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Orlando City midfielder Júnior Urso uses tattoos to celebrate his past, fight racism

The Lions’ new midfielder draws strength from the most important aspects of his life inked across his body

Orlando City midfielder Júnior Urso trains with the team during a preseason session. (Julia Poe/Pro Soccer USA)

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Ink fills most of Júnior Urso’s skin. Tattoos cover the Orlando City midfielder — a cross nestled behind his ear, a bold 23 on the back of his right hand, a palm tree on his ankle.

The easiest way to trace Urso’s story is to follow his tattoos. So it’s fitting — funny, even — that one of his older pieces is a lion, stretched across the left side of his ribs.

The midfielder couldn’t have known the tattoo would one day match the mascot of his club. But perhaps it was a sign of things to come, as only five days into training with Orlando City, Urso feels he fits in as a Lion.

“It couldn’t be better, to be honest,” Urso said through a translator. “These first few weeks, I already feel at home.”

Urso is right footed, and his right leg is reserved for the most important figures in his life. A portrait of his mother and father fill the inside of his calf, while detailed busts of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Russell Westbrook and Cristiano Ronaldo crawl up the outside of his leg from his ankle to his hipbone, separated by the phrase, “Why not?”

At the crest of his right thigh is a fearsome tattoo of his namesake — a bear, teeth bared in a roar.

The nickname of “Urso” was born at a club tryout when the midfielder was 15 years old. There were several boys named Júnior, which caused confusion among the coaches. At the time, he wore his hair similarly to how it is styled now, fluffed up high above his head, so a teammate jokingly called him “urso” — bear, in English.

Urso wasn’t sure about the moniker, but it stuck. And as Urso has grown as a player — most recently playing in Brazil for top-flight club Corinthians — it’s become an identity.

“I didn’t like it at first,” Urso said. “But then I began to think that the name ‘bear,’ it’s connected to very strong and powerful things. So I think I just embraced that and it has brought me luck in my life ever since.”

Most days, one of Urso’s largest — and most meaningful — tattoos is hidden. It’s tucked in the space between his shoulder blades, resting just below a family crest at the nape of his neck — a black power fist in a leather glove, recalling the famous salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.

When he’s on the field, the fist is hidden under his jersey. But Urso knows it’s there, a silent reminder of the strength he carries to overcome any discrimination he might face. An outspoken advocate who has fought racism in sports, Urso’s tattoo reflects a history of repeated targeting due to the color of his skin.

The worst incident Urso faced happened on the soccer pitch. While playing for Shandong Luneng in the Chinese Super League, Urso tackled an opponent hard, earning a foul. The player climbed to his feet and turned on Urso, cursing at him and calling him a monkey.

When it happened, he said he wanted to have a clever response, like when Barcelona defender Dani Alves peeled and ate a banana thrown at him by a racist fan. But in the moment, Urso froze. He didn’t have the words. He was afraid.

The same reaction hit him again when he was accosted in a bathroom in Florianópolis, in his home country of Brazil. Both times, Urso said he was surprised at his own reaction.

“It is something that hits your chest very hard,” Urso said in an interview last year. “We think it is something that will not shake us, but it is something that cannot be explained. It is a pain different from all other pains. It is different from an injury, it is different from a defeat.”

Urso carried the weight of these racist attacks with him for years, and at the end of 2017, he finally decided to ink himself with an antidote, something that would remind him of his strength and pride in his culture. The black power fist was the perfect fit.

Above the fist is a phrase in delicate script that reads, “Quem tem medo de sofrer não merece o melhor da vida.

The Portuguese phrase comes from the song “Mais do que pegadas” — “More than footprints” — by the Brazilian rapper Projota. It translates into a message that carries Urso through each day, on and off the field: “Whoever is afraid of suffering doesn’t deserve the best of life.”

Urso is working on a new piece now, one that has already become his most expansive — a tribute to every city he’s lived in, stretched across his lower back. Three parts of the tattoo are already completed, showing iconic landmarks from Sao Pãolo and Florianópolis in Brazil and a skyscraper in Guangzhou, China, where he played for two years.

Eventually, Orlando will be etched into the tapestry of Urso’s skin as well. The tattoos reflect how each city has made an impression on Urso, but the midfielder hopes to make an impact of his own on his new club and city.

Although Urso fielded offers from other clubs — both in MLS and abroad — he said he was particularly attracted to Orlando City because of the challenge it posed.

After seeing other Brazilian stars such as Kaká and Júlio Baptista become Lions, the club was already on Urso’s radar. But the prospect of leading the club to its first playoff berth and first championship appealed the most to the midfielder, who felt hungry to push himself with a new team.

In Orlando, Urso said he can leave a lasting legacy.

“Things like that motivate me,” Urso said. “Together we can accomplish something that has never happened before. I feel I can make history here.”

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