Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Sultan of stepovers: Remembering Denílson, Brazil and São Paulo's rubber-legged Pied Piper

There he goes, steaming down the flank with a gaggle of would-be markers in tow, doing one, two, three [*fast forward to save time]... nine stepovers and whipping the ball into the box.

Yep, it's Denílson, the rubber-legged wing whippet and self-described social "tsumani", solely responsible for 70% of playground grazes sustained in the summer of 1998.

The former São Paulo, Flamengo, Palmeiras and Seleção winger is the subject of my latest South American Cult Heroes column for Unibet.

You can read it here.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Release clause: Controversy as convicted murder Bruno resumes playing career in Brazil

On 8 March, Cruzeiro – one of Brazilian football's traditional 'big 12' – took to the field for a cup match against Murici-AL wearing a special kit. The jerseys were royal blue, as ever, but did not carry the names of the players. Instead, to mark International Women's Day, the squad numbers spelt out statistics highlighting the challenges faced by women in Brazil.

"Salaries 30% lower," read the shirt belonging to midfielder Thiago Neves. Others were even more shocking: "A rape every 11 minutes"; "A woman killed every 2 hours". The club earnt plentiful praise, both at home and abroad, for drawing attention to such a worthy cause. In a country as patriarchal as Brazil, such gestures make waves.

Other clubs essayed their own initiatives, but if the sport was hoping to present a united front on the issue of women's rights, the waters would soon be muddied in spectacularly galling fashion. Just two days later, second-division Boa Esporte Clube – Minas Gerais neighbours of Cruzeiro –announced the signing of Bruno Fernandes de Souza, a player who, four years prior, had been convicted of the brutal murder of the mother of his child.

You can read my piece on Bruno's controversial return to football in the latest issue of When Saturday Comes magazine – available at newsagents and to order/read online.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Animal instincts: Remembering Edmundo, Brazilian football's original bad boy

Edmundo wasn't blessed with blistering pace or enormous power. He wasn't a supermodel-in-waiting or a deep thinker. He wasn't naturally charming and wasn't very popular among his colleagues.

He was, however, a brilliantly compelling footballer, a lit fuse of a player who was liable to explode at a moment's notice. At his best, he was a menace to defenders, snapping at their ankles and making them pay when they took the bait. At his worst... well, he was just a menace.

The man known in Brazil as 'The Animal' is the subject of the first piece in a new series on South American cult heroes for the lovely people at Unibet. There should be plenty of Brazilian entries, which will all be posted here in due course.

Have a read of Part 1 here.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Gabriel Jesus' breathtaking ascent to the top – told by those who helped make it happen at Palmeiras

He faces a couple of months on the sidelines, but that won't stop Gabriel Jesus. The Brazilian teenager has been on a mission since the start of his teens, cruising over every obstacle placed in his way with that trademark brand of serenity and flair.

After his lightning start to life at Manchester City – three goals and two assists in his first three starts – I got in contact with some of those who knew him best during his time at Palmeiras, where he blossomed from a coltish upstart into a genuine star.

I spoke to his former coach, Cuca, who told me why he's best played through the centre. Fernando Prass, the captain of the São Paulo outfit, recalled Gabriel practising his finishing after training until he could shoot with both feet. Matheus Sales and Agustín Allione shared their experiences of seeing the forward at close quarters.

You can have a read of what they all had to say in this piece for The Independent.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Brazil swoons over Gabriel Jesus, the thoroughbred export making a mockery of country's "mongrel complex"

Anyone who has spent time in Brazil will probably have heard the phrase "complexo de vira-lata". It translates as "mongrel complex" and refers to a self-imposed feeling of national inferiority. "Brazilians are upside-down narcissists who spit on their own image," Rodrigues wrote.

One of the symptoms of the affliction – and we are of course generalising here – is that Brazil cares what others think. This can be seen in everyday language and, most significantly, in the media, where outlets frequently carry stories about how local events are being covered around the world.

The recent spate of violence in Brazilian prisons, for instance, hit the headlines around the world and those headlines were pumped back into the echo chamber. Stories about outrageously outmoded beauty contests and governmental corruption follow a similar pattern. Often, this is done with cringe implied; at the embarrassment Olympics, Brazil always sees itself as a medal contender.

Now and then, though, the mongrel complex is turned on its head by events that prompt a swell of pride. At which point, enter Gabriel Jesus: instant Premier League idol and Brazil's new leading export.

Read the rest of this piece on the Mirror website.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Ronaldinho's sugar-rush genius in 11 moments

This month's FourFourTwo magazine is a South American special, featuring interviews with Robinho, Arturo Vidal, Solomon Rondon and plenty more besides.

The cover star is Ronaldinho, who reflects on his career, talks about Brazil's emerging generation and swoons over Dele Alli.

To coincide with the issue, I picked out 11 of the most memorable moments of Ronaldinho's career, including that goal against England, his stunning toe poke at Stamford Bridge and – hopefully – a couple of stunning bits of skill that you've never seen before.

Have a read here.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Brazil and Colombia honour Chapecoense victims in Rio, but half-empty stadium provides pointed contrast

It was always going to be emotional. Two months after the tragic plane crash that robbed 71 people of their lives and a football club of its happy anonymity, Brazil welcomed Colombia to Rio de Janeiro for a meeting that was not about the match.

The marketing men had dubbed it 'The Game of Friendship', but the feelings ran deeper than that. In the first instance, it was a chance to pay tribute to the fallen – to the players, officials and journalists who boarded LaMia Flight 2933 and never returned home.

Beyond that, this was also an opportunity for Brazil to say thank you to Colombia. Footballing relations between the two countries have not always been the warmest, but the humanity with which the Colombian people reacted to November's devastating events struck a real chord among their south-eastern neighbours.

Yet for all the heartening brotherhood on display, it was hard to deny that there was something a touch unsatisfying about the occasion. Find out why by reading my ESPN FC piece.