Friday, 13 January 2012

What's Good for the Goose? Paulo Henrique Ganso and the Weight of Potential

Potential is a nebulous concept. Some have it, some don't. Some waste it. Some realise that they never had it in the first place. Potential erodes with time, either blossoming into tangibility or hardening into a stick with which to beat perceived underachievers. It can be boon, burden or both.

Paulo Henrique Ganso is feeling the full force of this double-edged sword.

At first glance, life looks rosy for the 22-year old. The playmaker, part of the most recent batch of young talents to emerge from the production line at Santos (see also the classes of '78 (Juary, Pita, João Paulo) and '02 (Robinho, Diego, Elano)), shot to prominence in the Peixe's state championship and Copa do Brasil victories of 2010. In the last two years, he has established himself as one of the country's standout midfielders, and an important member of Mano Menezes' Brazil squad. Constant speculation of interest from Milan and Internazionale has only reinforced his burgeoning reputation.

Yet all is not well chez Ganso. Events in recent months - both on the pitch and off it - have provided reason to be concerned over Ganso's progress, prompting some to revise their expectations for his future.

Exhibit A: his performances in the Club World Cup, which caught the attention of football fans worldwide for all the wrong reasons. With Santos failing to control possession, the youngster found himself bypassed - not only by Barcelona's gnomic midfield legion, but also by the more modest talents of semi-final opponents Kashiwa Reysol.

The tournament brought back memories of Brazil's catastrophic Copa América campaign earlier in the year. Ganso, entrusted with creative responsibilities by Mano Menezes, looked off the pace, unable to reproduce the kind of performance that first convinced pundits of his future at international level. (Ganso, in fairness, probably set the bar too high with his Brazil début against the USA, a tour-de-force of attacking verve. The same could easily be said of Menezes himself.)

In Ganso's defence, his preparation for the Copa had been disrupted by fitness problems. Sidelined between August 2010 and March 2011 by a cruciate ligament injury, Paulo Henrique continued to be hampered by minor niggles well into the season. His role in Santos' glorious Copa Libertadores campaign merely pasted over the cracks of what was a stop-start campaign. If he is to live up to his promise, he will have to prove in the coming months that his corporeal woes are truly behind him.

Further cause for concern has been provided by the relations between Ganso and his boyhood club, which soured somewhat in 2011. Stories linking the youngster with state rivals Corinthians began to surface earlier in the year and were not denied by Ganso, much to the chagrin of santistas. The player - whose economic rights are part-owned by DIS (a company that has strong links with... yep, Corinthians) - eventually smoothed things over with Santos, but doubts remained over the midfielder's commitment to the Vila Belmiro outfit.

The news last week that Santos were offered the opportunity to purchase an extra 10% of Ganso's economic rights (welcome to the third-party ownership system, kids) was also significant. For only R$5 million (around £2 million), the seaside club could have secured majority ownership of one of their major assets. Yet they turned the offer down. Conclusion? The club don't value Ganso at £20 million (right, maths fans?!). Perhaps this is unsurprising: after all, the rumoured interest from Europe's big boys has cooled significantly in recent months. (Incidentally, Future England Manager™ 'Arry Redknapp has never even heard of him. Make of that what you will.)

Ganso, of course, has also suffered from his proximity to another of Santos' young bucks: Neymar. Whilst the former has undergone a difficult few months, the latter has cemented his place as Brazilian football's hottest property. This status applies both on the pitch (his performances in the Copa Libertadores were breathtaking) and, perhaps more significantly, in the club shop.

Neymar, who has the words 'joy' and 'daring' sewn into whatever improbably-coloured pair of boots he happens to be wearing that week (no, seriously), offers the kind of immediacy that makes advertisers weak at the knees. His gravity- (and taste-) defying haircut, burgeoning repertoire of tricks and flicks, and J-pop grin make him almost impossibly marketable.
The emerging generation of football fans - who watch more football adverts than football matches, spend more time on the Fifa 12 loading screen than in the game proper - could have found no more fitting idol.

