From Lithuania to Guangzhou: the long road to Barcelona for Paulinho

From Lithuania to Guangzhou: the long road to Barcelona for Paulinho

Illustration by Federico Manasse

ON THE LAST OCCASION Barcelona announced the acquisition of an expensive Brazilian footballer, in the summer of 2013, it was the prodigiously talented and fresh-faced Neymar who had been handpicked to join the ranks of the illustrious Catalan club.

Fast forward to August 2017 and another Brazilian was preparing to don the famous blue and red stripes and perform his obligatory party-piece duties for a comparatively-quieter Camp Nou – just days after Neymar, of all players, had made his dramatic Parisian escape. The Brazilian this time around was Paulinho.

The very antithesis of Neymar’s arrival, the announcement of Paulinho’s signing was met with a rancorous outpouring of disapproval from Barcelona fans. Their reasons for opposing the transfer were plentiful, hinging not least upon their refusal to believe their club had willingly parted with some £37 million for a 29-year-old who had found himself cast away to the far reaches of the Chinese Super League just two years before, having been deemed expendable by Premier League side Tottenham.

Far from being “més que un club”, by signing of a player with Paulinho’s ravaged reputation, Barcelona were failing in their most basic requirements of being a team in the minds of their demanding fans; a team of the expected quality of Barcelona, at least.

For the player, though, the move constituted in every sense a dream come true and one he has worked tirelessly to achieve. With the shadow of the big 30 inching ever closer, and having spent so much of his youth traversing foreign shores in search of footballing fame, Paulinho’s big break has been a long time in the making. He may not yet have the blessing of the Culés, whom he longs to hear chanting his name, but Paulinho will undoubtedly give his all to ensure his efforts have not been in vain.

While it was with Brazilian team Pão de Açúcar – today named Grêmio Osasco Audax Esporte Clube – that Paulinho took his first steps in professional football, forming part of their academy squad as an ambitious young teenager, it was in the unlikely top tier of Lithuanian football that the midfielder was handed his start in the game.

Believing there to be little chance of breaking into the Pão de Açúcar senior squad, Paulinho embraced the rather unorthodox option of heading for Lithuania to join a slowly growing Brazilian contingent at FC Vilnius.

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Sadly, while there, though he proved his worth on the field, Paulinho was forced to endure racist abuse from the terraces, which permanently tainted the memory of his days in Lithuania. “There were two games [in particular]. When I went out to play, the fans were making monkey noises and throwing coins at me and I just thought, ‘I don’t need to tolerate this.’ So I made the decision to move on.”

Paulinho quickly departed Lithuania for neighbouring Poland, to join ŁKS Łódź, in search of a more rewarding foreign education. All the young Brazilian found, though, was further hardship. Thousands of miles from his family and pregnant wife, homesick, and disillusioned with the game that seemed so willing to chew him up and spit him out, Paulinho returned to Brazil. For him, at that stage, the football dream was over.

“As soon as I returned to Brazil I lost hope, I lost confidence. I was basically stuck for three weeks and when you are in this position that’s when sadness comes, when depression might sink in and, of course, I lost confidence. This would subsequently return but, at the time, I could never think about my great dreams in football when I was going through this moment.”

But even when his days were at their darkest, Paulinho couldn’t imagine his life without football. “If I had left football I would not have had anything. The reality was that as I remained at home I could not think of anything that could replace it. I felt a responsibility towards my mum and dad and I spoke an awful lot with my wife. She mentioned that my parents had always backed me and that they always did everything for me and that I should return to football to fight for what they had given me.”

Paulinho remained in two minds until a call came from his old team. “My club in Brazil got in touch with me and after a lot of talking and some psychological support, I returned to the game.” Though he had no reason to believe it at the time, his decision to step back into football, re-entering at the Brazilian fourth tier, would soon kickstart a rapid ascension to the summit of his country’s football and beyond.

After a single campaign back among the home comforts of his first club, Paulinho was snapped up by Clube Atlético Bragantino, at the time competing in the second tier. Then, just a year later, Corinthians came calling.

Despite the breathtaking take-off, as he jetted from the fourth tier to the first in the space of just two years to join one of Brazilian football’s principal powerhouses, in almost no time Paulinho became integral to Corinthians’ blueprint for success. Flourishing as the centerpiece of a vastly talented squad, Paulinho’s performances even caught the eye of Brazil coach Mano Menezes and he made his competitive debut for his country against Argentina in September 2011.

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That same year, Corinthians reigned supreme on home soil, winning the Brasileirão title before furnishing their domestic conquests with the coveted Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup trophies in 2012. There is no doubt Paulinho’s stint with Corinthians would constitute the most rewarding time of his career thus far.

But it wasn’t only his compatriots who were impressed with what they were seeing from the dynamic midfielder. The Premier League was also watching and one manager remained especially keen to make Paulinho a part of his squad.

In early July 2013 it was officially announced that Spurs boss André Villas-Boas had his man. Paulinho transferred to Tottenham for around £17 million, a number that lived a short life as a record fee for the London club. Only, in the English capital, the Brazilian would fail to capitalise on his opportunity.

While the ‘flop’ tag assigned to Paulinho in remembrance of his time at Tottenham is perhaps a little undeserved, a paucity of powerful midfield performances – the type the player’s physique, frame and demeanour would have you believe would come as standard – meant that fans in England rarely saw what Paulinho was capable of.

