The infamy of Kléberson, Manchester United’s World Cup-winning flop

The infamy of Kléberson, Manchester United’s World Cup-winning flop

Two young men stand on the immaculate Old Trafford turf, unfurling a Manchester United scarf between them and grinning for the cameras. One of them, flashing a distinctive set of braces and wearing a pair of leather trousers, is a recent World Cup winner and seen as one of the most promising, dynamic central midfielders on the planet. The other one is Cristiano Ronaldo.

José Kléberson Pereira burst onto the scene during a successful 2002 World Cup campaign, booking his seat on the plane to South Korea and Japan after impressing domestically for Athletico Paranaense. At just 22-years-old, he was one of the quieter, more inexperienced members of the Seleção squad, with only the mercurial talents of Ronaldinho and Kaká offering younger alternatives. 

While playing club football in his homeland, Kléberson had consistently displayed flair and tenacity which quickly caught the attention of Luiz Felipe Scolari. Born in the southern state of Paraná, he’d gradually risen through the youth ranks to become a first-team regular, claiming two Paraná State League titles and, more impressively, the Brazilian Série A in 2001. 

Whispers of his name may not have spread as far as Europe just yet, but there’s no question that it firmly deserved its place upon that iconic Brazilian teamsheet. He failed to make an appearance as Brazil blitzed their way through the group stage, with the diminutive Juninho Paulista the preferred midfield partner to Gilberto Silva, but Kléberson was anything but a passenger. 

After sambaing their way into the quarter-finals, Scolari’s green and yellow canaries found themselves up against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England, and Kléberson was given a chance he seized with both hands. In a game that is best remembered for Ronaldinho’s audacious free-kick, the young Paranaense midfielder stuck Paul Scholes so firmly into his back-pocket that he started every remaining game of the tournament. 

In the final against Germany, the spotlight was again pinched by one of his teammates, with the redemption of Ronaldo inevitably dominating the back-pages across the globe. Kléberson, meanwhile, put in a virtuoso display, completely outclassing Dietmar Hamann and Jens Jeremies, rattling the crossbar from 30 yards out, moving the ball at lightning pace and providing a sumptuous assist for O Fenômeno’s second. 

His performances in those crucial games were so impressive, Scolari even went as far as to claim that Kléberson was the “driving force” of his World Cup-winning side and “he was always the first name on the team list, ahead of players like Ronaldo”. He didn’t boast the aggression of Gilberto, the flair of Ronaldinho or even the work-rate of Dunga, but throughout that summer tournament he’d displayed an eclectic mixture of all three.

As with almost any other player, grasping that glorious golden trophy proved to be the pinnacle of Kléberson’s career, and the attention in him across Europe was almost immediate. However, despite strong interest from Barcelona and Leeds, the youngster opted to stay at Paranaense that summer because, believe it or not, he was waiting for his girlfriend to turn 16 so he could marry her. 

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Leeds retained their interest the following summer, but Kléberson had set his sights on the other side of the Pennines, stating he had “offers from other clubs, but they weren’t Manchester United”. He joined the Premier League champions for around £6.5m on 12 August 2003, becoming the first Brazilian to ever sign up at the Theatre of Dreams and expected to rejuvenate Sir Alex Ferguson’s ageing midfield.

Brought in to replace Juan Sebastián Verón, who had recently been gobbled up by Chelsea, many saw him as the ideal midfield partner for Roy Keane, with some citing him as a potential long-term replacement for their talismanic captain. However, there were also whispers of Kléberson’s signature sitting at the heart of a much deeper transfer game, since he wasn’t the only Brazilian to catch Ferguson’s eye that summer. 

The dropped shoulders, smooth step-overs and toothy grin of Ronaldinho looked for all the world to be on their way to Manchester, with the arrival of Kléberson seen by many as a way to sweeten the deal. David Beckham, meanwhile, had finally completed his £33.5m move to Real Madrid, finally concluding his protracted transfer saga and inadvertently setting in motion a series of events which would scupper the entire deal.

Joan Laporta had just won a surprise majority in Barcelona’s presidential election, promising to return smiles to Catalan faces by bringing a global superstar to the club. Beckham had been earmarked as the perfect marquee signing but, unimpressed with being used as a political pawn, he promptly rejected the Blaugrana in favour of Los Blancos. 

This left Laporta with a superstar-shaped hole to fill, but it just so happened that he’d also had his eye on a toothy-grinned starlet at Paris Saint-Germain. In what must be one of the greatest plan B’s in football history, Ronaldinho was eventually persuaded to choose the Catalan sun over the Manchester rain, and the face of European football was changed forever.

More pertinently, Kléberson, who didn’t speak a word of English, was suddenly left isolated and deceived, later claiming it was actually Ronaldinho who convinced him to join United in the first place. Still, optimism was high around Old Trafford, with a productive transfer window also seeing the arrivals of Tim Howard, David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba and, of course, an 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Alongside Arsenal and Chelsea, who had just kicked-off the Roman Abramovich era by spending more than £100m, Manchester United were considered title favourites at the start of the 2003/04 season. Their credentials had been underpinned by a victory over Arsène Wenger’s men in the Community Shield, with Kléberson signing just two days after the Millennium Stadium’s curtain-raiser.  

