IT WAS LESS than a decade ago that Michel Bastos was setting French and European football alight with his mix of thunderous power and Brazilian style. He was one of Lyon’s brightest sparks after an era of dominance and Brazil’s starting left-back at the 2010 World Cup, but football has a habit of swallowing people without spitting them out.
The city of Pelotas gave Bastos his first footballing platform and, with the legendary Roberto Carlos to emulate, he was aiming high. The favela streets afforded many a Brazilian footballer outstanding technical ability but Bastos had something more than that – he had a secret weapon.
Few expected the scrawny kid that emerged from the Esporte Clube Pelotas academy to possess such power in his left foot, and he quickly honed his dead-ball skills. After a typical Brazilian footballing upbringing, like many other exceptionally talented compatriots, he made the life-changing trip to Europe in order to pursue his dreams, which landed him in the Netherlands.
Opportunities were limited at UEFA Cup holders Feyenoord where a young Salomon Kalou and Dutch international Pierre van Hooijdonk occupied the attacking positions under Bert Van Marwijk. Bastos spent much of the 2002/03 season in the reserve side and never made a senior league appearance. Excelsior Rotterdam offered him some first-team experience but the talented Brazilian never made his mark on Dutch football during his 12-month loan at the Eredivisie side.
Footballing aspirations can wither and die after an experience like that. Bastos returned to his home country, just two years after leaving it, as a failure. Having spent the next three seasons at as many different clubs in his home country, he tried his hand at a European career again – and this time he made his mark.
Lille offered him a chance to play in Ligue 1 where fellow Brazilians Fred and Juninho were plying their trade and enjoying a successful career on the continent. Bastos became a frequent feature at left back in the mid-table side and scored in the Derby du Nord against Lens, instantly becoming a hero with the Lille fans.
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In the coming seasons, his attacking ability began to force its way out; the boy from the Brazilian streets was coming alive again. After impressive displays on the left wing, Bastos made the position his own and began to influence games from out wide with his trickery and pace. That was where it clicked and the goals started to fly, with spurts down the left complimented by rasping free-kicks that struck fear into every Ligue 1 goalkeeper.
He also began raising his game on the bigger stages, netting in games against Lyon and Marseille – the superpowers of French football at the time – and went on several scoring streaks throughout the 2008/09 season. Nominations for various awards came next, including Ligue 1 Player of the Season, earning him a lofty reputation.
Clubs from across Europe courted the youngster and chased his signature but he decided to stay in France and moved to Lyon, whose seven-season title-winning spree had just been ended by Bordeaux. OL could offer Bastos something that he’d dreamed of since arriving in Europe for the first time several years earlier – the Champions League.
Belgian champions Anderlecht stood in their way over a two-legged playoff in the third qualification round. During the first leg in Lyon, Europe got its first glimpse of Bastos when he fired a ferocious, dipping shot that flew in off the post after he’d cut inside from the right. One of the corner flags at the Stade Gerland was graced by Brazilian joy in celebration before he was mobbed by teammates.
Bastos immediately settled into a star-studded Lyon team which included Hugo Lloris, Miralem Pjanić and Lisandro López. The Brazilian was benefitting from belonging to a more talented side and was given the stage of Champions League football to perform on. He played a part in wins at Anfield against Liverpool and against Fiorentina as Lyon progressed through the group stage, scoring his first continental goal against Debrecen of Hungary. Claude Puel led the team past Real Madrid, with Bastos playing just a few minutes in the home leg victory before missing the return fixture at the Bernabéu. He would have to wait until the quarter-finals to really have a say.
Lyon’s first Champions League quarter-final since 2006 brought about an all-French tie with Bordeaux, who had defeated Olympiacos in the previous round and were being led by a prolific Marouane Chamakh. Bastos was instrumental in the first leg win at the Stade Gerland, lashing in the second in a 3-1 win while also showing his considerable range of passing in creating chances for his teammates.
Across Europe, Lionel Messi was scoring four against Arsenal, Inter were progressing past CSKA Moscow, and Arjen Robben sensationally volleyed Bayern Munich past Manchester United. A narrow defeat in the second leg saw OL triumph on aggregate and join these heavyweights in the semi-finals of Europe’s premier club competition.
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The passionate fans of Les Gones were dreaming of Champions League glory for the very first time. Lyon and Bastos went to the Allianz Arena to face Louis van Gaal’s Bayern but came back with nothing after a 1-0 defeat before Ivica Olić’s second-leg hat-trick dumped the plucky French side out. That spirited run remains the furthest the club has ever gone in the competition.
