What happened to Ganso, the “Bordeaux wine” of Brazilian football?

What happened to Ganso, the “Bordeaux wine” of Brazilian football?

When was the last time you heard the name, Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima? Never? Okay, well how about Paulo Henrique Ganso? Getting closer? It might be several years since you saw P.H. Ganso typed on a team sheet or appear in a video game. He’s not retired, no. He’s only 31, yet his footballing age, his sell-by date as a Brazilian number 10, is much, much older. The former Santos, Sao Paulo, Sevilla and Angers maverick – and Brazil international – was left behind by his own sport a little while back.

If you run Ganso’s name through a popular search engine of your choice, you’ll see that he’s playing for Fluminense, one of Rio de Janeiro’s top clubs. You might also come across some highlight reels of his last couple of seasons. In them, you’ll notice his God-given talent, his guile, his eye for a pass and his quite unworldly first touch.

What you won’t see, though, is Ganso running. Or very rarely, at least. Those days are over, buried by knee surgery after knee surgery and, as football has sprinted ahead off into the horizon, some of its most talented players still languish in its shadows, trying to dig their heels into a much faster game with the little physical acumen they possess.

The well-trodden tale about Ganso is that he was – and still is – Neymar’s best friend. The pair, who grew up together at Santos, were really quite close, on and off the pitch. Their diverging paths are the perfect exercise for ‘Where are they now?’ articles and, well, I guess this is one of those. Except we don’t need to talk about where and what kind of player Ganso is now, but rather indulge in the attraction that he was and could have been. As the great Tostao says: “I miss a version of Ganso that never existed.”

At his peak – if you can call it that – Ganso was the talk of Brazil, largely because he offered something that others in his generation didn’t. A throwback of sorts, a nostalgic kick, his silky football didn’t belong in Brazil’s state championships, in its attrition-like domestic game, but instead alongside Pele, Jairzinho and Tostao at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Ganso is lazy yet lavishly good, a luxury who tugged on the heartstrings of all those whose beliefs are steeped in Samba football.

“He’s a genius. I’m always saying that he’s going to be Zidane 2.0,” Neymar once told Globo TV of his Santos teammate, who wore its prestigious number 10 shirt. No pressure, then. The pressure, instead, went the other way.

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When Ganso and Neymar started shining in the season before the 2010 World Cup, Brazil boss Dunga was bombarded with questions about including both starlets in his squad to take to South Africa. A few dazzling displays in the Sao Paulo state championship were enough to spark a whole media campaign on both players’ parts. Neither made it on the plane, with Brazil’s return flight scheduled before the semi-finals started.

A call-up did come later that summer, from Dunga’s successor, Mano Menezes. Just after making his senior debut for the Selecao, a 20-year-old Ganso was sidelined for several months with a knee injury that followed and foreshadowed his rotten luck with fitness problems. He made it back in time for the tail-end of Santos’s Copa Libertadores campaign, as Muricy Ramalho’s side faced Penarol in the final. Having sat out the first leg, Ganso played the return fixture alongside the likes of Neymar, Danilo and Alex Sandro, all of who made the journey to Europe in subsequent years.

Instead, Ganso, still with no call from across the Atlantic, settled for a move to Sao Paulo. From there he watched Lucas Moura go to Paris Saint-Germain, Welliton end up at Spartak Moscow and Souza switch to Fenerbahce, all the time being reminded of what a career in Europe can do for your reputation.

At Sao Paulo, he played with Luis Fabiano, Alexandre Pato, Michel Bastos and Kaka. So why did it take so long, until he was 26 years of age in Ganso’s case, for that sort of move to come about? There were reasons why countless European clubs were linked with him, yet only Sevilla were brave enough to sign him.

Those reasons were laid bare in Spain, as Ganso struggled to get to grips with the jumpy tempo of LaLiga. Jorge Sampaoli had made a special request to bring the Brazilian to the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan for some €9m, yet he didn’t seem to fancy him. “When someone asks to you come to a club and then doesn’t play you, something’s up,” Ganso said years later.

There were, of course, moments of sheer brilliance in Andalusia, including sublime flicks, little tricks and defence-splitting passes, yet, like when a magician finishes their party-piece and moves on, you were always left wanting more.