A brief managerial procession that saw the Tottenham reins handed from Villas-Boas to Tim Sherwood to Mauricio Pochettino aided Paulinho’s form in no way. However, his forgettable on-field endeavours did little to help himself. By the time he had lost pace on the far from spectacular talents of Étienne Capoue, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb in competition for a starting place in the centre of Pochettino’s tightly marshalled midfield, Paulinho’s days in London were numbered.

In June 2015, Spurs announced they had accepted of a bid from Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese Super League. A few shillings shy of £10 million, Spurs were taking a fairly hefty hit on the fee originally paid for Paulinho but the monetary loss bothered them little. The club and their fans alike told the story of Paulinho’s short stay with their reaction to his departure; in truth, they were just glad to have shifted him at all.

Paulinho called his move to China “a new challenge”. As for those accustomed to similarly incentivised moves eastward, they referred to it by a name a little less complimentary. But, in moving to China, Paulinho was preparing to reunite with Luiz Felipe Scolari, the manager responsible for his call-up to the Brazil squad representing their nation in their home World Cup of 2014, and neither player nor coach appeared to be content to take their careers to China in order to forego ambition.

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The trophies amassed by the duo speak volumes about the success of their Chinese collaboration: back-to-back Super League titles, a Chinese FA Cup, two Super Cups and even an Asian Champions League trophy to boot.

It appeared as though even greater than the impact Paulinho had upon Guangzhou was the impact Guangzhou had upon Paulinho. Guangzhou’s trophy cabinets were far from empty prior to Paulinho’s arrival, so his purchase seemed only to continue the trend. Yet after months of virtuoso displays in China, sufficient to see him named Chinese Super League Player of the Year for 2016, Paulinho found himself reinstated in the Brazil team by manager Tite.

The coach under whom he had experienced such success at Corinthians envisaged a stronger Brazil side with Paulinho at the centre of it and he was soon proven right. Paulinho’s return was followed by a string of superb performances, none more memorable than the tussle between his country and rivals Uruguay in Montevideo in March 2017, when he helped his side to come from behind by scoring an unlikely hat-trick from midfield en route to an impressive 4-1 win.

Paulinho’s ascent from so-called Tottenham flop to Chinese success story impressed many, including his manager Scolari who felt the player’s call-up represented something of a landmark achievement for their league of employment. “Paulinho was not in the national team list, but he fought his way back. That is why I am very proud of the Chinese Super League. It is wrong to say that the CSL is for players who have come to the end of their career. The CSL has shown it is competitive and it is able to give players the chance to play for their country again.”

Little did Scolari know, the league was about to show it could give players the chance to play for Barcelona, too.

Many took the rumours to be false, believing Paulinho to be part of a vast fraternity of players deemed inarguably insufficiently talented to play for Barça, but the club’s first official bid soon ruled out all doubt. Guangzhou stood firm, rejecting the deal and claiming the player was not available for purchase at any price. But, whether they wished to let him leave or not, he would be sold at £37 million, the player’s contracted release clause. Barcelona met the clause and Paulinho joined the Blaugrana.

If the deal was not shocking enough when it existed purely as half-baked rumours and media rumblings, when it was completed at such expense – becoming, at the time, Barcelona’s joint-fourth most expensive signing in their history – the football world baulked.

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But, as John Duerden wrote for the Guardian, “Perhaps Barcelona do not see him as a Spurs failure but a vital member of a Brazil team who were first to qualify for the 2018 finals.” Though context is imperative, stripping away some of the excess from the transfer reveals a far more understandable purchase.

Barcelona simply met the release clause of an experienced footballer, essential to the prosperity of both club and country and in the midst of a stirring revival that saw him become by far the most coveted player in his division, for whom a move to Barcelona constitutes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When presented like that, why wouldn’t Barcelona sign him?

While many may see the Chinese Super League as a glorified retirement home for the old-of-body and fond-of-wealth, it was in the CSL that Paulinho rediscovered his form. One of a great many high-profile signings labelled with high expectations owing to a lofty transfer fee and an abundance of European football experience; one of so few to exceed those expectations.

Paulinho’s move to Barcelona breaks the mould as it represents the first big money move out of China. To date, expensive deals involving the Chinese have moved exclusively in one direction. But Paulinho’s transfer proves that the CSL is far from some abandoned wasteland or extravagant hospice for the careers of tiresome tricenarians. Evidently, moves to China needn’t premeditate a bowing out from international consideration or curtail a potential move back to Europe’s upper echelons.

What’s more, Paulinho’s move to Barcelona vindicates his decision to chase another challenge, embrace a new adventure in Asia, and adds another noble conquest to his humble career achievement list.

Once found trudging around the treacherous reaches of Eastern Europe’s lesser-known divisions, Paulinho’s big break with Barcelona is a far call from his struggle-filled days of yesteryear. His signing may not appease fans who demanded an addition of Neymar’s ilk to replace their departing star, but it may just provide them with a player more grateful to be a Blaugrana than any other.

In Paulinho, Barcelona have purchased a player willing to give his all to a club owing to a class he feared he would never even come close to representing, and fans may just find themselves applauding his efforts sooner rather than later.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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