At a time when the stock of Brazilian footballers has rarely been lower – only one, Neymar, was included on the list of the 23 nominees for the Ballon d’Or – the blistering form of attacking midfielder Felipe Anderson at Lazio has provided a welcome tonic for fretful followers of the Seleção. Anderson, 21, has set Serie A alight in recent months, establishing himself as the team’s creator in chief during Lazio’s surge towards Italy’s Champions League places. “He looked like Cristiano Ronaldo tonight,” said Sampdoria coach Siniša Mihajlović after Anderson cut his team to ribbons recently, scoring and creating Lazio’s two other goals in a 3-0 win.
Life suddenly became much more complicated for the player this week, after his father was arrested for committing a double murder, and he sustained a knee injury that will keep him out of action for a number of weeks. But then not much has been straightforward in the career of Felipe Anderson – one of a handful of Brazilians who have taken a roundabout route to success in recent years.
Although he played at youth level for other teams before arriving at Santos, Anderson can be considered part of the Meninos da Vila production line – the club has a longstanding reputation for developing young talent, dating back to the glory days of the 1950s and 60s and the emergence of a certain Pelé, continuing through the Robinho, Elano and Diego generation at the beginning of this century, and most recently, producing Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso. Of the current vintage, while the club is currently embroiled in a financial crisis, with a number of senior players rescinding their contracts due to unpaid wages, great things are expected of striker Gabriel.
But this rich lineage, and the great expectations that accompany it, can weigh heavily on the shoulders of a young player. It certainly seemed so in Felipe Anderson’s case. He was first called up to the Santos squad for a game against Palmeiras in October 2010, on the same day as Neymar made his 100th appearance, and the symbolism was hard to miss – the long-running novela of the future of Brazil’s young princeling had begun, and everyone knew the final episode would play out with a move to Real Madrid or Barcelona. That meant Santos’ future success would depend on the talent production line continuing to bear fruit, and Anderson was a prime candidate to carry on the tradition.
Things did not quite go according to plan, however. Unlike the aforementioned Neymar and Ganso, Anderson sparkled only fitfully in his first couple of years with the club, struggling mightily to establish himself as a first teamer and incurring the often public wrath of the team’s misanthropic coach Muricy Ramalho. Among his tirades, Ramalho said he believed Anderson had a “factory defect,” and after a defeat against Sport during which the player was booed by fans, warned that “players at a big club have to know how to play well. Here at Santos you can’t be the next big thing forever. Things change … he’s an eternal ‘potential’ great.”
Anderson would later criticize the coach, now in charge at São Paulo, for his outbursts. “I felt exposed … particularly because he said these things in public. I don’t resent him … but the problems definitely helped to shorten my time at Santos,” he said recently.
In such a climate, it is hardly surprising that fans viewed the player with suspicion, accusing him of lacking motivation and sleepwalking through matches. Nonetheless, and despite an unimpressive display at the South American U-20 Championship in 2013, where Brazil finished bottom of its first round group, he did enough to earn a somewhat protracted $9.25 million transfer to Lazio in August of the same year, although his exit attracted none of the fanfare that had surrounded the earlier departures of Neymar or Lucas Moura.
Now, though, it seems Felipe Anderson has begun to earn the right to a seat at Brazilian soccer’s top table. While injuries and the difficult process of adapting to a new country and footballing environment stymied his progress last year, he has exploded this season, being involved in eight of Lazio’s last 10 goals. “Finally, Felipe Anderson!” ran the headline of an ESPN Brazil story this week.
Anderson is not the only young Brazilian in recent years whose flourishing in Europe has surprised more than a few observers back home. After hastily being declared a “wonderkid” when he first broke through at Vasco, the then lightweight, rather one-footed Phillipe Coutinho’s career seemed to have stalled at Inter. Another example of the Brazilian tendency to overhype, it seemed, who had gone in search of European riches when far from ready, and was now paying the price for his hubris. But after filling out physically in Italy, a loan spell at Espanyol appeared to restore Coutinho’s confidence, convincing Liverpool to spend $14 million on the midfielder. Surprisingly for a player once considered too slight, he has thrived amidst the physical intensity of the Premier League and was instrumental in Liverpool’s title challenge last year.
The early season success of rangy attacking midfielder Anderson Talisca at Benfica was unexpected for a different reason. Talisca emerged at Bahia in the northeastern city of Salvador, far from Brazilian soccer’s south-eastern Rio de Janeiro/São Paulo power axis. The general rule in Brazil is that when a talented young player appears at a club in the nordeste, his first big move will be to a team in the southeast, where heightened media attention and television coverage will bring him national attention and, later, potentially, a move to Europe. Talisca took the road less travelled, however, when his performances for Bahia earned him $4.6 move to Portugal – the most expensive transfer in the history of the club. While his displays have tailed off a little of late, his early season form was good enough to earn him that most sought after of accolades – the Jose Mourinho seal of approval. “If Talisca had a work permit,” growled the Special One, ”he’d be playing in England by now.”
There are a number of reasons for the winding roads to success of players such as Felipe Anderson in Europe. The financial chaos that surrounds the game back in Brazil is one, with players getting sold off to teams and investment groups with indecent haste as clubs desperately try to make ends meet. The end result is players moving to Europe at younger and younger ages – too young, in many cases. For every Anderson or Coutinho with the resourcefulness (or the plain good fortune) to struggle on when times are tough, there is a player such as young striker Vitinho, who played only a handful of games for Botafogo before moving to CSKA Moscow. He has now returned to Brazil with Internacional after only a year in Russia.
Then there is the sheer quantity of players that move to Europe. Brazilian players clocked up 22,659 minutes of game time during the group phase of this season’s Champions League, the most of any country, and such players represent only the tip of the iceberg. Far removed from the Neymars or the Lucas Mouras, for whom the world’s top clubs are willing to spend huge sums, there are plenty of lesser lights moving to clubs in Portugal, the Netherlands or to smaller Italian clubs, from where they will hope to earn a move to a bigger team in the future. Hyped to the stars at home at a very young age, such players can easily seem to drop off the map when they move abroad, making their later re-emergence (if there is one) feel like a surprise.
While it is customary for departing stars to cry “it’s au revoir, not goodbye!” on their way out the door, once established in Europe, players like Coutinho and Anderson rarely look back across the Atlantic. The greater stability and professionalism offered by European clubs, not to mention the financial rewards and the opportunity to challenge themselves by playing against the best players in the world, allows them to reach their potential in a way they can sadly no longer do back home.
It is unthinkable, for example, that Neymar would be the player he is today had he remained at Santos, where he would spend four months a year playing against the equivalent of non-league clubs in the Campeonato Paulista. Getting to the top of the mountain may take longer for players such as Anderson or Coutinho than for others, but once there, they will be in no hurry to climb back down again.