Tim Vickery Column: Felipe rolls back the years, but he is not the only one
In all the years I’ve been based in Brazil, few players have given me as much pleasure as Felipe of Vasco da Gama.
There was the thrill of discovering a special player as he made his first tentative steps at left back in 1996. Over the next few years he blossomed, a hugely promising member of an excellent team that won the Brazilian title in 1997 and followed it up with the Libertadores the following year.
As he grew in prestige and confidence he became increasingly important to the team. Whenever Vasco were in trouble he would play not so much at left back as from left back, with freedom to roam. In one against one situations his dribbling was as sinuous as if he was made of rubber. He would twist his way through holes so small they barely seemed to exist. And unlike many dribbling specialists, he had an eye for a pass as well. His talent was so breathtaking that, right after the 1998 World Cup, I picked him out in ‘World Soccer’ magazine as a star of future World Cups. At the end of that year my prediction seemed to be borne out by the wonderful display he gave in Japan against Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup.
Somewhere along the line, though, it never quite happened. The talk had been of Felipe replacing Roberto Carlos as Brazil’s first choice left back. He played a few games for his country but was never able to establish himself. He moved to midfield, as had always appeared likely. But was he too brittle to play there in Europe? A move to Roma fell through. He spent a few months in Turkey with Galatasaray in 2002, but fizzled out after a bright start. There were doubts about his temperament. He returned home and became an idol of the Flamengo fans, but perhaps lost some motivation after he was not retained in the Brazil squad following the 2004 Copa America. The next year he moved to Qatar to join Al Saad, where he stayed until 2010, when after a decade away he came back to Vasco da Gama to round off his career.
Now 34, Felipe is inevitably not the dynamic force that the club’s fans remember from the late 90s. But if Vasco go on to win the league title this year, they will owe plenty to a moment last Saturday when he rolled back the years.
Vasco were at home to bottom of the table Avai, all but mathematically relegated to the second division and consequently playing with no pressure. Avai had a midfielder sent off half way through the first half, which meant that the rest of the game would turn into a contest of attack versus defence. But there was no guarantee of a goal. Felipe and company would have a hard time opening up such unambitious opponents.
Complicating the task was the fact that Vasco are a strangely unbalanced team. All through the campaign the strength of their attack has been down the right. Pushed wide, with space in which to operate, striker Eder Luis has set up a string of chances, and his double act with adventurous right back Fagner has proved especially effective.
But on the other flank there is nothing like the same threat. Improvised left back Jumar is right footed, and his main task is to balance out the side with defensive awareness. Centre forward Elton is left footed - but he rarely strays from a central position - which leaves Felipe.
Avai had done their homework, and were blocking Vasco’s advances down the right. They key to opening up the dogged ten man opposition was clearly to stretch them on the other flank. Felipe moved wider to attempt this very task. These days, though, his game is based much more on sliding through clever passes than dancing his way through deep defences. Indeed, Vasco’s most dangerous moments in the first half had begun with his midfield prompting.
Now, though, something more was required, and five minutes after the break Felipe produced it. Juninho, his fellow veteran from the 1990s side, played a square ball to him, he darted inside his marker Diego Orlando and with two defenders closing him down he made enough space to unleash an inspired outside of the left foot finish across the goalkeeper and into the top corner. It was old time Felipe, twentieth century vintage, and it made sure of the points. There was no way Avai were going to score. Either the game finished 0-0 or Vasco would win. Felipe’s strike ensured the latter. The 2-0 triumph put Vasco two points clear at the top of the table - for 24 hours, until Corinthians took the field at home to Atletico Mineiro.
The black mark on Felipe’s weekend was that he was not the only one to roll back the years. Adriano did as well, coming off the bench to score his first goal in 18 months, a deft left footed cross shot that gave Corinthians a 2-1 win, and keeps them two points clear at the top with two rounds to go.