Ganso is different. A gawky, awkward-looking youth (his nickname means "goose," in reference to his long neck), he often seems ill-at-ease with the hoops through which he is encouraged to jump in the name of publicity. (Case in point: this video shows Neymar and Ganso make cameo appearances on Malhação, the Brazilian equivalent of Hollyoaks (truly, bad taste has no borders). Observe Neymar's natural-looking dancing at the end. Now look at Ganso and feel his crushing existential pain.)

Ganso's playing style is also markedly less flashy. A midfielder who strolls through games like they were Sunday morning trips to the newsagent, Paulo Henrique brings to mind a bygone era. He trades not in stepovers or elásticos, but rather in the kind of subtlety that is increasingly being squeezed out of the Brazilian game. Through passes are his recession-hit currency.

During games, Ganso cuts a detached, aloof figure. This putative lack of passion, coupled with his stolid refusal to undertake any action that could even conceivably be classed as "defending," has attracted criticism: Ganso, the argument goes, is a luxury player, often carried by his more hard-working teammates.
His decision-making in attack has also left something to be desired in recent months, weakening the position of those who believe that such a pure No.10 can be indulged in the modern game.

At his best, however, Ganso is a joy to watch. Spinning a web of passes from his role behind the strikers, the 22-year-old brings the best out of his colleagues. He directs play, coaxing fullbacks forward with passes into space and picking out fellow attackers with ice cold precision. In the right surroundings, Ganso can offer something very few others can.

Herein lies an important question: which side would best nurture this cerebral talent? Recent interest from Tottenham Hotspur (despite their manager's protests to the contrary) has brought the player to the attention of the British media, but should be treated with caution. A move to England would, I think, be ill-advised: central playmakers, after all, tend to be shunted either back (Luka Modrić), forward (Gianfranco Zola) or sideways (Samir Nasri) upon entry into the English game. Ganso, being neither physically imposing nor swift on his feet, would likely struggle to adapt as well as the aforementioned players did.

Italian football would seem to be Ganso's best bet in the long run. The 4-3-1-2 system employed by the likes of Milan and Inter would suit the youngster, offering the kind of protection that would absolve him of most defensive duties. The pace of the Italian game, too, would afford Ganso rather more time than would its English or Spanish counterparts.

For the time being, however, Ganso would be advised to stay in Brazil. Santos' upcoming state championship campaign represents the ideal opportunity to regain fitness and confidence, and should allow Paulo Henrique to regain the form that made him so popular in the first place. The weight of history, too, should also feature in Ganso's decision: Santos celebrate their centenary this year. (NB - centenaries are a big deal in Brazil.) If things go well, Ganso will make the switch to Europe with his head held high, having helped the Peixe to another title in 2012.

Ganso's (relative) decline then, although worrying, need hardly be seen as terminal. With dedication and some luck on the fitness front, 2011 could very well come to be seen as a minor blip on his journey to international prominence. He just needs to tap back into that elusive vein labelled "potential".

A version of this article was published by The Guardian HERE.

Friday, 6 January 2012

SKP in 2012

Happy new year, reader, and welcome back to this homely corner of the internet. I do hope that your festive holiday was as relaxing (and chocolate-based) as SKP's was.

Now that the niceties are over, let's get down to business.

plans to do things a little differently in 2012. Whilst the writing of gameweek round-ups has been both enjoyable and excellent practice, it has become slightly counter productive - using up time and energy that I could be using to write more focused, interesting articles.

My plan is to write more pieces that I can pitch to various sites and publications, and hopefully (really stretching feasibility to its limit here) try to make a little money from this whole football writing game. Cross your fingers for me.

This isn't to say that I'm abandoning this site. It will remain a good place to find out about Brazilian football, albeit in a slightly different way. Rather than getting knee-deep in the nitty-gritty of every match, every week, I'll write articles with slightly broader themes, and maybe even throw in some new features.* It will be, I hope, a change for the better.

That's the tedious mission statement over. Godspeed.

*I will, of course, post a link here whenever an article of mine is published elsewhere. I'm good like that.