After his second spell at Bayern Munich ended last summer, Ze Roberto said, "I went in through the front door and I went out through the front door, so there are no bad feelings." One ultimately frustrating season at Hamburger SV later, however, there are plenty of bad feelings. Bad enough, in fact, to doubt that Ze Roberto will come back to the "Rothosen" (red trousers) at all after the summer, let alone through the front door of the HSH Nordbank Arena.
The 35-year-old midfielder is reportedly tempted by the possibility to play for the New York Red Bulls next season; Hamburg sources told SI.com that the MLS team has offered the midfielder a three-year deal worth $15 million after taxes. "He will do everything he can to get out of his last remaining year at HSV," said Kai Schiller, football writer for Hamburger Abendblatt.
For Ze Roberto, the offer is simply too good to turn down. A move to the U.S. would more than double his current salary ($2.5 million gross) and provide long-term income well beyond his active playing days. Dietmar Beiersdorfer, the Red Bulls' sporting director, has apparently offered Ze Roberto a position at the franchise's Brazilian branch in Sao Paulo (the former Real Madrid winger's hometown) as well as a role in his country's 2014 World Cup organization after the proposed contract in New York comes to an end in 2013.
Officially, the story has been dismissed as tittle-tattle. "We don't have an offer for him and we don't want to sell," Hamburg press officer Jörn Wolf said in March. "It's not on the cards," the player said at the time. Beiersdorfer, too, has been reluctant to go on the record about his interest in the player, wary of FIFA regulations that prohibit negotiations with players under contract. "Who wouldn't like such a good player?" was the only comment the 46-year-old executive made when the story broke.
But behind the scenes, efforts to secure Ze Roberto's signature have since increased. With Red Bulls' other prominent target, Real Madrid legend Raul, likely to go to the Premier League next season, Beiersdorfer still has a pressing need to bring in an internationally recognized star player. The former Hamburg sporting director was also the very man who persuaded Ze Roberto, the only member of the Brazil 2006 World Cup squad to enhance his reputation at the tournament, to turn out for the northerners in the first place.
"An indecent proposal," is how German tabloid Bild described the offer from the States. There are, however, additional considerations. Ze Roberto seems utterly disenchanted with the club after falling out with manager Bruno Labbadia -- the 44-year-old was fired two weeks ago -- and is unwilling to wait around for the appointment of his successor. The Hamburg board is still unsure whether caretaker coach Ricardo Moniz should be given a chance to prove his worth over the course of a full season. To make matters worse, the club needs another sporting director, too. Initially, Urs Siegenthaler, the Swiss chief scout of the Germany team, was signed up for the position, but the 62-year-old has since indicated he's more interested in a behind-the-scenes role. "Hamburg are rudderless. There's a clear lack of leadership," the journalist Schiller said.
Back in August, things were very different -- both for Hamburger SV and its new star recruit from the offseason, Ze Roberto. "When you see him play, your heart leaps with joy," left back Dennis Aogo said. Swedish attacker Marcus Berg thought the Brazilian midfielder was "the best player I've ever played with." Local tabloid Hamburger Morgenpost gushed, "He's the key player in the new HSV system."
Following some fantastic early results, many experts believed Labbadia's team could win the title. And even more experts could not believe why Bayern Munich had failed to renew the contract with Ze Roberto, a man seemingly in the form of his life. When Hamburg beat Louis van Gaal's Bayern team 1-0 in the autumn -- Ze Roberto had created Mladen Petric's winning goal with a characteristic piece of individual magic -- Bayern defender Philipp Lahm seemed more than a little annoyed. "It wasn't my decision [to let him go], it was the decision of the club," he told reporters. "Ze showed last season that he's a great player. And he's showing it again this season."
Initially, Labbadia was happy to afford the four-time Double winner with Bayern a variety of privileges. Ze Roberto was allowed to have regular medical treatments in Munich and plenty of extra days off. However, Ze Roberto upset the coach when he failed to return from his winter holidays in Brazil in time to join Hamburg's training camp and never recovered his form after an ankle injury. In the spring, the relationship between Labbadia and the Brazilian broke down completely when Ze Roberto spoke out against the manager in the dressing room, unhappy that Labbadia was publicly criticizing his playing style.
"Ze Roberto: nothing more than a listless rambler," Der Tagesspiegel wrote in light of his apparent lack of effort on the pitch this spring. Hamburg's slump down the table after the winter break coincided with a string of injuries, with Ze Roberto looked increasingly tired. The player later revealed he was having pain-killing injections in order to play, but his performances smacked of a man who was looking for a way out.
The man who represents this out, Beiersdorfer, must ironically overcome one snag that is the direct result of his work at Hamburg. German political magazine Der Spiegel revealed at the end of August that Ze Roberto, while technically a free agent, hadn't exactly come for free. In order to facilitate the deal, Beiersdorfer paid a fee of $5 million to Nacional Montevideo, the club that secretly held the transfer rights for the player. Nacional is one of several clubs from Uruguay that are closely connected to Juan Figuer, Ze Roberto's agent.
Hamburg will be looking to at least recoup this outlay when New York comes knocking in earnest. "A couple of million Euros shouldn't prove a deal-breaker," Schiller said. "But Hamburg won't give him away for nothing either, that's for sure."