With South American talent, reevaluation sometimes needed
Glimpsing young talent is one of the joys of covering South American soccer
The risk, however, is judging talented wrongly at such an early stage
But when players like Júlio Cesar turn out better than expected, it’s a joy
The highlight of covering soccer in South America has always been getting an early glimpse at the youngsters destined to become household names. It's like going to the movies and getting a sneak peak at the most anticipated coming attractions.
Just a few recent examples: In 2001, I was writing -- and raving -- about Kaká and Adriano. A year later, it was Diego, Robinho and Carlos Tévez, and in '03 it was Javier Mascherano. The '05 crop was vintage: Lionel Messi, Fernando Gago, Sergio Agüero, Anderson and Mati Fernández. Then, Alexandre Pato in '06 and Éver Banega last year. On and on it goes.
Watching this kind of talent on the way up is a huge privilege. But the process has its pitfalls. There's the risk of getting too enthusiastic too early. It's always possible the youngster won't make the expected progress, or that his game has flaws a higher level of play will expose.
I thought about this last Saturday in a sweltering Maracană stadium in Rio de Janeiro when I saw Denílson come on as a substitute for Palmeiras in its 3-0 defeat to Fluminense. Just over a decade ago, the left winger became the world's most expensive player when he moved from Săo Paulo to Spain's Real Betis for a then-record $32 million.
This is a classic case of too much, too soon. Denílson was nowhere near ready to carry his club's hopes, a club that was looking to him to lead the challenge against the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. His career never fully recovered from the disappointment.
All the hype surrounding him created unrealistic expectations -- and I have to admit I helped inflate the bubble. (The U.S. learned this the hard way last season when FC Dallas signed Denílson as its first Designated Player, an arrangement that ended in disaster.)
Then there's Raphael Scheidt. In Scotland, there are Celtic supporters who have never forgiven me for arguing the young center back would be a good buy for the club, when he turned out to be an expensive disaster. In truth, illness and injury hurt Scheidt.
But the fact is -- and with hindsight it seems painfully obvious -- he was always likely to struggle. Defending higher up the field would clearly expose his lack of pace and squeeze the space he needed for his constructive passes out of defense. This was in 1999, and I still wince when I think about how I called it so badly.
But there's another kind of error which causes no pain when recognized: when a player turns out to be much better than you expected. You had doubts about him as a youngster, but he comes through and proves those doubts unfounded. In such cases, being wrong is a pleasure.
I was dwelling on this earlier in the month while watching Brazil in action in 2010 World Cup qualification. The team isn't playing well -- it can be devastating on the counterattack but horribly labored when asked to pass through packed defenses -- but it has now gone five games without conceding a goal.
Without Lúcio, this fine defensive form would be improbable. Indeed, the Bayern Munich man probably saved the squad from a historic first-ever home defeat in World Cup qualification earlier this month against Colombia. Quick on the ground, firm in the tackle, good in the air, physically imposing, Lúcio is a commanding presence at the heart of the defense, and in recognition of his importance, Brazil recently named him captain.
But at the start of his international career, I was unconvinced. When he head-butted a teammate at the 2000 Olympics, I pegged him as a defender whose lack of emotional balance would always make him vulnerable. I had misgivings a few months later when coach Emerson Leăo promoted him to the senior Brazil team. Eight years of solid service later, I was clearly wrong.