[CONFEDERATIONS CUP] Flashback to the 2002 World Cup final where Brazil capped off an inspired run with a 2-0 win over Germany in Yokohama, Japan. Led by Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and a young Ronaldhino, the Seleção displayed some of the most attractive and exciting soccer the world has ever seen. This 2002 Brazilian squad embodied the characteristics of Brazilian soccer that fans have come to expect from the five-time World Cup winners: a clinical striker capable of dazzling runs toward goal and a crafty playmaker able to make passes with lethal accuracy through defenses.
While Brazil’s attackers deservedly receive most of the credit for Brazil’s triumph in 2002, the play by defensive midfielder Gilberto Silva should not be overlooked. Gilberto put on an exemplary performance as a box-to-box midfielder, where his solid defense and effective distribution could jumpstart Brazil’s electrifying attack, all the while shielding the Brazilian backline from counterattacks.
In the two World Cups since 2002, Brazil has produced its fair share of strikers and playmakers, but has often lacked a true workhorse in the center of the field willing to do the dirty work necessary to win trophies.
Enter Paulinho, a name largely unfamiliar to soccer fans outside of Brazil, that is, before this past month’s Confederations Cup. Paulinho, 24, has followed a rather unique career path compared to his teammates. At the age of 18, Paulinho left Brazil for Lithuania to play for FC Vilnius in the Lithuanian top division. The following year, Paulinho traveled to Poland to play a season for TKS Lodz before returning home to Brazil to play for several lower division teams. In 2009, Brazilian powerhouse Corinthians spotted and signed him, where he has been a mainstay in the midfield ever since.
For Brazil’s Confederations Cup opener against Japan, Brazil’s coach Luiz Felipe Scolari paired Bayern Munich’s Luiz Gustavo with Paulinho in the defensive midfield, behind the star-studded front line of Neymar, Oscar and Hulk. Scolari’s decision almost immediately paid off, with Paulinho netting Brazil’s second goal on their way to a 3-0 win.
Paulinho scored again in the semifinals against Uruguay, this time a dramatic 86th minute winner off of a corner from Neymar. While no doubt this goal was crucial to Brazil’s triumphant Confederations Cup campaign, perhaps Paulinho’s greatest feat was containing Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and the rest of Spain’s famed midfield during Brazil’s 3-0 rout of La Roja in the final.
Paulinho showed the tactical awareness, defensive ability, physicality, and ball skills characteristic of a world-class defensive midfielder, and may finally be the heir to Gilberto Silva that Brazilian fans have been waiting for.
But Paulinho’s skill in the attack puts him in a different class than Gilberto. Paulinho connected well with Oscar and Brazil’s other attackers, and as shown by his scoring tally, he is not hesitant to burst into the opponent’s 18-yard box.
Paulinho’s complete performance in Brazil earned him a nomination for the tournament’s Golden Ball award for best player, as well earning him several European suitors.
Tottenham appears set to win Paulinho’s signature and there’s rumor that his transfer to White Hart Lane could be finalized in a matter of days. Paulinho’s Brazil teammate and Chelsea defender David Luiz has already tipped Paulinho for success abroad, by stating that, “[Paulinho’s] game fits perfectly with the pace of English football.”
While a lot can change for a player in a year, at this point in time Paulinho seems set to start for Brazil at next summer’s World Cup, and Brazilian fans hope that perhaps his steady play will be the needed piece for Brazil to be crowned World Cup champions on their home soil next summer.