Great players are often blessed with the ability to make it look as though they’re playing the game in slow motion. The trouble for Ganso was, while he carried this sort of gift in possession, he played that way without the ball, too. Injuries obviously played their part and, as time went on, he covered fewer and fewer blades of grass. There were parts of a football pitch that Ganso would never see, with his role reduced to waiting for the ball inside the opposition’s third, lifting his head up and dispatching an immaculate pass.

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At a club and under a coach whose principles are built on passion and intensity, it was a mismatch at Sevilla, even after Sampaoli had left. There was a loan move to Amiens, where he would face Neymar’s Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1. That was about where the comparisons between the Brazilian compatriots ended, though.

“Neymar was like a champagne,” former Santos president, Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro, wrote in his autobiography. “He was a sparkling wine, bubbles everywhere – one that you open and throw a party. A joy. Ganso, on the other hand, was like a Bordeaux wine. He had a fantastic quality, but you drink it more discreetly. Both of them are essential for a good dinner.”

While Neymar has become a global brand, Ganso remains a sort of local speciality, served up two or three times a month at Rio’s Maracana. His best football has been played in Brazil, in Santos’s Libertadores and Copa do Brasil double, out of the spotlight of across the Atlantic. He shone at the 2011 Copa America, yes, making up for lost time after the South Africa snub. Ganso started all three group games in Argentina, edging Jadson out of contention eventually.

In the final one of those group fixtures, he proved his worth. After an Ecuador equaliser, the Santos midfielder touched a ball through for Neymar and, going against that football mantra of ‘don’t admire your pass’, he watched, frozen to the spot, as his clubmate stuck the ball in the top corner. All it needed was a chef’s kiss. That four-goal feast teed up a quarter-final meeting with Paraguay, whose coach had a special game plan.

“In order for Neymar not to become a threat to us, the ball must not reach Ganso,” Tata Martino said pre-match. “Ganso is the player who makes all the passes and it is very important not to give him space. Brazil always ensure that the ball goes to their number 10.”

He had reason to be worried, too, having faced Brazil and Ganso in the group stages already. With Martino’s side 2-1 up in the closing minute on that occasion, his midfield and defence slept on a lurking Ganso, who had found space in his natural habitat between the lines. A fraction of a second later, after the number 10’s single touch, Fred was in a position to finish for the equaliser. Ganso had set up Jadson to score in the first half, too.

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His influence on the quarter-final was limited and, with the tie going to extra time, it was inevitable that Brazil would have to shift dead weight. Ganso’s substitution took the cold blood out of the team, which went on to miss each of their penalties in the shoot-out defeat.

Fortunately for Ganso’s international chances, Menezes stayed on as Brazil’s coach, at least for another year. They both made the trip to London for the 2012 Olympics, with Brazil firm favourites for the gold medal. They won silver, losing the final to Mexico, though Ganso barely featured. The return of Dunga to Brazil’s international set-up was bad news. After a couple of relatively injury-free campaigns with Sao Paulo, Ganso squeezed his way into the 2016 Copa America squad but didn’t play.

“Today, it is difficult to depend on one player, you need to play as a collective” Dunga had told O Globo the year before. And so, out of the international picture and after a failed attempt at making it in Europe, we’re back in 2021. Yeah, sorry about that. You probably wanted to stay in 2011 a bit longer. Well, it’s not all bad.

Ganso, as I mentioned, is turning out for Fluminense. There, he plays alongside pensioners like Fred – yes, that one – and Nene – also the one you’re thinking of – as well as rising stars like Manchester City-bound Kayky and the wonderfully named John Kennedy. You can watch them in the Copa Libertadores this season, too.

I warn you, though. If you do end up seeing 31-year-old Ganso play, the pleasure will be outweighed by pangs of regret. Regret that this diamond was never really looked after properly, that it was never truly polished. Knee problems may have robbed Ganso of the little speed he had in those legs, but the evolution of football is what has put an outstanding career, one like Neymar’s, out of his reach.

Fans want to see players beat a man, flick the ball between someone’s legs and try their luck from range. The elite coaches of today aren’t fussed, with more emphasis placed on the collective than the individual.

Really, Ganso’s failings are a microcosm of Brazilian football’s problems. More detached from the top-level than ever, its domestic game is discarding talent for bags of cash earlier and earlier into a player’s development. Does that money get pumped back into the sport? Into coaching and sports science? Evidently not. So, next time you watch Ganso, or a player of his likeness, remember that you’re witnessing a dying breed. It’s only a matter of time before they meet extinction, so enjoy them while it lasts.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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