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Nene inspires PSG's title dreams

It has taken Nene less than five months to win over Kombouare: the Brazilian has been one of the best players in this season's Ligue 1 and is its second-top scorer. A two weeks ago, his two goals in the 2-1 win at Valenciennes pushed PSG, for so long underachievers in France, into second in the table and with realistic title ambitions. PSG goes into France's winter break still second, one point behind Lille, after losing 2-0 Nancy on Wednesday night. After 23 games for his new club, Nene had scored 15 goals: only Carlos Bianchi (16 games) and George Weah (17) reached that tally quicker. France Football declared: 'Nene is better than [PSG idol] Pauleta."

Before his career took off, Nene almost missed out entirely. "Religion put me on the right path," he told L'Equipe magazine. "I used to go out a lot, drink and smoke, but then my friend took me to church and two weeks later, I was in the starting lineup at Palmeiras." He became a Brazilian youth international playing alongside Kaka, Julio Baptista and Alex before he moved to Santos and formed a title-winning midfield trio with Diego and Robinho.

He moved to Europe in 2003, playing for Real Mallorca in Spain where the center forward was Samuel Eto'o. "It was my assists that got him the move to Barcelona!" Nene joked. He was only there one season, and he moved to Alaves, then Celta Vigo, then Monaco, before spending one year on loan at Espanyol.

"Nene will continue the tradition of Brazilians that shine in Paris," said club president Robin Leproux when Nene signed in July, but no one took him too seriously. After all, Nene was already 29, and to compare him to former greats like Valdo and Ricardo (who both played alongside Kombouare in PSG's run of European semifinal appearances in the mid-1990s) as well as Rai and Leonardo, not to mention Ronaldinho, seemed generous in the extreme.

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"Nene has brought to the capital club something that it lacked for the seven years since the departure of Ronaldinho," wrote France Soir, forgetting that though Ronaldinho showed moments of brilliance at his first European club aged 21 -- he divided his time in Paris between falling out with coach Luis Fernandez and falling out of nightclubs. "Roni doesn't lead the lifestyle of a world-class athlete," Fernandez, a notorious disciplinarian, told the French press at the time. "Basically, he did what he wanted to do and we ended up in 11th place. That says it all really."

Nene, who is at the other end of his career, has had the opposite effect. He spent his playboy years in Spain and Monaco and is now focused only on football: his presence has also brought out the best in Ludovic Giuly, the 34-year-old right-sided winger in PSG's 4-2-3-1 system. Guillaume Hoarau, the center forward, is also benefiting from Nene's superb crossing, and has scored six goals so far this season. Stephane Sessegnon, one of the stars of last season, is stuck on the bench because of the form of Giuly and Nene.

"A Brazilian player is guaranteed a great welcome in Paris simply because of the success of those players from the 1990s," Alex Bellos, author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, told "The players also do well because is Paris is not a huge football city, and their privacy is respected more than it would be in England, Italy or Spain." That is why Ronaldinho is alleged to still return to Paris once a month and his former Brazil teammate Ronaldo, although he never played in France, was said to be a regular in Parisian nightclubs during his spell at Real Madrid.

Nene has surprised himself by how quickly he has settled in at PSG, though he claimed that he was playing just as well when he was at Alaves in 2004. "If I had been playing for any other team then, I would have been called up by Brazil," he said. "But I agree that this is perhaps the best form of my career."

Now, he is dreaming: of a Brazil call-up in February, which would be appropriate given that the opposition in its next friendly match is France; and of winning the French title with PSG, who last won it in 1994, with a side that contained David Ginola, George Weah and current coach Kombouare. "We can be champions again, this team is good enough," Nene said. It is his arrival that has made such title talk possible.