The beating heart of a champion
In Brazil, Fluminense center forward Washington is known as "Brave Heart." But not even Mel Gibson could have scripted what he did against São Paulo last Wednesday.
With his club seconds away from elimination in the Copa Libertadores, Washington's injury-time header sent Fluminense into its first ever semifinal. The Hollywood ending came as a shock. Washington had been looking horribly out of touch, eight games without a goal, and the contrast with São Paulo striker Adriano was not at all flattering.
In the first leg in São Paulo, Adriano was a one-man attack -- mobile, powerful, skillful, he was setting up plays and was a constant threat on goal. In hindsight, it's clear his team probably should've pushed harder in the second half to ram home the advantage Adriano was giving it.
Maybe São Paulo was justified in thinking that, with the away-goals rule in operation, 1-0 would be enough. At the other end, Washington cut a ponderous figure, comfortably contained by São Paulo's giant and efficient center backs.
But 11 minutes into the return leg in Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã stadium, Washington brought his personal drought to an end and leveled the aggregate score with a deft finish from close range after a low cross from the left had looped up off a defender.
Even so, São Paulo had little cause for alarm, especially when it took control in the second half and Adriano headed a goal of his own. Now the defense, which had conceded just four goals in 9½ games would have to be breached twice in the last 20 minutes in order for that semifinal slot to slip away.
It was unlikely. But it happened. Fluminense scored the first one immediately. And as São Paulo had a man sent off, the pressure rose. But it seemed that time had ticked away. The three-time champs had just to defend a corner and its place in the last four of the Libertadores was theirs. Fluminense would have failed in what the club itself was describing as the biggest game in its history.
It was the cue for Washington to rise above the huge Alex Silva and power his header inside the far post. If there were any lingering doubts about the state of Washington's heart, they were cleared up when he managed to withstand the wave of emotion his goal had set off.
Fluminense's big No. 9 owes his nickname to a medical check-up back in 2002, when he was playing his football with Fenerbahçe in Turkey.
He had complained of chest pains. The exam revealed that one of his arteries was 95 percent blocked. It was surely the end of his professional career. Fenerbahçe certainly seemed to think so, but Washington, born on April Fool's Day 33 years ago, was determined to prove people wrong.
He opened a bookstore and a hotel, motivated by the fear that his playing days might be over. But he worked hard to prove they were not. The road back was long and winding, made even more complicated by the fact that he's a diabetic. In all, he needed three operations on his heart. There were false starts and times when it seemed that he would never receive medical clearance to resume his career.
Atlético Paranaense, in Brazil's southern city of Curitiba, was the club that stuck by him during the dark times. It was rewarded when he marked his comeback in '04 with an important goal in a local derby. And the goals kept coming -- Washington scored 34 of them as the club came very close to winning that year's Brazilian Championship.
Then followed three successful years in Japan, first with Tokyo Verdy and then with Urawa Red Diamonds, spearheading the Saitama club's charge to the Asian Champions League title last year. Before the start of this season, Washington decided the time had come to move back home and be part of Fluminense's bid to win the Copa Libertadores.
The traditional club of the Rio elite, Fluminense has been champions of its own state on 30 occasions. It has won the Brazilian title once, in 1984. But the stain on its record was the poor performances in the Libertadores. Its two previous campaigns had been something of a fiasco -- in '85, it failed to win a single game, and in '71 it managed, unthinkably at the time, to lose at home to tiny Deportivo Italia of Venezuela.
Washington was part of the investment the club made to ensure that the '08 campaign would be different. And as Fluminense prepares for its epic semifinal against Boca Juniors of Argentina (the first leg is Wednesday night), it can reflect that the money spent on its own "Brave Heart" has been well spent.
As he leads the Libertadores charge, Washington is making his own personal declaration of independence as he dribbles round the forces of destiny.