Illustration by Charis Tsevis. View more of his work here
The collective radar of world football is an enigmatic mechanism at the best of times. Sometimes it unearths tantalising treasures made to entrance the globe, other times it fails to penetrate deep enough to find anything of note. There’s really no specific formula to follow, and it can be frustrating for scouts, pundits and coaches to trust its vagaries. Fans, too, struggle to get their heads around its mysticism, often playing hard-ball with a religious-like superstition to find someone special.
What’s all the more intriguing is when it does find a cloudy gem, a diamond in the rough that needs nurturing, time and care to elicit a special kind of shine. Because though every young footballer needs attention and encouragement to grow, develop and learn, these raw world-beaters are precisely the type of players everybody loves to fawn over with even greater energy than usual.
The cautionary tale of the ruined reputation is not an unusual one in football. Reworked over time with different characters, it is something football fans the world over have become very familiar with, but it is perhaps the trials and tribulations of a certain Brazilian boy wonder which has caught the eye most effectively in recent years.
Back in the early 2000s, there was one stand-out starlet everybody wanted to see make it: Robinho. He was the next big thing and he was quickly commanding the attention of football aficionados everywhere, not least the likes of distinguished figures Tostão and Carlos Quieroz. However, it was the compliments of another sporting legend that arguably scattered everything to the wind.
Straddled with the overbearing weight of one of Pelé’s many misguided predictions, the fresh-faced youngster was identified by a legend of the beautiful game as not just a star for the future, but a potential successor to the three-time World Cup winner’s legacy as far back as 1999 when Robinho was still developing in his native Brazil.
Of course, the general public should have known better, or at least it should have been obvious that Robinho wasn’t ready to cope with such a hefty tag. After all, Pelé hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory with his player predictions prior to this, especially considering how he had bestowed the same poisoned chalice to Nii Lamptey back in 1991, stated that Nicky Butt was the best player at the 2002 World Cup as well as getting it all sorts of wrong by saying that Nick Barmby was “up there with Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Maldini and Ronaldo”.
If Pelé was the star of his own show, Robinho was pegged as the capable understudy but the stage was already set for him to flop before he had even said his opening line.
Before all that, though, there came the rehearsals, and Robinho’s performances were a real triumph that had critics in awe for years as he dominated the goalscoring charts – and the headlines – in his native Brazil with display after display of dazzling, daring and a dash of defiance on more than one level. Rattling the net for fun, he added an unrivalled cutting edge to the team’s attack that saw him pick up the Silver Ball and Golden Ball.
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Simply put, he was holding firm against the tide of assumption that saw him moving on much sooner than he eventually did, and he also resisted the pressure to crumble placed upon him by edgy expectation and flippant sound-bites of acclaim. Satisfied with giving his all under Émerson Leão and Vanderlei Luxemburgo, Rei das Pedalas (Step-over King) was enjoying his time on the east coast of the Land of the Palms and showed no sign of giving in to the prospect of a hurried move abroad, something that certainly earned him even more local support.
At Santos, he had his immediate family around him – something that has often been cited as his Achilles heel, but he also had the familiarity and friendships of his team-mates as well. He was comfortable on board the team commonly dubbed Santastico by the fans and it reflected in the way he was playing.
Combining flashy footwork with phenomenally clinical finishing, he was tearing up the Paulistão and the Brasileiro Série A with some incredible wizardry with the ball at his feet, and he was gaining all sorts of admirers for the way he was managing to get the best out of his futsal roots while also not compromising on the professionalism that was expected of him.
Like a kid in a playground, the lean ever-smiling entertainer was whittling away the hours with maximum enjoyment and certainly won’t have wanted his dominance to end. Having played an immensely important role in guiding Santos to their first Championship title in 18 years, his goals, step-overs and confidence were all continuing to grow with every passing day, and deservedly so.
The following season, even with the unwanted sideshow and drama of his mother’s distressing kidnapping, Robinho held firm to capture yet another winners’ medal as he chipped in with a whopping 21 goals in 37 appearances.
For all his domestic success, however, there was a brooding undercurrent of intuition that Robinho needed to get away from the sand, samba and snug rhythm of his homeland; he had to properly prove himself in Europe, and he needed to do it sooner rather than later – something undoubtedly fast-tracked by his agents and the commercial nature of the sport. Simply put, Robinho was hot and he had to be sold before the furore around him died down too much – and so it proved as Real Madrid swooped in to offer him the chance to finally prove whatever doubters that remained wrong.
