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Tim Vickery Column: Can 2014 finally be Paulo Henrique Ganso's year?

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On a radio show last week I was hit with a surprise question; who did I think would win this year’s Brazilian Championship?

It is, of course, very early for predictions.  The competition is not set to start until the end of April, and at this moment we don’t even know how many teams will be taking part.  The controversy over the Portuguesa relegation rumbles on.

But there was an instant answer that popped into my head.  A big club without the distraction of the Copa Libertadores.  A team that has recently made some very interesting foreign acquisitions.  And a squad that already looks to have considerable depth, in some positions at least.  That club is Sao Paulo.  And leading their creative charge, with a coach who knows him and believes in him, is Paulo Henrique Ganso.

If the question about the 2014 Championship was something of a surprise, there is another enquiry I receive all the time which is much more predictable; whatever happened to Ganso?

It seems strange now, but four years ago most were convinced that of the Santos starlets the one to really watch out for was not Neymar.  Instead, it was this elegant left footed playmaker who served as his supply line.  But while Neymar has gone on from strength to strength, Ganso has yet to convincingly cross the line that divides promise from reality.

Injuries have plenty to do with this.  Ganso has experienced problems with both knees.  But there is more to it than that.  In the cold light of hindsight it seems clear that back in the opening months of 2010 many in Brazil’s footballing community were suffering from a type of collective delusion.  They were guilty of seeing only what they wanted to see.

It is an understandable lapse.  There is something deliciously old fashioned about Ganso’s game.  With his unhurried air and the subtle way he caresses the ball he came across as a throwback to a previous era, a time of slower, more artistic football.  He appealed to the romantic and the nostalgic in all of us.  People wanted him to be good, and convinced themselves that he was already the finished article.  It became normal, in those early months of 2010, to hear that Ganso was ‘the best in the world’ in his position.

Common sense had gone out of the window.  It had been forgotten that the State Championships are now so poor that they cannot be seen as a reliable measure of anything – especially the Sao Paulo tournament in 2010, when all of Santos’ main rivals were more concerned with the Copa Libertadores.

The praise also went to Ganso’s head.  How could it be otherwise?  It is not easy to be 21, as he was at the time, and be surrounded by people telling you that you are a footballing phenomenon.  He reacted angrily to his exclusion from the 2010 World Cup squad – though he was on the stand by list.  But it was hard to see what he had realistically done to justify a place on the plane to South Africa.  Kicking sand in the faces of weakling opponents in the Sao Paulo State Championship could hardly be seen as adequate preparation for the World Cup.  Both he and his supporters had conveniently forgotten that just a few months earlier his performances had been nothing more than promising in the World Under-20 Cup.  He had come up with the odd impressive moment, but had never been able to grab a game by the scruff of its neck.  Others in that midfield, especially the captain Giuliano, had been much more impressive.  He went on that year to play a key role in Internacional winning the Copa Libertadores.  Unlike Ganso, however, Guiliano did not have the Sao Paulo press in his corner, and there was no big campaign to get him into the World Cup squad.

Everything became clearer the following year, when Ganso played an unimpressive Copa America in Argentina.  Coach Mano Menezes commented after the competition that the big difficulty his side had faced was that his domestically based players were unused to the rhythm and intensity of international football.  There was little doubt that he was referring to his playmaker.

Ganso’s role is one that requires footballing maturity.  When to up the tempo and look for the killer pass, when to give priority to retention of the ball – these are not easy decisions.  The great Zidane did not become great overnight.  I well recall him in Euro 96; the promise was apparent, but in terms of fitness, mentality and, crucially, game decisions, he was still some way short.  By France 98, with two years at Juventus under his belt, it was a different story.  Similarly, Ganso in 2011 was shown up as being far from ready – it was one of the main topics in the Copa America press box, as journalists from all over the continent were able to watch and judge this player who had been presented to them by their Brazilian colleagues as the saviour of their country’s game.

How to cope when disappointment strikes?  Mano Menezes appeared to lose confidence in Ganso, and the player seemed to enter a prolonged sulk, cutting a pitiful figure as a squad member at the London Olympics.  At club level the move to Sao Paulo did little to revive his career – until Muricy Ramalho took charge last September.

Ramalho knew Ganso from working together at Santos and understood the player well enough to identify that Ganso needed to feel important.   He was brought off the substitutes bench and put into the starting line up, and responded with some of his best football in years as Sao Paulo climbed quickly away from relegation danger.

This year, then, is the big test.  A recall to the national team in time for the Word Cup might be asking too much; Brazil have plenty to talent in attacking midfield, and there is simply not enough serious football for Ganso to play and press his case before the squad is announced.

But with a secure place in a strong club side, this could be the year when Paulo Henrique Ganso finally comes good.  And in a few months I might have fewer people asking me that ‘what ever happened to…?’ question.


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