be like that.”

His two sons and daughter are aged just eight, six and three but, shamefully, societal ills require survival skills to be taught early.

Esmael Goncalves celebrates after scoring a penalty for Hearts in a match against Partick Thistle in April 2017.

“In Asia it is not an issue at all but in Europe it is. It was in Portugal and France and here. It is not everybody but there are always some people.

“It is annoying because if you have a bad day and then you listen to this kind of stuff then it gets worse.”

There is an inner strength, a sense of personal pride, grace, and remarkable resolve that ensures that realisation does not crush him or his family. Instead, he prefers to project goodness, with a warm, hearty and infectious chuckle that constantly lightens the conversation and a wide grinned smile that eloquently illustrates just how happy he is in West Lothian.

But, it was an ignominious start as the old prejudices reared their ugly head online when his signing was announced. This time his employers immediately provided the support and backed him publicly.

Esmael Goncalves celebrates winning the League Cup with St Mirren in 2013.

“Everyone at the club has been very positive but it is a shame.”

The Livingston dressing room is renowned for its unity and demonstrated its anti-racism stance by taking the knee and, in assistant manager Marvin Bartley, Goncalves has a strong ally. A erudite and dogged anti-racism advocate, he is also an equality and diversity advisor to the SFA. But, having been separated by the great capital divide during their time at Hearts and Hibs, the 31-year-old forward is seeing a different side to the coach.

“Of course he has helped. Marvin is a great guy but I didn’t know that before. We played against each other when I was at Hearts and I was saying ‘what’s up bro?’ but he wouldn’t say anything, wouldn’t smile, he just wanted to play. But now I see him relaxed, smiling, joking. Maybe because I am not wearing a Hearts strip now!”

Delving beyond public perceptions has been positive for him, with manager David Martindale also impressing.

New Livingston signing Esmael Goncalves takes part in pre-season training at the Tony Macaroni Arena. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

“He is unique, very unique. He is tough, really tough, no doubt, but he is really friendly.

“Oh my god, he shouts! Woah, he goes crazy sometimes. But I’m ok with that. I think people have that image of him because they see him on tv or at the games but I don’t think people know the other side. He is so honest and friendly and hard-working and always tries to help everyone at the club.

“I think he is good, for players like me. I think I needed a coach like him. Every day he says ‘Isma I’m going to kill you today! You’re going to die!’ But he told me ‘if you work hard you will play, if you don’t work hard you won’t play. It is easy’. He wants us to work hard and he is tough but I like him. He means it when he says there are no luxury players here.

“The guys are always ready to help each other. I’m impressed. This group is really like a family. Everybody’s close. That is very good. Anything you need, everyone will help.”

But, it is the Livi gaffer who helped him find a family home, which he moves into next week, in time for his wife Lucia and children arriving this month.

“Anything, I need help with, if I text him, he tries to fix it. He is a good guy. That is the other side to him.”

Esmael Goncalves in action for Esteghlal against Al Ain during his spell in Iran in 2019. (Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

The player has family, including his sister, auntie and cousins in Edinburgh, but personal foibles dictate Livingston is a better place to settle for now.

“My wife loves life in Scotland and being near Edinburgh. But we will live in Livingston. If we lived in Edinburgh I would be late every time for training! Yes, that is one of my faults. I haven’t had one fine yet for being late but I have had another fine! Everything here is a fine. I think the boys want all my money!”

There’s that laugh again.

With everyone, including Goncalves working to get the best version of himself on the park this season, the player has rediscovered his love for his job.

On loan at St Mirren he helped the Paisley side to League Cup glory and both player and club would have made the move permanent but parent club Rio Ave were looking for too much.

At Hearts he contributed 15 goals in 42 games in the second half of the 2016/17 season and first half of the 2017/18 campaign before heading off on his travels again.

Earlier in his career, it had been Portugal, France, Cyprus, Greece and Saudi Arabia. Now the trips were more eye-opening.

“When we look at it in Europe, we think football is easier in other places, like Asia, and it is not at all. I think a lot of people underestimate it.”

In Iran he played in front of 110,000 and was mobbed whenever he went out. He loved the passion but missed his freedom. In Japan, where, like Celtic’s Daizen Maeda, he played for Matsumota Yama, the technical ability surprised him, but the covid restrictions which prevented him from seeing his family saw him begging with the club on a daily basis to be allowed to leave. That eventually took him to India and then Bangladesh.

“That year, in Bangladesh, I didn’t enjoy it. The club, the football, it was all a mess. It is the only one place I have been where it has all been a mess. It was everything. I didn’t enjoy living there. I wanted it finished fast.”

The nomadic existence was not one he planned but he says the experiences have been something to treasure. He would prefer to put down roots now but is happy to see his children have been bitten by the football bug.

“Honestly, I let them be but I would like them to play football. I don’t push them but they really like it.

“But I think football would be good for them. First, I think football takes you out of a bad way of life or bad company and the experiences you have in football are amazing. Ever since I was a kid, to now, as a grown man, there have been a lot of really good experiences.”

There have also been challenges, in football as in life, but he is focusing on the good and the opportunity to keep adding to that treasure trove and, at Livingston, he believes he has arrived at the right place to do that.

Because, that is where, he says, the collective and individual ambitions align.

“After three months of not playing, I am working hard to get fit. The best thing for me is scoring goals. Definitely, a striker needs goals! I can’t wait to start playing and scoring.

“As a team, we have spoken about next season,” he says, then, smiling, he stops. Those targets are private, he explains. He pauses again, then there’s that playful grin. “But I can tell you we are ambitious. We are aiming high!”

It doesn’t seem like much keeps Goncalves down.

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