FEW THINGS EVOKE emotion quite like observing something extraordinary on the football field. An act that defies all logic and belief. The gasps of those in attendance, the clattering of seats as spectator’s rise to their feet in unison. Witnessing something awe-inspiring is magical at the best of times, yet when such aptitude is conjured by an adolescent, it only adds to the allure that you are witnessing something truly spectacular.
Back in September 2007, the Estádio Governador Magalhães Pinto – more commonly known as the Mineirão – played host to the Clássico Mineiro. Within the boundaries of Belo Horizonte – Brazil’s sixth biggest city – Cruzeiro squared up against bitter local rivals Atlético Mineiro and tensions, alongside temperatures, were running high.
Cutting in from the right flank, Kerlon Moura Souza scooped the ball aloft and embarked on a mazy dribble, accelerating forward whilst balancing the ball atop of his head in a buccaneering style. His ingenuity ultimately proved to be short-lived as in a matter of seconds, he was unceremoniously manhandled to the ground courtesy of a rather vicious elbow. The perpetrator, Atlético’s right-back Dyego Rocha Coelho, seemed incensed at Kerlon’s audacity to attempt such grandstanding trickery.
In many ways, the incident stands alone as a microcosm of Kerlon’s career. Something that started with such promise and flamboyance, capturing the imagination of everyone present, ended by being sent crashing back down to earth before its time with a sharp reality check.
The attacking midfielder rose to prominence in 2005, representing Brazil at the Under-17 South American Championship. Kerlon brought the tournament to life, demonstrating flawless technique and composure well beyond his tender years. The team boasted budding stars such as Marcelo, Denílson and Anderson, but there was only one player who had the indigenous partisans waxing lyrical.
Notching eight goals over the span of just seven games, Kerlon led the Seleção to glory on Venezuelan soil, vanquishing Uruguay in the final. He had also developed a penchant for a truly unique trick – the aforementioned head balancing act dubbed drible da foquinha or in English, ‘the seal dribble’. He was much more than just a goalscoring show-boater, though. The youngster exuded an air of star quality and carried himself in a confident manner, irrepressibly scoring and creating a variety goals, from meandering solo runs to blistering long-range free-kicks.
Billed as the ‘next Ronaldinho’, A Foca (The Seal) continued his annus mirabilis by earning a debut appearance for Cruzeiro. With fans and the media rhapsodising his every kick of the ball by this point, interest in the precocious talent was also rife. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona were all astutely aware of Kerlon’s exploits and had been scouting him, leading to rumours of an imminent €25 million transfer across the Atlantic.
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He remained loyal at first, continuing to develop and ply his trade for his boyhood club Cruzeiro. However, unbeknownst to the starlet at the time, his fortunes were about to take a turn for the worse. Struggling to adequately adjust to the rigours of senior football, the boy wonder initially stagnated, his brilliance limited to a few fleeting moments here and there. Injuries had also begun to take their toll; a dark by-product of football that has the cruel ability to thwart even the most sublime.
A Foca played three seasons at La Bestia Negra in total before securing his eventual move to Europe. The suitors were Internazionale; however, such was the complexity of the deal, Kerlon found himself originally signing for Chievo. The Nerazzurri completed the signing via their Veronese counterparts due to a lack of space on their non-EU quota but were assured the player was worth a season’s wait by his notorious agent, Mino Raiola. The measly €1.3 million fee for 80 percent of Kerlon’s contractual rights, however, was an indication of his decline.
Despite breathtaking online footage alongside ballyhoo from Raiola, Chievo fans were to be left disappointed as Kerlon arrived in northern Italy with more baggage than just his possessions. A knee injury sustained in March 2007 would plague his maiden European campaign, which concluded with just four outings and no goals to show for his efforts.
Unconvinced upon the Brazilian’s return that he was ready to don the iconic blue and black stripes, manager José Mourinho – renowned for his lack of faith in youth – farmed the 21-year-old out on loan again, this time to Ajax. If Kerlon’s career had hit some stumbling blocks thus far, it was about to completely derail. After being presented in Amsterdam, it was announced that the midfielder would actually spend the campaign representing Jong Ajax – the reserve team.