But things didn’t start well for the Brazilian. After being left out of the squad for United’s opening league games against Bolton and Newcastle, Kléberson put in a disappointing debut display against Wolves, before dislocating his shoulder in a 1-0 defeat at Southampton which ruled him out until early November. In perhaps the earliest sign of how drastically their paths would differ, it was Ronaldo who came on to replace the injured Kléberson that afternoon. 

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Once recovered, Champions League ties against Rangers and Panathinaikos came either side of a game against Blackburn, where he grabbed his first United goal after latching on to an inviting lay-off from Quinton Fortune. Rocking his arms in celebration, the excitement of the goal famously triggered his pregnant wife’s contractions up in the stands, and they had to make a quick dash for Wythenshawe Hospital at the full-time whistle.

A few weeks later, the Brazilian provided three assists in wins over Aston Villa and Manchester City, before scoring yet again in a 3-2 victory over Everton. These were lively, energetic performances, but they were punctuated by careless errors and an underlying lack of confidence, as he struggled to adapt to the pace and physicality of the English game.

Slighter of frame and shorter than most, Kléberson was regularly bruised, jostled and bullied when playing alongside Keane in the centre, while this awkwardness was only exacerbated when he was played out on the wing. A Beckham replacement he certainly was not and, despite twice etching his name onto the scoresheet, Kléberson was undoubtedly suffering from Ferguson’s tendency to play him out of position.

The athleticism, tenacity and flawless positioning shown at the 2002 World Cup were largely nowhere to be seen, even in what would prove to be his most productive spell in a United shirt. In place of the expected Brazilian maestro came a weak, often immobile midfielder suffering from the curse of trying to do too much and actually offering very little. 

There were flashes in these early months of his United career, the rarest glimpse of the kind of brilliance the Old Trafford faithful had been expecting, but even these were of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety. Each moment fuelled the hope that one day Kléberson would transform into the creative, combative force they’d watched in the Far East, but this was a day destined never to arrive. 

That goal against Everton, a glanced header from a wonderful Gary Neville cross, was his second and last for Manchester United. Industrious yet unimaginative displays followed throughout the rest of his debut season, a campaign which became plagued by injury problems and saw him fall behind others in the pecking order. 

Possessing an inexhaustible engine, at his best Kléberson was a shuttling box-to-box midfielder who could snuff out attacks just as effectively as start them, but he rarely got to play that role at United. There’s no question that he looked much more comfortable when playing alongside Nicky Butt through the middle, who served as a defensive anchor which allowed the Brazilian to surge further forward and exploit little pockets of space. 

Sadly, that particular partnership was never given the breathing space to really blossom, with both players usually fighting over that one spot beside Keane, along with Djemba-Djemba, Fortune, Phil Neville and an emerging Darren Fletcher. When that spot was filled by one of his teammates, Kléberson would be out on the right or on the bench, routinely replaced by Ronaldo after proving ineffective once again.

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United finished in a disappointing third place in the Premier League and, even though they did claim the consolation of the FA Cup, Kléberson wasn’t even included in the matchday squad to face Millwall. Dazzling fans with his endless step-overs, swaggering confidence and dizzying trickery, Ronaldo had gradually emerged as United’s shining light, while the man affectionately called ‘Xaropinho’ (a moustachioed cartoon rat) was still struggling to emerge from the shadows. 

Injury problems persisted throughout the summer, as Kléberson missed Brazil’s stuttering opening Copa América win over Chile, but then started every other game as the Seleção marched to yet another triumph. Somewhat remarkably, he was the only World Cup winner to be included in the squad, while his excellent performances in midfield were this time overshadowed by the brilliance of Adriano. 

A knee problem saw him miss United’s season openers against Dinamo Bucharest, Chelsea and Norwich, although he did play the full 90 minutes in the second leg against the Romanian champions. Subsequent appearances against Blackburn, Everton and Bolton were lethargic and uninspired, with the Brazilian taken off in all three of those games and replaced by players with more attacking bite.  

Confined to the bench against Liverpool and Tottenham, Kléberson was once again failing to replicate his sparkling international form. A spirited performance in a 6-2 dismantling of Fenerbahçe gave one last hint of promise, before it was ruthlessly snuffed out after yet another pedestrian display against Birmingham City.

A routine 3-0 League Cup victory over Crewe Alexandra would prove to be the last time he completed 90 minutes in a United shirt, while a combination of injuries and falling out of favour restricted him to just four more league appearances, once again failing to impose himself in any of them.

By now, most had accepted that the potential and talents of this World Cup winner would never be realised at Old Trafford. The following summer saw Ferguson open the door to both him and Djemba-Djemba, with the Brazilian making the switch to Beşiktaş after just 30 appearances in two years at United. Despite some truly disastrous signings within this period, nobody optimised the tragedy of unfilled promise more than Kléberson. 

Moves to Flamengo, Bahia and Indy Eleven followed, including loan spells at Philadelphia Union and his beloved Paranaense, before his star fizzled out once and for all with a short stint at Fort Lauderdale Strikers. There’s no question that injuries and lack of playing time ruined any hope of success at Old Trafford, but the trajectory of his career afterwards points towards something far more obvious. 

Amidst all the failures, inconsistencies and lacklustre performances, Kléberson ultimately lacked the quality and composure to play at the highest level, becoming a prime example of just how misleading success in a World Cup tournament can actually be. 

By Ben Hyde @henbyde

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