It appears now that Paulo Henrique Ganso will not be joining the Kaká & Flavio Augusto da Silva revolution at Orlando City. São Paulo refused the MLS club’s offer to wipe out the outstanding debt between the two sides, dating from Kaká’s loan spell in Brazil last year, in return for the midfielder’s services. Such stubbornness should not come as much of a surprise – Brazil’s top clubs, who owe a collective $1.9 billion in private and public debt, are old hands at not paying their bills. And given Ganso’s performances in recent years, Orlando City fans should perhaps not be too distraught at the news either.
Not so long ago, when Ganso was in his brief pomp, it would have been a different story. The player established himself in the Santos first team in 2009, but it was in 2010 when the Ganso and Neymar double-act emerged as a pairing to rival Fred and Ginger, Batman and Robin, or Mick and Keef. Aided and abetted at various moments by Robinho, Danilo (now at Real Madrid), and Porto’s Alex Sandro, Santos won the Campeonato Paulista and the Copa do Brasil that year, before lifting the Copa Libertadores in 2011.
If Neymar was the darting rapier up front, then Ganso was an altogether different prospect – a strolling, elegant playmaker, a languid left-footed throwback to the summer of 1982, when a Seleção midfield starring Zico, Falcão, and Socrates enchanted the world with similar louche artistry. As a result, at times Ganso was sometimes hailed as a potentially more interesting prospect than Neymar. Brazil, until recently at least, has continued to unearth plenty of exciting forwards, from Romario and Ronaldo to Ronaldinho. But as the great Tostão, one of the heroes of the 1970 World Cup winning squad, is fond of repeating, the country “hasn’t produced a world-class midfielder in 20 years.”
Plenty of people thought Ganso might be the answer to that creative crisis, and the calls for Dunga to take the dynamic duo to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were loud and strident – and premature, as it turned out. Dunga put Ganso on the standby list, but no more than that, growling that “if it was about getting experience, I’d bring my kid.”
History has arguably proved him right, at least in Ganso’s case. The player had been promising, but unremarkable, at the U-20 World Cup in 2009, being subbed off in five out of seven of Brazil’s games. And domestically, most of his good domestic performances had come playing against patsies in the Campeonato Paulista. “Santos have been playing very well,” Pele said at the time, “but they need to be tested abroad, in a match in Uruguay or Paraguay. We need to see how these kids behave in that kind of environment.”
While Neymar was to acquire exactly that experience in 2011, Ganso missed most of Santos’ Libertadores campaign after rupturing his cruciate ligament the previous August. It was to prove a crucial, if temporary, parting of the ways. Neymar’s star continued to ascend, only plateauing briefly when his progress stalled towards the end of his time in Brazil, but Ganso seemed stuck. Though apparently set for bigger things, his Santos performances were rarely consistent enough to merit talk of a move to Europe, and his relationship with the fans soon soured. For the Seleção, he was ineffectual at the Copa America in Argentina in 2011, possibly still feeling the effects of his recent injuries, and by the time the 2012 Olympics rolled around, Oscar had overtaken him in the midfield pecking order.
Ganso finally got his move to a bigger club that September, but while Neymar swapped not just continents but footballing galaxies, Ganso simply moved across town to São Paulo, and the inconsistency continued. It seemed every moment of magic was hailed as a sign he was finally fulfilling his potential, but was then followed, just as inevitably, by two or three performances of startling insipidness. The 2013 Copa Libertadores, when he and the rest of an expensive São Paulo side were easily outshone by the aging but still occasionally mercurial Ronaldinho, then playing for Atlético Mineiro, showed the gulf between the player Paulo Henrique Ganso would like to be, and the player he truly was, most of the time.
Not much has changed since then. Ganso, now seemingly perpetually followed by a little black cloud of despondence, looked briefly inspired by Kaká’s enthusiasm and experience while the veteran was at São Paulo. But he was again invisible when his underperforming side was eliminated from the Copa Libertadores by Cruzeiro earlier this year, and he cut a morose figure when São Paulo crashed to defeat against Sport in Recife two weeks ago, sent-off for complaining to the referee – “lost, apathetic, dreaming of an ideal, unreal world,” as Tostão described it.
It’s hard to know where it all went wrong. Being part of the familiar Brazilian hype machine certainly didn’t help. At times there was something unpleasantly conceited about that Santos generation, with Neymar forcing the exit of his then-coach, Dorival Junior, after being barred from taking a penalty, and the infamous incident when a group of players taunted fans on the internet with the words “we spend more on dog food than you make in a year.”
Ganso was not part of that group, but there is no doubt that being proclaimed as not just the next big thing, but a world class talent no less, when still earning his stripes, imbued in him a sense of entitlement. Though the two remain friends, it is also not hard to imagine that the sight of Neymar, his onetime partner in footballing crime, starring for Barcelona on the world’s biggest stages, while Ganso takes on the likes of Xv de Piracicaba in the Campeonato Paulista, might be enough to stir up a little subconscious resentment.
Then there’s his playing style. Despite the sulks and the lackluster performances, many local fans still have a soft spot for Ganso, precisely because he is the kind of creative player that Brazilian soccer so chronically lacks these days. Faced with the spartan fare served up by Dunga’s shock troops, Ganso’s half-bored, effortless charms, even if they are only very rarely effective, remind people, just a little, of what Brazilian midfielders used to look like.
The problem is that it is not 1982 anymore – not in Brazil, not anywhere. Attacking moves these days are started (or finished) not by Ganso-esque conjurors like Zico or Glen Hoddle, but by complete, all-purpose midfielders of power and versatility – the likes of Thomas Müller or Bastian Schweinsteiger, for example. His work-rate and his physicality have improved in recent seasons, but Ganso remains a throwback, and, if he has not yet found the time and space to regularly work his magic in the slower paced Brazilian game, what chance is there that he will be able to do so at an even higher level?
More than you might think, perhaps. “It seems like they don’t believe in Ganso anymore. But I believe,” wrote Tostão, clearly a man with a great interest in Ganso’s progress, last year. “Lots of players do well at small teams then struggle when they move up to a better team. I have the impression that because of the way he plays, if Ganso was to move to one of the big European teams, and played alongside great players, he would become a great player himself.”
It appears we will not have the chance to find out if Tostão is right just yet. Unhappy with the economic and political climate in Brazil, it has become common in recent years for wealthy, disgruntled Brazilians to seek a new life in Orlando. It is perhaps a shame that Paulo Henrique Ganso will not now get the chance to make the same switch. A move away from the negativity that has come to surround his career in Brazil might just have done him the world of good.