Sao Paulo's Lucas duo potentially the next great Brazilian exports
Soccer said farewell to one of its all-time greats last week when Ronaldo announced his retirement. Brazil was awash with reflections on the career of the man with more World Cup goals than anyone else -- and Ronaldo was asked to contribute. Where would he place himself in the pantheon of Brazilian strikers?
With complete justification, he placed himself second or third. The only player he named as his superior was Pele -- "even back then he was modern," Ronaldo commented.
Pele's tactical versatility and commitment to physical preparation bear out Ronaldo's words. But in one respect Pele was not modern at all. He was not built for export.
Brazilian players have been moving to Europe for decades -- the country even supplied a member of Italy's 1934 World Cup winning squad, right winger Guarisi. But until comparatively recently, it was not only possible for a top Brazilian player to spend his entire career at home, it was commonplace. The first time that a Brazil World Cup squad contained foreign-based players was as recently as 1986.
Then the global market opened for business. Ronaldo was a skinny kid of just 17 when he joined PSV of Holland in 1994. His success added motion to the wheel. It quickly became customary for almost the entire Brazil squad to be comprised of European-based players.
Recent economic developments have brought about a change in the terms of trade. Europe's crisis coupled with the strength of the Brazilian currency mean that Brazil can now hold on to some of its talented players for a while longer, and bring them back across the Atlantic a little sooner to round off their careers. But this is a shift rather than a revolution. The basic movement continues in the same direction.
Promising Brazilian kids now grow up dreaming of starring for Barcelona or Real Madrid, and a host of companies have set up feeder clubs happy to profit from such a deal, spotting and developing young talent and selling it on. Supermarkets, drink manufacturers and marketing firms have all set up soccer clubs with this aim.
Of the established Brazilian clubs, the most successful in recent years have been those whose administration has been based on selling to Europe. Over the last decade Santos have become stalwarts of South America's Copa Libertadores for the first time since the early '60s, based on successive waves of budding talent. Current holders of the Libertadores, Internacional, have been producing and selling systematically. And no club has invested more in youth development than Sao Paulo, winners of the domestic title for three consecutive years between 2006-08. The club, which produced the likes of Kaka and Hernanes, is well known for its state of the art structure.
Brazilian players injured in Europe frequently choose to carry out their recuperation at Sao Paulo's medical facilities -- and the resources at the disposal of their youth players are also considered second to none.
Indeed, there have been some whispers of late that the youth structure might be too good. Perhaps, it has been said, promising youngsters are being spoiled. Everything is being put on a plate for them too early, some say, and as a result they are losing hunger at a stage when they should be ravenous for an opportunity.
These theories have been hauled out in an attempt to explain why the recent results of all this investment have been a little disappointing. Not enough of Sao Paulo's youth players have been making the breakthrough to the senior side.
Perhaps that talk will die down now. The recent South American Under-20 Championships in Peru was something of a triumph for Sao Paulo. Brazil captain Bruno Uvini, injured during the campaign, is a Sao Paulo player. So too is talented striker Henrique. Even more impressive was big, all-round midfielder Casemiro. And best of all was right-sided attacking midfielder Lucas, the hero as Brazil was crowned South American champion.
With perfect timing, Lucas chose exactly the right moment to leave a good impression in the tournament -- the last game, with the title at stake. Uruguay only needed a draw, and for 40 minutes on a pitch suffering from the effects of heavy rain, they looked well on the way. Then came the Lucas show, with two goals in quick succession.
For the first he ran on to receive a ball pulled back from the left, made space and hit a precise shot back across the keeper. The second was a superb solo effort, charging through from half way, outpacing everyone to slip home from a narrow angle. The game and the title were in the bag. And just to make sure no one forgot him, at the end of the game he completed his hat trick, rounding off the 6-0 rout with a vicious cross shot.
It was the type of performance that Lucas had been threatening throughout the competition. In all previous games he had only scored once, despite setting up a multitude of chances for himself. Team play is not yet his speciality. Indeed, at times he seems to play in a tunnel, with no peripheral vision. But with surprising strength, astonishing pace and dancing feet, Lucas charged and slalomed his way through many a defense in Peru. Both physically and in playing style, he bears comparison with Arsenal's Theo Walcott.
It was another resemblance, though, that marked the start of his career. Until a few months ago he was known as Marcelinho, the consequence of a perceived likeness with 1990s star Marcelinho Carioca. But as he made his name in the Sao Paulo first team, it hardly seemed appropriate that the name belonged to an idol of local rivals Corinthians. So in the middle of last year's Brazilian Championship he switched to Lucas, his genuine Christian name.
He perhaps benefited from an unusual year in the recent history of Sao Paulo. Mid table, they were not in serious contention for a Copa Libertadores place, still less the title, and the new boy took his first steps with the pressure off.
All that has now changed. Lucas is now in the spotlight. Good displays are no longer a bonus. They are now expected. But he is being well rewarded. His exploits in Peru brought Lucas a 900 percent pay rise from Sao Paulo. He is not planning to go anywhere soon. His stated aim is to play for the club in the Libertadores, making the middle of next year his earliest possible departure date. But it is clear that a move to Europe is well in his sights, for motives both professional and financial -- a reported clause in his new contract gives him the right to 20 percent of the transfer fee. Lucas has been built for export.
His club coach, Paulo Cesar Carpegiani, is a big fan. But experience has taught him to be wary. A decade ago he was one of Adriano's first coaches as the strong left-footed striker launched his career with Flamengo. Adriano's subsequent story, with his alcohol problems, is a cautionary tale of the possible negative consequences of early fame and fortune. It can be hard enough coping with all this at home. An early move abroad can add an extra strain on a young mind in formation.
Perhaps Carpegiani's concern would be even better directed towards another Sao Paulo Lucas -- the much-hyped 17-year-old Lucas Piazon, who has already attracted interest from top European clubs even before kicking a ball at senior level. Former Brazil Under-17 coach Lucho Nizzo describes Piazon as "a sensational striker." He is the player that everyone will want to see in the coming South American Under-17 Championships in Ecuador.
He could be a smash hit in the tournament. But it would not necessarily make him a sure thing. Hard experience shows that Under-17 is still very early down the line. Some may recall the case of Kerlon, the star of the show in the 2005 South American Under-17 Championships, looking more impressive than the likes of Anderson, now of Manchester Umited, and Renato Augusto of Bayer Leverkusen. Six years later Kerlon is still struggling to get his senior career off the ground. Players at this age still have a lot of maturing to do -- in physical, technical and psychological terms. There are few guarantees. Maybe the only certainty is that Lucas Piazon will find his "new Kaka" nickname something of a burden as he seeks to make his own name.