His big move to Los Blancos eventually arrived in 2005 but he was often hindered by injury and an inability to completely satisfy an ever-expecting Santiago Bernabéu, which made it difficult for him to steal the limelight on a truly consistent basis.
For many, it seemed as if the most successful team in Champions League history had been conned into buying damaged goods, and there was a genuine sense of disappointment in the air at how he hadn’t become the stylish spearhead the Galácticos needed to conquer the Champions League; he was broken and the club with empty pockets seemed happier to eventually let him go rather than fix him. Nevertheless, in much the same way that even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day, Robinho was always bound to temporarily vindicate himself every now and again – and so he did, to his credit.
Earning the man of the match award in their 2-0 home El Clásico victory over Barcelona in his second season back in 2006, he dominated down the left wing with his blistering pace, skill and mesmerising trickery and even chipped in with an assist for Ruud van Nistlerooy.
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In his first title-winning campaign as a Los Merengues player, Robinho scored five goals in Madrid’s final 12 games to help them secure the title, and he nabbed 11 goals in 32 outings during the 2007-08 campaign as they secured back-to-back La Liga titles for the first time in 28 years. In truth, without his contributions they would have lacked some very crucial points and likely wouldn’t have picked up those trophies. That said, his offerings were far too sparse and his performances far too erratic for his stay to be considered a genuine success.
That’s the sort of player he has often been – an insanely talented individual with the ability to turn a game on its head, but one who also lacked consistency. For many, he is one of football’s biggest luxuries because when he’s in the mood he can treat spectators to some splendid manoeuvres. Take him out of the game or impose some roughhousing on him, however, and he loses so much of his edge, often causing him to over-indulge in frills and chichi as a distraction.
With AC Milan he captured the Serie A title but underwhelmed once more, but sandwiching those two transfers was his record-breaking move to Manchester City which saw him flop spectacularly in the Premier League. Though he was winning titles – and scoring goals wherever he went – he wasn’t the player many anticipated he would be and the nippy front-man was a far cry from the generational giant he was tipped to become.
The truth is we have yet to see the real Robinho arrive and he has long since slipped from the conversation about the game’s best players. Synonymous now with the tag of a faded footballer fumbling in the dark of the Chinese Super League with Guangzhou Evergrande having left Santos once again, it has been sad to see such an unrestrained talent lose his famous fizz.
At 32, many are of the opinion that he’s long pushed the realm of redemption and has lost his chance to mould a legacy worth reflecting on. When he departed Santos, he had the opportunity to develop into one of the best Brazilian players ever seen, but he simply couldn’t manage to force the right impression.
Nevertheless, he has some amazing achievements to be proud of. With as many as 99 international caps to his name, he has become more of a symbol for the Canarinha than many like to give him credit for, and he’s just a whisker away from joining an elite list of Brazil internationals who have managed to reach the magnificent milestone of a century of appearances. With Cláudio Taffarel, Lúcio, Roberto Carlos and Cafu the only players ahead of him, he’s in pretty impressive company. Add this to the 28 goals he’s netted since his debut and it’s clear he’s been a key figure with a good rapport, despite a patchy appearance record. Simply put, just a handful more goals would lift him into the top 10 goalscorers in Brazilian history.
His unlikely appearances for the national team in 2015 showed us all what he can still achieve. After all, he was undoubtedly their best player at the Copa América, proving himself to be a worthy replacement for Neymar. Whether or not he can force his way into the set-up again remains to be seen, but a late career surge would offer him the chance to become a true leader with more maturity and resolve than ever before.
The ex-Madrid man was so many things for so many – lazy, pampered, homesick, pressurised, underwhelming, brilliant, clinical and a mystery; the list is as varied as it is long, and it makes for interesting reading for the rest of us. However, what sticks out about the Robinho story most of all, for me, isn’t that he failed to make it or that he refused to work hard or anything of the sort. Rather, he spent too much of his energy trying to be more than others’ expectations that he simply didn’t blossom and appeared unhappy being the footballer he seemed destined to become at such a young age
As it transpired, he wound up ignoring the clock in the midst of his jam-packed journey when he would have been better suited to building his own legacy to stand the test of time. The question now is, can he wind it back?
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90