Ganso the fallen star
It's August 2010 and the Meninos da Vila (Kids of the Vila) are in full swing. Santos are crowned Copa do Brasil champions, their first national title in six years, and the back pages of the country's newspapers are dominated by the team's young stars.
The Meninos of Robinho, Ganso, Neymar and Andre have amassed 27 goals between them in just ten games. An 18-year-old Neymar is the tournament's top-scorer and Ganso, just two years his senior, its best player. This was a tantalising glimpse of Brazil's future - Neymar and Ganso in tandem, leading club and country to glory.
A year later, the glorious vision was partially realised. Andre had departed for pastures new, whilst Robinho's peculiar loan arrangement at Santos from Manchester City had expired. Santos were irresistible, sweeping to Copa Libertadores glory in fine style, suffering just one defeat in 14 games. The Peixe had been floundering in continental competition since the time of Pele 50 years previous, but now they could once more boast a side their rich history deserved. Neymar and Ganso once more shared the plaudits. The former voted the competition's best player; the latter Man of the Match in the final. It was now surely just a matter of time before the double act led the national side to equivalent success, or so it was believed.
The warning signs were there, but the ever-increasing hype was all-consuming. Whilst Neymar was taking it in his stride, Ganso was silently breaking. The youngster's Copa Libertadores final display was a remarkable achievement, not for the skill demonstrated, but for the circumstances leading up to the game. Following the side's Copa do Brasil triumph, Ganso underwent knee surgery that would keep him out of action for six months. After a return lasting just nine games, the procedure needed repeating. The Copa Libertadores final second-leg was to be his comeback game and he shone. Beneath the surface, though, the cracks were appearing. A year on, they are gaping chasms.
The past 12 months have not been kind to the elegant playmaker. Brazil manager Mano Menezes insisted his side would be built around Ganso, but the Copa America of last summer proved to be a disaster. Unfit following his injury lay-off, the languid enganche, otherwise known as trequartista, struggled to deal with the rugged, battle-hardened defensive midfielders the continent had to offer.
In a role that very few players master, his inexperience was glaring and his confidence in tatters. By September, injury struck again and Ganso arrived at the Club World Cup in Japan short of fitness once more. Santos may have cruised past Kashiwa Reysol, but Barcelona would not be so kind. The final was a savage lesson to the Brazilian side, Neymar included, but it was Ganso who found his faults laid bare for all to see by the relentless pressure of the Blaugrana defence. All the while, the relationship between midfielder and club was creaking, having failed to see eye-to-eye over a new contract.
Whilst Neymar is now the golden boy of Brazilian football, Ganso is the forgotten man. ''Ganso is upset with the club. They put together a project for Neymar but forgot about Ganso," his agent, Delcir Sonda, complained this week. ''Ganso will not play for Santos again. That is guaranteed."
The beautiful vision of the future had soured. Two had become one in the eyes of the Brazilian public, and Ganso had been the one to lose out. Whilst Neymar's form and charisma make him a sponsor's dream, his often dour colleague does not hold the same appeal. The former's earning power allowed Santos to offer a mammoth contract worth more than £600,000-a-month, Ganso was offered just a quarter of that. With Ganso still the second lowest paid player in the Santos first-team, the relationship is now seemingly over.
A year ago there would have been considerable European interest at this development. Indeed, AC Milan are believed to have backed out of a deal last summer only at the last minute, following yet another unfortunate injury set-back. The current transfer window presents quite some contrast. Manchester United and Chelsea are bandied around as suitors in the English media, but this is ultimately speculation with little substance, with many unaware of the midfielder's recent travails.
The only concerted interest in recent months has come from Porto, who had a "derisory" bid of €8 million rejected by Santos in January - a far cry from the €20-30 million touted just last summer. That was January. Since then, Ganso has encountered little except poor form and injury. Indeed DIS, who own 55% of the player's economic rights, will this week look to buy the remaining share off Santos. If the Paulista side get anything in excess of €5 million for their share, they will be mildly content.
Talk in Brazil this week suggests Ganso will head south to Internacional, if his owners succeed in their attempted buy-out. A loan deal would see Ganso link up with the talented Andres D'Alessandro in midfield, behind a newly reinforced strikeforce of Leandro Damiao and Diego Forlan. The arrival, though, would surely see the departure of rising star Oscar, who appears headed for Chelsea.
Whilst Ganso's career has stalled, Oscar's has sky-rocketed. A wonderful hat-trick against Portugal in the 2011 Under-20 World Cup final kickstarted his rapid ascent to stardom, which culminated in four sublime appearances for the national team last month. As fate would have it, the former Sao Paulo youngster would never have been given the opportunity had it not been for Ganso's latest injury setback. The Olympic Games now loom on the horizon; they were supposed to be Neymar and Ganso's test-run for the 2014 World Cup. Now, even the latter's place in the team is in significant doubt.
Injuries have undoubtedly done untold damage to the youngster's progression, but the root of his poor form lies deeper than simply bad luck. On the biggest stages and against international standard defences, Ganso has consistently been found wanting over the past two years. As Juan Roman Riquelme and the deeper-lying Andrea Pirlo, or Paul Scholes, manage to compete at the top level at little more than walking pace, Ganso has been unable to replicate this success.
The enganche, or traditional South American number 10 playmaker role, is a dying art, with the aging Riquelme the only present master. Whilst the Argentine still dominates games, his Brazilian junior has failed to master this skill. Inexperience and a reticence to seek the ball see his undeniable talents too easily nullified. Compared with the vibrant, dynamic game offered by Oscar, Ganso is currently coming up short.
If ever a player needed a move to Europe to progress, it is Ganso. Whilst Oscar and Neymar already frequently find themselves simply too good for their domestic opponents, they emit an aura that suggests the transition to the Old Continent would be a mere formality. For Ganso, it would surely require a whole new learning process. The vast open spaces afforded in Brazil would be no more, and the very high pressure marking systems which have caused him so much bother to date would become a weekly occurrence. It would be sink or swim time for one of Brazil's most naturally gifted talents.
With his game simply not ready for the pressure of a move to a European giant, perhaps previously linked Porto or PSG would be suitable locations from where the playmaker could hone his skills. The onus would then be on him, and his body, to prove that he is capable of performing at the highest levels.
Hope still exists that one day, in the near future, Ganso's game will mature to once more be a match for his precocious colleague. Santos, though, look prepared to cut their losses on a player whose promising career appears to be stuck in an ever-deepening rut.