Away from the Champions League that season, Lyon finished as runners-up in Ligue 1 behind Marseille as Bastos’ teammate, Lisandro López, was named Player of the Year. Bastos was nominated for goal of the season for his strike against Nancy, which venomously arrowed into the top corner after the Brazilian had tried his luck from distance. He also notched his first career hat-trick in a 4-0 win over Sochaux with all three goals coming in a 21-minute frenzy as Lyon chased the Champions League spots.
Thanks to his breakthrough season on the biggest stage, Bastos fulfilled his dream of playing for his country. In November 2009, he was called up for the first time by Dunga for two friendlies in Qatar against England and Oman. However, the winger would have to settle for a spot at left-back due to the array of attacking talent Brazil had at their disposal in Robinho, Nilmar, Elano, Hulk and Kaká.
By the time the next international break came in March, Bastos had cemented his place as the nation’s starting left-back – and just in time as the World Cup was months away. When the squad for the finals in South Africa was announced, Bastos had made the cut ahead of Real Madrid’s Marcelo – a testament to an outstanding first season at one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Bastos helped himself to his first international goal in a warm-up game against Zimbabwe with a trademark free-kick to open the scoring. Every Brazilian line-up during that tournament featured Bastos at left-back as they topped a group that consisted of Portugal, Ivory Coast and North Korea. A young Alexis Sánchez, making his first strides with Udinese at the time, waited in the round of 16 but Chile were easily dispatched by a Brazilian side that seemed to be clicking under Dunga. However, Bastos’s old Feyenoord coach, Bert van Marwijk, dealt the knockout blow to O Seleção as his Netherlands side were 2-1 winners in the quarter-final in Port Elizabeth. The last-eight exit was seen as a failure back home and Dunga was sacked.
Over the next couple of seasons, French football discovered a rare Belgian gem. A young, gifted winger by the name of Eden Hazard was beginning to put in world-class performances for Lille. While Hazard won two Ligue 1 Player of the Year awards in succession, Bastos was struggling for consistency as his brilliance shone only on occasion. It was as if the entirety of French football was under the shadow of this exciting Belgian prodigy – and all other left wingers were now held up to Hazard’s standards
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A surprise Ligue 1 triumph for Montpellier made a mockery of the season with a mid-table team going from mediocracy to silverware in a short space of time. The consolation of a disappointing league campaign came in the form of the Coupe de France for Lyon, who saw off third-division Quevilly in the final thanks to López’s goal. Bastos, blighted by injury in his later years at Lyon, missed the game with a back problem.
The following season, Lille, led by Hazard and Dimitri Payet, were title winners but, by the time they’d lifted the trophy in May, Bastos had departed France for good. Six months before, Schalke had moved for the now-inconsistent Brazilian with a loan move that contained an option to buy him at the end of the season.
In typical Bastos style, he opened his Schalke account with an unstoppable long-range effort on debut against Greuther Fürth. That was followed by a brace at Mainz, but after such a promising start to life in Germany, Schalke opted not to sign him permanently. It was the beginning of the end for Bastos who, at the age of 29, was supposed to be hitting his peak.
Financial difficulties at Lyon resulted in the sale of Bastos to Al Ain in the UAE, with the French club needing to balance out a €25m shortfall. Unsurprisingly, football in the Middle East was not what the former Lyon star needed and he left for Roma in January on loan. Bastos wasn’t short of game time at Roma, playing 17 times in the six months he spent in Serie A, but the goal return wasn’t as impressive as it had been during his years in France, and, like the previous season, the offer of a permanent deal was refused.
That summer, he sat and watched the 2014 World Cup from the sofa, as the Brazil side that he’d played in just four years earlier were humbled in their semi-final tie with Germany. Bastos returned to his home country that summer and signed for São Paulo. Unlike the last time he’d returned to Brazil after leaving Europe, when he’d failed to make an impact in the Netherlands, he returned as a big-name footballer who had fulfilled his dreams of playing in the Champions League. Still, some thought he had squandered his talent; that he should have still be playing at the highest level for a European goliath.
After over a hundred appearances for São Paulo, inclusive of some trademark free-kicks, a goal every six games and a return, at times, to his best, he now finds himself playing alongside former Brazil teammate Felipe Melo at Palmeiras. He joined the club at the start of the 2017 Série A season, when the Verdão were champions, but they failed to defend their title and finished the next campaign behind Corinthians. Still, he has cemented his place at the top of Brazilian club football and won the respect of the fans along the way.
It’s been eight years since Michel Bastos last featured for Brazil and effectively eight years since his rise to the top reached a glass ceiling. A combination of injuries, inconsistency and the pulling power of money arrested the Brazilian’s showstopping career. Who knows how far his thunderous left foot, his blistering pace, and his samba flair would’ve taken him but one thing’s for sure: after his first trip to the Netherlands ended in vain, European football definitely benefitted from his brilliance during his time on the continent. And he’s not done yet.
By Billy Munday @BMunday08