Could Coutinho boost Brazil?
Like millions of other Brazilians, Philippe Coutinho must have felt horrible while watching the Seleção get blown to smithereens by Germany in the last World Cup.
The irony here is that the drubbing at the Mineirão may have contributed to a change in Coutinho's fortunes for his national team: Since that horrendous night in Belo Horizonte, supporters and the media in Brazil have invariably mentioned the Liverpool man as somebody manager Dunga cannot overlook in this time of picking up the pieces.
Judging by recent form, the 1994 World Cup winning captain would be foolish to repeat Luiz Felipe Scolari's snub of one of the most exciting attacking players Brazil has produced in the last 20 years. Nobody is saying that Coutinho would have led Brazil into some heroics and avoided the worst at the Mineirão. But what became quite evident is that the Seleção could have used another creative player after Neymar got injured, as Oscar struggled to juggle attacking and defensive functions. Or somebody more able to link up play and create moves, which the Seleção lacked immensely in the tournament. Hindsight, obviously, must be discounted.
Despite Coutinho's coming of age for Liverpool last season, he has hardly made a strong case for a spot in the Brazil squad. Yes, he has only been capped once, in 2010, and played in a 3-0 win over Iran in Abu Dhabi, but his lack of shine while at Inter Milan did not enthuse then-manager Mano Menezes enough to invite the player back.
In that season, he averaged only 54 minutes on the pitch in 20 games, and his stats marginally improved in the 2011/12 periods. Meanwhile, former Brazil youth teammate Neymar was leading the change of guard at the Seleção, although he was still plying his trade in Brazil instead of moving abroad. In fact, Coutinho and Neymar became opposite examples in the argument about the right time for young Brazilians players to head to the airport. Neymar was convinced he could mature without leaving Brazil, and he earned some very decent money. Only in 2013 did he sign signed with Barcelona.
Coutinho, on the other hand, became an Inter player at 16, when Italian club scouts saw him playing for Rio side Vasco da Gama, and two years later was already training in Italy. The cultural shock was immense, and few people were surprised when the Italian club loaned the Brazilian to La Liga minnows Espanyol in 2012. Coutinho turned into an example of how an early move to Europe could backfire big time.
"Few people seemed to understand back home that there are a lot of things affecting how a player will react after a move abroad," Coutinho told me earlier this year. "I was really young, and I don't think I received as many chances as I wanted at Inter. So in a way the move to Spain was something that helped me look for a change."
The change of scenario could not have been more beneficial to Coutinho. At Catalunya, he scored five goals in 16 matches for Espanyol, also registering one assist and helping Barcelona's poor cousins avoid the drop.
Coutinho's performances led to rumors that bigger fish in the La Liga pond were ready to sign him, but instead, the Brazilian returned to Inter and spent half a season in Italy before Liverpool came knocking in the January transfer window. At first, he felt worried about the physicality of the Premiership.
"I had watched the games and it looked like people couldn't stop running", Coutinho recalled. Talks with Brendan Rodgers and fellow Brazilian Lucas Leiva tempted the midfielder more to join Rodger's reformulation of the English club than to seek a second chance in Italy.
"It just looked like a right challenge for my career. The style Liverpool plays suits my game, and I felt really interested by what Rodgers was proposing." As we all saw last season, it was a wise decision from both parts.
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Coutinho was one of the individual highlights of Liverpool's wondrous campaign, albeit the failure to end the Reds' long dry spell in the league.
In 50 games over two seasons, he has scored eight goals and contributed with 15 assists, becoming a Kop favorite for his slick style as well. But it was too late to convince Scolari to give him a chance in the run-up to the World Cup. It's likely that Big Phil thought Coutinho's fragile frame didn't fit into his plan to bulk up the the Seleção squad as a part of his pressing game, which is one reason why Leiva was the player from Liverpool who got called up a couple times instead, before losing his place to Manchester City's Fernandinho. Dunga, Scolari's replacement, will certainly be paying attention to how Coutinho fares this season.
Judging by the preseason, the midfielder is on fire and looking forward to his second full season at Anfield, which will also include the club's long-awaited return to the Champions League, a competition in which Coutinho has some experience from his Inter Milan days.
With a Seleção friendly looming in September, Coutinho could do more than simply earn plaudits from Liverpool fans by putting on some strong displays in the next few days. It could lead to his second cap for Brazil...
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.