Saturday, 21 December 2019

How "beautiful madman" Jorge Jesus brought the good times back to Flamengo – and shook up Brazilian football

Flamengo have spent the majority of 2019 being rightly celebrated as their continent’s most entertaining side — a pulse-quickening concoction of slick collectivism and individual talent.

“An historic team,” former Brazil striker Tostao has called them, and a glance at the final Brazilian league table only rams home the point. Palmeiras have, objectively, one of the best squads assembled by a South American club in the modern era. Santos, led by Jorge Sampaoli, had a heartening campaign. Flamengo finished 16 points ahead of them both.

To say that Jorge Jesus has had a transformative effect on the club would be to undersell his impact by an order of magnitude. While the foundations were in place before his arrival in June, the Portuguese has crafted a daring, cohesive side, and imbued it with belief.

Read my piece on Brazil's best team on The Athletic. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Meet Matheus Pereira, the sparky young Brazilian lighting up the Championship with West Brom

West Bromwich Albion had been told that Matheus Pereira could be high-maintenance, but they signed him anyway.

But their calculated gamble has paid off handsomely, the 23-year-old Brazilian emerging as the key creative force in Albion’s rise to the top of the Championship as the season approaches the halfway point.

And at some stage in the next few months, possibly as early as January, the Sporting Lisbon loanee will become a permanent Albion player in a deal worth just £9 million. Given his thrilling performances in 18 games so far for the club, the cost of the pending transfer is puzzlingly low, to the extent that fans, pundits and even some inside the club are wondering whether there must be a catch.

Read my piece on West Brom's promising young Brazilian on The Athletic.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Meet Gabriel Veron, the natural-born dribbler aiming to follow Gabriel Jesus from Palmeiras to the big time

Gabriel Veron is a born dribbler.

He is fast – very, very fast – but also measured. It’s all very well haring down the flank, but you have to know when to slow down, when to bide your time. It’s in the hips – ginga, they call it here – and it’s in the eyes: you tell your marker a story and then change the ending. One minute you’re there, and the next you’re not. Veron is still young, but he has all of that.

“It’s the essence of Brazilian football,” Brazil Under-17 coach Guilherme Della Dea says. “He’s already a master at it.”

Read my profile of one of the exciting Palmeiras winger, who is currently shining for his country at the U-17 World Cup, on The Athletic. 

Friday, 25 October 2019

Whatever happened to Leandro Damião?

Eight years on from the season that shot him to fame, Leandro Damião could barely be further from the gossip columns.

He is 30 and playing in Japan. He has not featured for Brazil since 2013. He scored against Chelsea in July, but that was in a pre-season friendly, and his chances of ever playing in the Premier League have now dwindled to precisely zero.

His name, once synonymous with irrational hope, now evokes a sort of bruised nostalgia. When people think of him at all, they do so in the form of a rhetorical question: “Whatever happened to Leandro Damiao?”

So, what did happen?

Find out in my latest for The Athletic.

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. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Lucas Moura conundrum: Can the Tottenham star finally start to explore the outer reaches of his potential?

“To be, or not to be a superstar: that is the question.”

It was a good question seven years later, when Lucas Moura was profiled in Placar magazine, and it is still a good one today.

For the forward, now almost a decade into his career at senior level, continues to tiptoe the line between seven-out-of-ten solidity and something altogether more special. There have been flirtations with the outer reaches of his vast potential, but nothing sustained, no full-blown romance.

Is this season his best opportunity to finally take off? I look at that possibility in my latest for The Athletic.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Edu Gaspar is a man of substance as well as style. This is what he will bring to Arsenal as technical director

Composure, communication skills and the quiet inner confidence that comes only from a mastery of the facts at hand: these have been the foundations of Edu Gaspar’s second career.

The ingredients for a charmed life, too, for the 41-year-old has enjoyed remarkable success since swapping the midfield engine room for the boardroom.

Corinthians enjoyed the most fertile five-year spell in club history with Edu as director of football; his time in a similar role with the Brazil national team culminated in their first Copa America title since 2007.

You can be sure that Arsenal have not made Edu their first-ever technical director for sentimental reasons. And while his urbane charm and sharp suits do him no harm in the public-image stakes, to gauge opinion in his homeland is to be left in no doubt that he is a man of substance, too.

Read the rest of this piece over at The Athletic.

(And until the end of the month, you can get 50% off your first year using this link.)

Friday, 5 July 2019

Gabriel Jesus waited. Then he waited some more. Then, finally, 676 minutes later, he didn’t have to wait any longer

It was agonising at times. Hell, it was agonising a lot of the time, chances slipping through his fingers like sand.

Take the Peru game a couple of weeks ago. When Brazil, who were 5-0 up and enjoying themselves, were awarded a late penalty, Gabriel Jesus seized the ball. He looked confident, but his kick was weak and saved. The misery stopwatch ticked on.

676 minutes of tournament football without a single goal: really not ideal for a forward. They say good things come to those who wait, but that doesn’t make the waiting any easier.

