“When he arrived at the club [Santos], there was something about him which made you see he was different. A calmness on the ball, he wasn’t rushed. He stood out as a player who would go far in the future.”
Clovis Vesco is sitting in the Santos training centre and is waxing lyrical. Well into his seventh decade, he is almost a part of the furniture these days at a club which has become a byword for producing some of the finest young football players across the globe.
Players, first team squad members and those in the academy still dreaming of making it at the Vila Belmiro outfit, come and go, all with a wave and a smile for Clovis. The team doctor is focused however on the topic at hand at present, the player who came through the ranks towards the end of the previous decade, a man expected to make waves in Europe and the yellow of Brazil.
Paulo Henrique Ganso.
At the turn of the decade, between 2009 and 2012, Ganso and Neymar were to opposition defences what Batman and Robin were to Gotham City villains. The pair struck fear into rival managers, the tall, cerebral, left-footed, dynamic no. 10 and the dynamic attacker who has since gone on to multi-million pound deals, close to a century of international caps and almost 60 goals.
But it was in 2010 that the partnership between the young pair really began to blossom at senior level. That year, the Vila Belmiro based outfit lifted the Copa do Brasil [the Brazilian Cup]. Neymar received many of the plaudits, having finished as the leading scorer in the competition and netting in the final against Vitória, but the performances of the midfield playmaker had not gone unnoticed.
Ted Sartori is a sports reporter for the Tribuna de Santos newspaper and remembers both players’ early days at the club. “Santos have always produced great players. It’s something the club is known for, but in recent years few have been as special as those two.”
“Of course, there were rumours and reports of Neymar for a long time before he made his first team debut, but people often forget that Ganso was considered just as good. There were those who believed Ganso would go on to be the better player, rather than Neymar.”
Those were sentiments shared by then-coach Muricy Ramalho, who managed Santos to their Copa Libertadores triumph in 2011. With South America’s biggest club prize now on his CV and having been part of Mano Menezes’ 2011 Copa America squad, the sky was starting to look like the limit for the midfielder with the graceful left peg.
Former Flamengo midfielder Renato Abreu came up against Santos and Ganso on more than one occasion, and was involved in the renowned 5-4 Flamengo win back in July 2011 – quite probably the best game the Campeonato Brasileiro has ever seen.
“That was a Santos team full of great players and naturally there was a lot of attention and focus on Neymar. But Ganso was a player you just couldn’t afford to take your eyes off. If you did, that was it,” he said.
So, where did it go wrong for a man who less than a decade ago was seen as a shoe-in for Brazil’s no. 10 shirt, but who has since seen himself overtaken by the likes of Oscar, Philippe Coutinho and Douglas Costa, who are all currently employed by or have played at major European clubs?
Prior to the World Cup, television programmes, radio broadcasts and internet polls were full of opinions and analysis pieces on who could be in with a chance of making Tite’s Brazil squad for the World Cup in Russia. Ganso’s name was not mentioned once – previously considered the future of the seleção, now not even worthy of a sidenote.
The 27-year-old currently finds himself not so much on the periphery at Spanish side Sevilla but cut adrift, a player of unquestionable talent but whose decision making and rotten injury record have left him already looking perhaps at a career that might have been, rather than what is. In England, it is a description often aimed at Theo Walcott, a man who exploded onto the international scene and was the subject of a big money move to Arsenal, only to never quite live up to that early hype.
Indeed, Neymar’s continued upward trajectory, despite a lot of the hyperbolic criticism that continues to surround the PSG front man, only serves to highlight the chasm that has opened between the two close friends. “When Santos first started using Ganso as a first team player, we expected him to go on and have the side built around him and his talents. We didn’t think the same about Neymar,” Vesco continued.
“On a professional level, he has had to undergo two serious knew operations. The first time he had surgery it was not fully successful. He has never looked the same player since.”
Ganso’s first major knee surgery came in 2010 at precisely the time he looked ready to turn world class potential into first-rate reality. The Brazilian press had long speculated about the elegant playmaker joining a European giant, with rumours consistently linking him with AC Milan at the time, but there have since been two further procedures, one on each knee.
Right now, that dream of turning out for one of the elite level clubs on the Old Continent looks more distant than ever. Perhaps the most logical move would be a return to his homeland but there would appear to be some lack of alignment between the wage demands of a player currently employed by a club who play regular Champions League football and the financial plight of many of Brazil’s top sides.
Ricardo Agostinho is a lifelong Santos supporter, a man who, by his own estimates, attends 40 games of his beloved club a year, and he explains how things soured between the club directors and one of their most prized assets.
“Ganso was considered more mature than Neymar. Neymar argued with Dorival [the then coach of Santos], and at first it looked as if Ganso would go on to reach stardom. But it is a tough thing, in a psychological sense, to come back from the kind of long-term setbacks that Ganso suffered.”
And Agostinho goes on to suggest that, despite the strong friendship, all was not well between Neymar and Ganso by the time of the latter’s end at the club. “I know a lot of people at the club, and rumours were circulating that Ganso became jealous of Neymar,” he said.
“Ganso was getting left behind, forgotten. Her left Santos for São Paulo in 2012 and he wasn’t interested by the end, there was no commitment from the player.”
One of the more intriguing opinions on Ganso is that the player would have prospered in a bygone era, a time when football was played at a more leisurely pace. It may also go some way to explaining why he prospered in the monotonous tempo of Brazilian domestic football but has since struggled since his move to Europe.
What makes this all the more a pity is that players like Ganso are not ten-a-penny. His vision to spot the right pass, and serenity in executing what his eyes and mind told him, set him apart from his peers. Now stranded in footballing no man’s land, it is a real concern that he may have lost that key coordination between mind and body.
The comparisons with Zinedine Zidane have ceased, but there was a time when it was an apt description to make. In the same way the French maestro could almost slow the game down at will, Ganso had that innate ability to dictate the tempo of a match almost at will.
But Ganso ultimately never made the right move at the right time. He was the talk of Brazil following his performances in the 2010 Campeonato Paulista – the São Paulo state championship.
But the stark reality remains precisely that. The best performances from a player of whom so much was expected came in a second rate championship akin to a pre-season tournament, in searing heat, on poor quality pitches and even lower quality opposition.
Brazilian football is littered with “what could have been” players. The recent examples of Kerlon, Keirrison and Anderson offer stark warning that promise and potential does not always translate into a first-rate asset.
It is also why a caveat must also be applied to Vinicius Junior, despite his 40-odd million euro transfer to Real Madrid. Kerlon went to Internazionale, Keirrison to Barcelona, but at 18 Vinicius Junior is barely a man, his body not yet fully developed, much less prepared for the vigours of a European campaign.
But with Ganso there remains a sadness which tinges his tale. The kind of player who would make you quicken your step on your way to the stadium, would make you pay that little bit more attention when the ball was at his feet, never quite delivered, through three knee operations in under two years and fallings out with directors and fans alike.
Whether he will ever be able to turn that talent into tangible success looks ever more distant as he continues his thus far fruitless search for suitors. The fall of Ganso before he even had a chance to reach the summit remains one of the great Brazilian sporting disappointments of the last decade.