Bernard fills Brazil's wild-card role
"I am a more mature, focused and calm Bernard," Brazil's diminutive forward told reporters on Monday, referring to his feelings upon returning to the national side for a second major tournament. It is a year since the youngster emerged into the wider public consciousness, starring for Atletico Mineiro in their Copa Libertadores triumph and making a series of impressive cameos for his country in the Confederations Cup. For all those highs, though, it has been a difficult 12 months for the 21-year-old from Belo Horizonte.
A €25 million move to Shakhtar Donetsk should have been the start of a path to the top of the European game, with the Ukrainian side firmly established as one of the best outside of the continent's traditional elite. In the same way that Elano, Brandao, Fernandinho and Willian all earned big moves off the back of performances in the Donbass region, helping the club to success in continental action, Bernard was expected to do likewise. Of all the Brazilian players Shakhtar had signed over the past decade, he was supposed to be the biggest coup of the lot.
To say that his first campaign in Europe was a disappointment would be an understatement. Fierce competition for places and a loss of form saw him complete 90 minutes in just three games all season despite appearing 29 times. Ukraine's major political concerns of the past few months, meanwhile, ensured that life off the pitch has brought little joy either, thus making for a less-than-conducive environment in which to press claims for a World Cup berth. After such a poor season, Bernard can consider himself incredibly fortunate to be pulling on a Brazil shirt this summer. It is not through lack of competition.
Many observers in Europe cannot fathom, for instance, how Paris Saint-Germain's Lucas Moura has been left out of Luiz Felipe Scolari's squad for the summer, in spite of a strong end to the French campaign. Moura, though, has been largely ineffective in a Brazil shirt under Scolari's management. Bernard, meanwhile, has often livened up proceedings, and the former Chelsea manager is famously loyal to those who have served him well in previous games, often in spite of form at club level. Bernard has much to repay, potentially starting with Thursday's opening clash against Croatia.
The difficulty that Bernard will face in the days and weeks ahead, though, is he will not know when his opportunities will come. Assuming all players remain fit, he will not be first-choice for Brazil and is also unlikely to be called upon if his side are in control of proceedings in any tie, with Willian and Ramires more suited to shutting up shop. What he will be is the Selecao's wild card -- the man who can do something a bit different when his side are in search of a goal. With his searing pace and imagination when on the ball, he is an ideal candidate for the role. However, it is a role that carries its own pressure -- the need to make an instant impact.
For all the Brazilian stars garnering attention ahead of the competition, Bernard is one of the few flying under the radar. Yet, for all the big name stars grabbing the headlines, it is the somewhat timid youngster of the group who could play a crucial role in the Selecao's hunt for World Cup glory and, for Bernard, there is more than just a winner's medal on the line. His individual future is still to be decided, and performances over the next month could go a long way to determining just how much interest his services garner, especially given the €40 million fee that is reportedly hanging over his head.
"I've made it clear that I'm not commenting on the possibility of a transfer. I'm focusing on the World Cup," Bernard told reporters, sticking to the official line that no transfers will be discussed until after the tournament. It has become clear from leaks to the Brazilian media, though, that he does not intend on returning to Ukraine at the end of the summer to a situation he simply describes as "sad." The boy with "joy in his legs," as described by Scolari, was linked to Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and Tottenham last summer and must hope such sides come circling again.
The next few weeks will be important to determining whether such calls arrive. While his talents will be known to scouts of Europe's biggest sides, a big performance in a match at the World Cup would speed up the process ahead. Bernard is understandably reluctant to comment on the situation in Ukraine, but it will be preying on his mind. He could become a World Cup hero, but his opportunities will be few and far between.
The unpredictability of Bernard's situation matches what Scolari would like him to bring to the table in his game over the weeks ahead. The likes of Willian, Jo, Hernanes and Ramires are good options to have at his disposal, but none offer ability to think outside of the box like Bernard. When Brazil need a spark, it is to him that they will turn and, in the process, Scolari's youngest charge may have the opportunity to alter the course of his career. It is a role he played well last summer, but the World Cup is now the only stage that matters. In the right hands, though, a cameo role can be enough to steal the show.