Saturday, 12 October 2019

From Elkeson to Ai Kesen: The Brazilian at the vanguard of China's quest to end their World Cup exile

When the opportunity arose to join Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese Super League, Elkeson leapt at it.

It was a way to secure his family’s financial future for decades — generations, even. It likely meant forgoing a shot at international football – he had been called up from Brazil two years earlier – but it was a price worth paying.

This week, however, Elkeson played in a World Cup qualifier. He took to the field at the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou wearing a red jersey with the number 11 on the back. Local commentators spoke in excited tones about him but didn’t use his birth name.

They called him “Ai Kesen”. He was playing for China.

Read my piece on China naturalising players in a bid to end their World Cup exile on The Athletic.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Almost three years after the Chapecoense plane crash, families are still looking for answers, and for redress

In London's financial district, eight other Brazilians are staging a protest. They are wrapped up warm against the wind, coats zipped to the very top and gloved hands firmly jammed into pockets. Some hunker down on a bench. Others stand on the pavement, holding the edges of a banner they brought over from their homeland.

"Fighting for justice, we are stronger," it reads.

A few passers-by to ask what is going on. Those who do hear the latest chapters in a story that once held the world's attention but has since slipped off the radar.

Three of the protesters are lawyers. One is an activist. Four are widows of footballers who died when the aeroplane carrying the Chapecoense squad to the final of the Copa Sudamericana crashed in Colombia on 28 November 2016.

The ninth protester is Neto. He was on that plane.

The reason for their presence in the UK? Almost three years after the crash, the Chapecoense families are still looking for answers, and for redress.

Read the rest of this piece in The Athletic. 

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Gabriel Martinelli wants the world and he wants it now

Even in his first weeks at Ituano FC, his coaches were aware that Gabriel Martinelli had lofty goals for his career.

“When he arrived here, we were told that he was 'the boy with the project,'” says Luiz Antonio. He describes a young man who was “very focused, very determined” in his approach, despite his tender years.

“He was very ambitious and showed that element of his personality in so many ways. He likes to push himself to the maximum, straining for excellence at all times. He would be annoyed to lose a training game, for example. Some players in Brazil still have a lot to learn when it comes to competitiveness and high standards, but not Gabriel.”

Read my piece on Arsenal's young starlet on The Athletic.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Burnt by his first European adventure, Gabigol is restoring his reputation in Brazil, the only way he knows how

If you've watched Flamengo recently, you'll have notice the placards, lovingly whipped up at kitchen tables around the city with felt-tip feeling.

Hoje tem gol do Gabigol,” they read. Gabigol is going to score today.

He probably is, you know, but we’ll return to that in a moment. Because chances are that you’ve heard that name before. Maybe you played Football Manager five or six years ago. Maybe you really, really wanted to know who the next cab off the Santos academy rank was going to be.

Chances are, too, that you lost sight of his immense potential shortly afterwards. That would be perfectly excusable. For a while, he lost sight of it himself.

Now, though? Now he's back in the groove.

Read my piece on Gabigol's renaissance at Flamengo on The Athletic.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

A brief history of the 'Olympic goal'

In broad, layman’s terms, you should not be able to score from a corner.

You cannot see more than the thinnest sliver of the goal from your starting position. Even if you manage to direct an effort on target, the penalty box is full of players who are keen – indeed, often desperate – to interrupt the ball’s trajectory. One of them is allowed to use their hands to do so and really, really doesn’t want to be embarrassed.

To say the odds are stacked against the taker is to understate things by an order of magnitude.

That's why the 'Olympic goal' club is so exclusive. It's full of transgressors and mavericks – men and women who have looked common sense in the face and laughed.

Read my piece on this delicious skill – inspired by Leandro Carvalho of Ceará – on The Athletic.

Friday, 30 August 2019

A small step and a giant leap in the battle against homophobia in Brazilian football

Anyone who has played or watched football in Brazil has a homophobia story.

It might be the echoing cry of “viado” from a hateful soul in a nearby seat or from a child who cannot fully grasp its meaning. It might be the morons who treat every goal kick as an opportunity to tell the opposition goalkeeper that he is a “poof” — a refrain for which Brazil’s federation were fined no fewer than five times during qualifying for World Cup 2018.

These are the everyday cases, the ones that have, over the course of many decades, been smuggled into Brazil’s sporting culture under the banner of jocularity. “It’s only a bit of fun,” they’ll tell you. A lot of them will even believe it, too, remaining blissfully unaware that they might be making fellow fans feel uncomfortable or even unwelcome at the stadium.

Read my piece on homophobia in the Brazilian game – and a symbolic first step towards its eradication – on The Athletic. 

Friday, 16 August 2019

A Tricolor love story: What Daniel Alves' return means for São Paulo – and for Brazilian football as a whole

São Paulo is a club with a proud history, but recent years have been difficult and the last couple of weeks have felt faintly surreal.

It would be one thing to sign a player of Daniel Alves' calibre, with 41 senior titles to his name – more than any other player in the world – and a global cachet that stretches beyond that of the entire league, let alone one team.

It is another for that player to be quite so plainly overjoyed with his decision, to be doe-eyed and doting like a teenage in the throes of his first crush.

Read my piece on Alves' homecoming on The Athletic.