Robinho's return to Brazil with Atletico Mineiro offers interesting possibilities
It is headline news in Brazil: Robinho is back. The one time wonderkid could not agree terms with his old club Santos, and has instead joined Atletico Mineiro, the last Brazilian team to win the Copa Libertadores (2013) and among the favourites to do so this year. Indeed, the signing of Robinho is being seen as a considerable boost to Atletico's chances in the competition.
Some might say that this is a lot of fuss being made about a player who could not even get a game in China. Robinho's last club was Guangzhou Evergreen. Less than two months ago their Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari left Robinho on the bench as his side went down 3-0 to Barcelona in the semifinal of the Club World Cup. How can a player not good enough to get into a Chinese side be considered a big name reinforcement in Brazil? But Robinho's is not any ordinary career.
Robinho, 32, emerged as a teenage sensation in the extraordinarily young Santos side that won the Brazilian league title in 2002. He was the "king of the stepovers," the eye-catching outrageous talent steeped in old style Brazilian irreverence. It was absolutely taken for granted in Brazil in his first few years that Robinho would soon be voted the world's best player. TV analyst Walter Casagrande, who played for Brazil in the 1986 World Cup, argued that Robinho would go on to be greater than anyone who had ever played the game with the exception of Pele.
Clearly, this did not happen. It seems churlish to ask, "where did it all go wrong?" After all, we are talking about someone who has played nearly 100 games for Brazil at the international level. But it is possible to identify a couple of moments that surely helped blow him off course.
The big one is when he discovered that Real Madrid were prepared to use him as a makeweight in a transfer deal to get their hands on Cristiano Ronaldo. Robinho had done reasonably well in Spain -- but the cold discovery of where he stood in the global pecking order was too much for him to take. In a sulk (never the best way to do business), he quickly engineered a move to Manchester City, where he was the first big name signing of the new regime. His first few months in Manchester were fine, but then demoralisation set in and he seemed to lose interest.
The key problem appeared to be that Robinho had underestimated the degree of difficulty he would find in top class European football -- a lesson, incidentally, that has been well absorbed by Neymar. Robinho had perhaps fallen victim to his own publicity, and believed that his stated aim of winning the world player of the year award would come naturally. From the moment that this dream was effectively removed he ceased to be the same player.
There was, though, a shot at redemption. Perhaps, at the age of 30, the mature Robinho could play a part in helping Brazil win the 2014 World Cup on home soil and win a glowing reference in the history books. In the build up he won a recall to the squad, and showed his usefulness as then-national team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari looked at some attacking variations. In November 2013, Brazil experimented with Robinho in the 'false nine' position. He came on at half-time and did well in a 5-0 win over Honduras and then made a 50th minute appearance and headed the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over Chile.
Come the World Cup, though, his name was not on the list. Scolari could not overcome his preference for a traditional target man centre-forward, and perhaps worried about the fitness of first choice Fred, chose the similar Jo as a backup. There was no place for Robinho.
In retrospect, it looks like a howling mistake. This was a sector of the team where Brazil were clearly deficient in 2014. It could have been Robinho's big chance. Instead it was an epic failure for the team and a giant frustration for the player -- and maybe goes a long way to explaining why the relationship between Scolari and Robinho did not bear fruit in China.
It would, then, be harsh to judge Robinho on his time in Asia -- and fair to wait and see what he comes up in the colours of his new club. Assuming that he is fit and motivated, Robinho still has plenty to offer. The one time individualist has learned how to play collectively and can adapt to different tactical systems. His career never hit the heights that many expected, but there is still time for a couple of fascinating late chapters.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.