The arrival of José Paulo Bezerra Maciel Júnior, otherwise known as Paulinho, to Barcelona has not come without controversy.
Aside from the hefty €40 million price tag, where fans around Europe have ridiculed the move and even forcing the BBC to call it “one of the more random transfers of recent times,” there has been legal threat from Barcelona itself. The club announced Wednesday that it is prepared to open legal proceedings against claims that club president Josep Maria Bartomeu only signed the Brazilian for personal gain, and it had nothing to do with manager Ernesto Valverde’s plans.
It’s a baffling press release, where there is no direct attribution of the piece in question or what exactly was written.
“FC Barcelona will not tolerate false information which could harm the club, and appeals to the responsibility of professionals and media who have made use without having proven,” the statement noted.
Nevertheless, the biggest talking point has been Paulinho himself, and just why Barcelona is willing to gamble on a player who has thus far failed to live up to expectation in the European game and instead plied his trade in China in a league that has yet to achieve respectable recognition.
The main criticism of this move, however, has been more about the time he spent in the Premier League with Tottenham and failing to review his complete resume, and this is something that is not fair to a midfielder whose reputation is somewhat misunderstood, especially by European fans.
When it comes to soccer and the sacrifices you have to make as a South American player in order to achieve success, Paulinho has seen it all.
After a stop-start youth career with Grêmio Osasco Audax in São Paulo (formerly known as Pão de Açúcar Esporte Clube) the Brazilian midfielder left his home for Lithuania to play for FC Vilnius in 2006. After two difficult seasons where he experienced racist abuse for the first time in his career, Paulinho was conflicted about his future and if he should carry on playing. He was 19, away from everything that he knew and facing hatred like he had never seen.
“When I went out to play, the fans were making monkey noises and throwing coins at me,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Daily Telegraph, “And I just thought: ‘I don’t need to tolerate this.’ So I made the decision to move on.”
After a stint in the Polish league with ŁKS Łódź, and suffering from homesickness, a country and culture he didn’t understand and while being away from his pregnant wife, he decided it was time to go back to Brazil and start again.
He re-joined his former club Audax, playing in the fourth division, and it was there where a bigger club, Bragantino, took notice of his undeniable talent and work ethic and decided to take a gamble.
Paulinho thought this club would be the place where he could finally settle and re-energize his career, be close to his family, and hopefully catch the attention of the national team. A far-fetched dream, but at this point, that’s all he could do. Dream.
Then, after only one season, something magical happened: Brazilian giant Corinthians came knocking at his door. Paulinho was signed in 2010 and established himself as a national star. After winning the 2011 Brasileirão, the following year became a pivotal moment in his trajectory, as he won the 2012 Copa Libertadores (a tournament in which he completely dominated) and finished it all off with FIFA’s Club World Club by beating Rafa Benítez’s Chelsea 1-0 thanks to a Paolo Guerrero goal in the 69th minute.
Paulinho’s reputation was finally taking off, both domestically and abroad.
The Premier League came calling and in the summer of 2013, Tottenham signed him for approximately £17 million and a contract worth £55,000 per week.
In many ways, it really seems perplexing why Paulinho didn’t succeed in England. He is a strong, fast, box-to-box midfielder who has an eye for goal. In fact, when Spurs signed him, he had just received the Bronze Ball award at the 2013 Confederations Cup that Brazil won.
He was also in good company in the U.K., as his compatriot, Sandro was also a member of the squad, and helped him settle in North London. The manager at the time, Andres Villas-Boas, used him as an enforcer in the midfield who could also push up and possibly create the spectacular. At the beginning, it seemed as if that was exactly what he was providing. In September of 2013, against Cardiff City, Paulinho scored a wonderful back-heel goal in stoppage time, sealing three points for Spurs and taking them to second in the table. It was early days, of course, but times were good, times were hopeful.
After that, however, things never really materialized and Paulinho’s performances never really fulfilled the expectations that came with his hefty pay stub. He was never great, never terrible, just O.K. After an embarrassing 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City in November, things really hit the fan a few weeks later when Spurs were once again humiliated against Liverpool and lost 5-0 at White Hart Lane. In that match, Paulinho was sent off in the second half after a high-cleat challenge to Luis Suarez's chest.
The following day, Villas-Boas left the club and Paulinho began a suspension, not knowing who would in charge of his career. Eventually, Tim Sherwood took over, but soon after serving his red card ban, the midfielder picked up an injury against Stoke City and was out for a month. He still featured under Sherwood, whenever available, but consistency was hard to come by.
Once Mauricio Pochettino took over, it was the summer of 2014 and Paulinho’s priority was the World Cup. By the time Brazil suffered the historic 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals, however, Paulinho was but a side thought for the Seleção as the then-coach Luiz Felipe Scolari only used him as a substitute in the second half of that devastating loss.
After the loss, Paulinho arrived late to preseason and Pochettino didn’t even use him for any warm-up matches. He ended up starting three games for Spurs, and year later, he left for the Chinese Super League and ironically, the same man who didn’t use him at the World Cup, brought him to Guangzhou Evergrande.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, Evergrande’s manager, gave him life again.
A month after his debut, Paulinho scored a Roberto Carlos-esque free kick against Japanese side Kashiwa Reysol in the first leg of a 2015 AFC Champions League knockout stage.
After the match, Paulinho confessed he was surprised it went in, as he never saw himself as a free-kick specialist.
“I never take free kicks because it's not my job, he said, “but I just thought I will try and see what happens, and then scored for sure the best goal of my life.”
This is a quintessential Paulinho trait: to express the modesty in his game. Earlier this year, after scoring his first hat trick for Brazil against Uruguay in World Cup qualifying, he once again showed his surprise at achieving something he never thought possible. “I'd never dreamt of a hat trick that would help the national squad to win a very important three points,” he said.
Under coach Tite (who managed the midfielder during their time with Corinthians), Paulinho has flourished with Brazil, as he has helped the nation lead CONMEBOL's qualifying table and become the first team (aside from host Russia) to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Paulinho’s role with Brazil is perfectly suited for his playing style because it demands midfield discipline with freedom to go forward. But what’s key is his partnership with Renato Augusto, who was also his teammate with Corinthians. Both understand when to hold, when to push and support the wide players, but most importantly, how to protect the back line. Tite’s Brazil may be an offensive juggernaut (its 35 goals scored in qualifiers are the most in CONMEBOL) but it is also extremely organized from a defensive standpoint (only 10 goals conceded, also the best) and Paulinho’s partnership with Renato Augusto is a major reason.
And this is why Barcelona is interested.
There is a common thought that a player’s success is dependent only on how well you do in Europe, and this can be a dangerous way of thinking.
Paulinho’s time with Tottenham may not have been what anyone expected, most of all, the player himself, but this is no reason to completely disavow his move to the Catalan giants. The price of €40 million to activate his release clause may also seem extravagant, especially for a 29-year-old midfielder who is arriving from China, but after the circus-themed summer we have just experienced thanks to another Brazilian and his move to Paris, defining worth is as blurry as it has ever been.
One must remember, aside from Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, the man who has been an incredible asset towards Barcelona’s success in recent years has been Sergio Busquets, and Paulinho can build a strong relationship with the 29-year-old defensive midfielder.
In addition, Valverde is a manager who is known for adding pressure through the midfield and encouraging a physical approach to pressing when pushing forward while also encouraging shots outside the 18-yard-box. Paulinho fits that description perfectly.
This may not be a Coutinho-level signing but we must all remember that the fortress in which a match is often fought is in the middle of the pitch, and with an aging, physically small midfield unit, this might just be the signing Barcelona needs.