Esmael Goncalves has claimed that racist abuse from a minority of supporters played a big part in his decision to leave Hearts.
The 26-year-old Portuguese forward spent a year at Tynecastle before heading to Uzbekistan to sign for Pakhtakor Tashkent last month. Although the offer from the Asian club, which he first became aware of in November, was lucrative enough to interest him, Goncalves insists that his primary motivation for seeking a move away from Hearts was that friends and family members had heard racial abuse directed at him from some of his critics among the support and his wife and young son had stopped attending matches as a result.
“I received an offer from Uzbekistan and it was for a lot of money,” Goncalves told the Evening News. “I didn’t want to leave Hearts at first, but the problem was that my family were no longer coming to the games. There were some people making racist comments to me in the stadium and my family did not feel okay about this. It was a minority, but bad things even from a minority can have a big impact. My family should be able to go to the stadium and feel comfortable – it’s not nice when your son, your wife and your brother have to listen to people calling me ‘a f****** black’.
“My brother first told me about this around October, I think. My family came to the stadium another two or three times and these comments were still coming all the time. After that, my wife said, ‘I am not coming to the stadium any more to listen to these types of comments about my husband’. She was very mad about it. I need my family with me all the time to be focused and happy in my head.
“On the pitch I never heard racist comments because I wasn’t focusing on what people in the stand were saying, but my family and others in the stand told me they had heard a lot of racist comments about me. I got some racist comments on Instagram that I can’t even say because they were really, really bad. I was really disappointed and I didn’t understand why the people were being so bad to me. We are human beings and this shouldn’t happen, especially in the UK. There are a lot of black people in the UK. I might expect this in Italy, where they have a problem with racism, but not in the UK. Come on, please. The fact I play for the team whose supporters are giving me the racist comments, I can’t accept that.
“When people say I am not a good player, that is okay because it is their opinion. But when it goes to the racist side, that is very disappointing. It made it hard for me to play for Hearts. The last month was difficult because I had this in my mind. When you play for a club, you should play for your fans and give everything to them, but when I know the way they think, it makes it difficult to play for people who are racist. I have never had any problems with racism in my career before. This was new for me.”
Asked if he ever spoke to any of Hearts’ management about being subjected to racism from the stands, Goncalves said: “No, I never spoke because I don’t like to speak to other people about my problems. I only spoke to about six players, who know what I feel about this.”
Although he wasn’t able to detect any racist comments himself while out on the pitch, Goncalves was well aware that he had no shortage of critics among the Hearts support, particularly towards the end of his year in Gorgie. Despite scoring a respectable 15 goals for the club, many fans had grown exasperated with his general contribution. Goncalves admits he struggled when the supporters turned on him. “I felt like I was alone on the pitch at times,” he said. “Players always have bad moments in the season – always. In this moment, fans should support players until this moment is finished. Of course, the players must work hard and show passion on the pitch but when things are going wrong, it’s really difficult, especially for a foreigner. My brother told me that he felt one time after I’d scored, some fans were not happy because it was me that scored.
“Some people were booing me and saying I was no good but at the end of the game I was going in the dressing room and Craig Levein was congratulating me because I did what he wanted me to do. Some people don’t understand sometimes that we have tactics and we have a specific job to do. I respect what the coach thinks. After Aberdeen away in December, which was my last game, we arrived in the dressing-room and the coach gave me a hug and said I did amazing and did everything he asked of me. Then on Instagram afterwards, I had people telling me I was ‘f****** s***’. It was very difficult.”
Although he loved going to work at Oriam and being part of the team, the deterioration in his rapport with sections of the fanbase left Goncalves at a low ebb. When interest from elsewhere emerged towards the end of last year, he saw it as an opportunity to end what had become a difficult situation for he and his family. After a conversation with manager Craig Levein last month, Goncalves, Hearts’ second top scorer this season, left to sign for Pakhtakor Tashkent on a two-year contract. “I had some interest in November and December from Uzbekistan and other countries, but they were just talks at that stage,” he said. “In December I spoke with my family and decided, ‘OK, I am going to leave’. When I came back to Edinburgh after Christmas, my wife stayed in Portugal. She said, ‘I will always support you but I cannot accept that the people are being racist with you so I will not come back to a city where we are not welcome’. In January I was alone in Edinburgh until I left. I spoke to Craig and he told me he didn’t want me to leave, but he said if I wanted to leave, he wouldn’t make it difficult for me. As soon as I spoke to Craig and he said that, I knew I was going to leave.
“Honestly, if I didn’t have these problems, I think I would have stayed. I always had a good relationship with Craig, Austin MacPhee, Jon Daly and Liam Fox – they were all amazing with me. I liked everybody in the team as well – they were all amazing guys. I am very sad about this because I didn’t want to leave this way – I wanted to leave Hearts on a good note with everything okay and the people loving me.
“I really enjoyed being part of the club. All the people who worked at the club were amazing with me. From the kitman, to the secretary, Clare Cowan, they were amazing with me. They were lovely people. I can’t say only bad things about the fans because there were a lot of fans that asked me for pictures or sent me messages on social media supporting me. I can’t thank those people enough. I really appreciated their support.”
Although his time at Hearts ended amid a difficult backdrop, he is still able to view it in a positive light. He acknowledges, however, that he didn’t quite kick on as many had hoped after signalling his arrival in Gorgie with a couple of sensational performances against Rangers and Motherwell early last year. “It was a good year because I really enjoyed Hearts and playing for the team,” he said. “Everybody in the club was perfect with me. I don’t have anything bad to say about the team, the players and the club. The first six months was my best time at Hearts. Even though the team was not doing so well, I feel like I did okay. I scored 15 goals in a year. That’s not bad but, of course, I could have done better and scored perhaps another six or seven goals.
“If the team was doing better, I feel I would have played better. A striker can’t play alone. I don’t think the strikers at Hearts over the last year had quite the right connection with the midfield. I don’t know why that was because we worked hard on it in training but in games, sometimes it just didn’t happen. I see now the team is improving and I’m very happy about that. I think it would have got better for me with time and also with having Steven Naismith it would have been better for me.”
Goncalves signed for Tashkent, managed by former Rangers player Shota Arveladze, three weeks ago, just as Naismith was arriving at Tynecastle. He has been living in a hotel in the Uzbek capital while his wife and son prepare to join him in a few weeks. The Uzbekistan Super League kicks off in March and Goncalves limbered up by scoring his team’s first goal in a pre-season victory yesterday. “I am hoping for a fresh start here,” he said. “Everything is going well so far. I scored today and the people have welcomed me. The coach has been amazing with me. I am in a hotel just now but I have found a house already and I will move in after our training camp in Dubai. My family will join me after the preparation for the season is done.”
Goncalves is comfortable with his decision to move more than 4000 miles from Edinburgh to Uzbekistan, a central Asian nation bordered by, among others Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. “The captain of my old team in Cyprus, Anorthosis, used to play in Uzbekistan some years ago so I called him and told him I had an offer,” said Goncalves. “He told me good things about the lifestyle and the football. I asked him about racism and he said it will not be a problem here. I have been walking the streets here and had no problems. I think it will be good.”