But on Tuesday, against Argentina, his goal came. Read my latest for The Independent here.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Angels and demons: Alisson and Gabriel Jesus hold their nerve as Brazil grind out win over Paraguay

It’s happening again. Brazil vs Paraguay: at this stage, it’s essentially one long penalty shootout with occasional interruptions for football. And for the Seleção, the memories are about as happy as your average funeral. 

2011 was the nadir: four spot-kicks, zero goals, infinite doom. Elano’s shot recently completed its third lap of the solar system, say NASA; the rest were not a great deal better. Brazil at least managed to score a couple in 2015, but not as many as Paraguay. 

And now Roberto Firmino has just shanked his penalty miles wide, all of those old demons are banging on the door, giggling with lunatic glee. 

It’s happening again. Right?

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Let Brazil be Brazil? Teething troubles for the Seleção, but they should not forget how far they've come under Tite

The Copa América is not yet two weeks old. Brazil are unbeaten through three matches, with eight goals to their name and zero conceded.

With Japan or Paraguay to come next, and a mediocre Argentina side their likely opponents in the last four, it would be a major surprise were they not to reach the final. By most metrics, things are going well.

Yet muddled performances in their first two group games—a 3-0 win over Bolivia that was less convincing than it sounds, and a drab, goalless draw with Venezuela—prompted a familiar bout of hand-wringing over the side’s progress and underlying identity.

Read my latest piece on the Seleção – and, erm, The West Wing – over at The Athletic.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Little Onion makes a big impact: How Everton has brought life and levity to Brazil's Copa América campaign

Everton was Brazil’s best player against Peru last night. He was arguably their best player against Venezuela on Tuesday, too, despite only coming on in the second half. He has two goals in the competition and a legion of new fans. But they don’t chant his actual name when he scores.

Instead, they chant, “É Cebolinha!” – “It’s Little Onion!”

This, obviously, is brilliant. A little research reveals that Everton does indeed look a lot like Cebolinha, a character in a much-loved kids’ TV show. Mainly it’s that little tuft of hair, perched on top of his head like it was retreating to higher ground. Maybe Everton also mixes his Rs and Ls up in speech to hilarious effect.

More pertinently, there is just a lovely cartoon levity to the way the 23-year-old plays football, all jerky bursts of life and laugh-out-loud punchlines. It is this quality that has, in double-quick time, made him the chief attacking catalyst for this work-in-progress Brazil side.

Read my piece on the man of the moment over at The Independent. 

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Can Philippe Coutinho fill the Neymar void and inspire Brazil to glory at the Copa América?

Filling Neymar’s boots in the Brazil team is one of the great Sisyphean tasks in modern sport, up there with being Deontay Wilder’s sparring partner or doing PR for Team Sky. Boil the Seleção to a sticky liquor and it basically is Neymar, with all the wonders and warts that entails.

Ahead of the Copa América opener against Bolivia there had been a few rogue missives, whispered into the wind, to the effect that Brazil could even be better off without their quicksilver prince. This is plainly nonsense, at least from a pure sporting point of view: he is this country’s best footballer by a country mile.

Coutinho is an excellent player, but not on the same level. He hasn’t even been at his own level this season, with his struggles at Barcelona well documented. Nor does he offer anything like the same raw, gravitational star power that Neymar does; in fact, he is really best viewed as the anti-Neymar. If the Paris Saint-Germain forward is the very model of a modern major superstar, Coutinho is a quiet man squinting into the spotlight.

He is, however, one of Brazil's great hopes at this summer's Copa América, as I wrote in my opening-night piece from the Morumbi over at The Independent.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Gabriel Jesus interview: 'I didn't know anything about England. Fernandinho was like my godfather'

It can be easy to lose sight of the human factor that lies beyond the broad strokes that make up a footballer's CV.

The costs, the sacrifices, the challenges that come with upping sticks and moving halfway across the globe... these don't appear on a player's Wikipedia page, but they're in the background, shaping everything.

Gabriel Jesus, who was just a teenager when he left Brazil to pursue his dream, is well-placed to comment on the culture shock that such a move entails. "I was 19 years old, in another country with a different culture and a different language," he recalls. "I didn't know anything. It would have been difficult if it wasn't for the people helping me."

I interviewed Jesus about his adaptation to life in England, pizza, living in Manchester and Palmeiras. You can read it over at Bleacher Report.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Roberto Firmino interview: 'I used to sleep with my football when I was a kid. It's good to dream big'

There are two players living inside Roberto Firmino's body.

The Brazilian, one of the key figures in Liverpool's reemergence as a domestic and continental force, is a striker with an eye for the spectacular. But he's also one of the hardest-working footballers out there, tireless in his efforts to help his team-mates.

He is daring but diligent, silky yet self-sacrificing, at once wizard and workhorse.

I got the chance to ask Firmino about this duality in an exclusive interview a couple of months ago. We also talked no-look finishes, people getting his name wrong, idolising Ronaldinho, and Jürgen Klopp's Anfield revolution.

Have a read on the Bleacher Report site.