Joining back up with Inter in 2010, Kerlon looked a shadow of his former self. A myriad of injuries had begun to not only punctuate but actively consume the youngster’s once rathe-ripe career. Another devastating knee injury that summer carried with it embittered undertones, similar to those another certain national phenomenon had experienced a decade earlier.
He also spent a great deal of time with his teammate and known trouble-maker, Mario Balotelli. Speaking to ESPN Brasil, Kerlon remarked: “He [Balotelli] had a habit of arriving at training before anyone else and peeing on all the players’ boots … it was very funny.” Whether such practical jokes were as warmly received by Mourinho is unknown, yet one can imagine that given his fractious relationship with the Italian, Kerlon’s amusement may not have been best placed.
Exiled and desperate to rekindle the kind of form that had seen him heralded as Brazil’s future saviour, he headed back to his native peninsula. Paraná Clube were the latest club to take a gamble on his waning ability, agreeing a loan deal a day before Kerlon’s 23rd birthday. Alas, this proved to be yet another false dawn.
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A Foca was reaching his nadir. Even a move back home hadn’t borne fruit, and now the sad state of affairs – both mentally and physically – were beginning to take their toll. Succumbing to regular injuries can often do more mental damage than anything else and this, combined with the demanding pressures of elite sport, led Kerlon to flounder badly.
He signed for regional third division outfit Nacional Esporte Clube in a deal that really summed up the melancholy surrounding how far he had fallen. Injuries and sheer ignominy of his fall from grace led to one singular appearance ending his time back in Brazil. Once a national treasure, his career now seemed trapped deep in the bowels of an echo chamber, with every one of Kerlon’s efforts reverberating with the same infuriating, futile result.
A complete change of scenery was in order and so, bags and extra baggage packed, he headed to Japan. Rather than being welcomed into the J1 League, though, it was another side dwelling within their respective third tier in the form of Fujieda MYFC that marked his new home. Indeed, Kerlon’s name on the list of forgotten wunderkinds had all but been carved in stone.
Surprisingly, then, his time in Asia acted as somewhat of a miniature renaissance. The midfielder managed to shake off his injury-plagued past to play relatively consistently for the first time in nearly four years. A return of nine goals in 22 outings may not have set the world alight, but the world is exactly what it meant to Kerlon.
Reinvigorated, he moved back across the Pacific, endeavouring to succeed stateside. After a brief spell training with the Atlanta Silverbacks, he duly signed for ASPL team Miami Dade. Despite the club again residing in the lower echelons of domestic football, the Brazilian was beaming. “I always had the dream and the intention to play in the United States, whether it’s in MLS, NASL, or the ASPL. I really like the country, I really want to be here, because I am closer to Brazil, and this opportunity came to me. I am very happy to be here.”
Miami were only founded a year prior to Kerlon’s arrival, yet its convenient location, coupled with a plethora of South American teammates, helped the midfielder feel right at home. Playing at St. Thomas’ University stadium – with a capacity of just 2,444 – it was a far cry from the Clássico Mineiro, but at this point just playing competitively was enough for the 27-year-old. Stints in both Malta and a third spell in Brazil have passed Kerlon by since. Now 29, the nomadic journeyman and once enigmatic prodigy represents Slovakia’s Spartak Trnava with a handful appearances under his belt this calendar year.
Being placed on the pedestal of unrelenting Brazilian expectation as a luminary for future success before even venturing into the professional game is no mean feat. Many have tried and failed to live up to the lofty billing set by standard-bearers such as Pelé, Ronaldinho and co. However, Kerlon really was a national – and indeed internet – sensation. He may have fallen drastically short of what his formative displays promised to provide but nevertheless, his reputation will live on for generations to come, even if it is only through the archives of YouTube.
By Charlie Carmichael @CharlieJC93