Ganso motivated to fulfill his potential at Sao Paulo
It was not long ago that Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso, the two artists at the heart of the Santos Meninos da Vila ("the Boys from the Vila Belmiro") side that won the Copa do Brasil in 2010 and the Copa Libertadores in 2011, seemed joined at the hip. Ganso, just 21, was the midfield schemer, strolling moodily around the pitch in the style of a languorous Zinedine Zidane, conjuring up the bullets for his partner in crime, that Artful Dodger of the footballing jeitinho Brasileiro, Neymar, to fire home.
Back then there was a noisy, if probably premature, clamour from some sections of the media and fans for Dunga to call them both up to the Brazil squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Dunga put Ganso on the standby list, but no more than that. "If it was about getting experience, I'd bring my kid," he snapped.
Not to worry. There was plenty of time, and Brazil's star-maker machinery had already kicked in -- Ganso was being proclaimed as the real deal, a talent up there with anything the rest of the world could offer, despite having amassed precious little experience against challenging opponents. The player himself certainly seemed to believe his own hype, even after injuring knee ligaments in August of 2010 and missing most of Santos' Libertadores triumph the following year.
He returned for the final, but with the debate over Neymar's future heating up, Ganso's development seemed to stall, and soon he and his teammate seemed to be moving in different directions -- both at international and club level. While both struggled mightily (along with the rest of the Brazil team) at the Copa America in Argentina in 2011, Neymar had soon established himself as a key -- if not the key -- part of Mano Menezes' young side, while Ganso found himself on the fringes. Oscar, a steadier and more energetic player than his rival, although nowhere near as artistic, took the midfield playmaker role for Brazil at the 2012 Olympics.
By this time the boy who would be Brazil's midfield king was unhappy at Santos too, repeatedly complaining about his salary and appearing dissatisfied with life in general. With Neymar in Barcelona and his own prospects looking dim, a perpetual dark cloud seemed to have settled over Ganso.
Even a 10 million-euro move to Sao Paulo did not do much to dispel the gloom, only serving to emphasise the gulf between the midfielder and his former playmate. While Neymar had swapped continents, Ganso had simply moved across town. Worse was to come when Sao Paulo were eliminated from the 2013 Copa Libertadores by Atletico Mineiro, with Ganso outshone by the aging but still occasionally mercurial Ronaldinho. Rather than Brazil's great hope, Ganso seemed lost in the footballing wilderness.
In some ways it was the old story of too much too soon in Brazilian football. Ganso's injuries may have played a part in his decline, along with the slow learning curve that comes with playing in one of football's most cerebral positions.
Most of all, however, the rise and fall of Paulo Henrique Ganso was a case of hyperbole. While a player of tremendous talent and potential, Ganso has yet to show that he can dominate games on a consistent basis. He may have looked a bit like Zidane at times, but there was clearly a long way, and many years, to go before such comparisons could be made with any kind of seriousness.
Now, however, playing with Sao Paulo's Galacticos (his teammates include Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Alexandre Pato and another Selecao hopeful, former Benfica and Palmeiras striker Alan Kardec), Ganso is again showing signs of life. The midfielder has been in excellent form over the past few weeks, and last weekend scored a sublime goal against his old team Santos, controlling the ball with his right before spinning and hooking a dipping left-foot shot high over the keeper.
There could be any number of reasons for his upturn in form. Perhaps he has been inspired by playing in a talented attacking side, with a formation that suits him. "Ganso has never had so much space in which to play," wrote 1970 World Cup winner Tostao in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.
More practical factors may be at work. Insiders at the club reportedly put his improvement down to a change of agents, which has allowed him to rethink his priorities and concentrate more on football and less on commercial activities. Perhaps Ganso has simply realised that his chances to fulfil his potential are running out.
"It seems like they don't believe in Ganso anymore. But I believe," wrote Tostao recently. "Lots of players do well at small teams then struggle when they move up to a better team. I have the impression that because of the way he plays, if Ganso was to move to one of the big European teams, and played alongside great players, he would become a great player himself."
The sportswriter Juca Kfouri, meanwhile, said the midfielder should have been called up by Dunga for the friendlies against Colombia and Ecuador. "In Brazilian football, he's something different," he said.
Yet while Ganso is playing well, there is a certain feeling of deja vu about all the excitement. The player clearly possesses tremendous talent and potential, and is shining against decent club sides such as Internacional and Santos. But standards in Brazilian football are at a low ebb, and it is arguably not hard to stand out at the moment, particularly when playing for the league's biggest spenders.
As has been seen everywhere from this year's Copa Libertadores (where no Brazilian club made it to the semifinals) to last year's Club World Cup in Morocco (where Atletico Mineiro were embarrassed by locals Raja Casablanca) to the World Cup massacre of the national side by Germany, there is currently a huge gap between the best Brazil has to offer and the higher echelons of club and international football around the world.
While there is a uniqueness to Ganso that makes him arguably a more intriguing prospect than someone like Philippe Coutinho, there is no doubt that Coutinho is learning a great deal more playing for Liverpool. The Premier League and Champions League will provide greater and more diverse tests than Ganso will get when facing uninspiring local opposition made up overwhelmingly of Brazilian players and coached by Brazilian managers.
The gloom and doom that surrounds Brazilian football at the moment, however, perhaps makes the excitement understandable. With the game here on its uppers, Ganso's elegant, laid-back style offers a reminder of better, happier days, when Brazilian skill and flair still ruled the world. But as Germany showed, football has moved on, and it is a difficult time to be a one-paced craftsman, no matter how talented.
Ganso has upped his work rate in recent games ("there's no such thing as a typical No. 10 anymore ... Ganso has realised this and become a better and more complete midfielder," says Tostao), but it remains to be seen whether this time he really can carve out a place for himself at the top level -- and finally live up to all that hype.
James Young writes about Brazil and its football. His collection of short stories and blog writings, "A Beer Before Lunch," is available on Amazon.