Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio did it in 1990; Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in 1998; Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger in 2006. Neymar will probably do it in 2014. They are just some of the players who got (or, in Neymar’s case, should get) their World Cup debuts in their respective native countries.
Eduardo Alves da Silva has a chance of joining that club. Only, if he’s selected to appear in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup on June 12, he won’t be playing for the host nation, but against it. No one has ever done that in his World Cup debut.
Just like almost any other boy who has kicked a ball in Brazil, the Rio de Janeiro-born forward dreamt of putting on a Selecao shirt one day. Things didn’t work out for him that way, though: since 2004 he has represented Croatia internationally. With 29 goals in 62 matches, he’s the second-best goal-scorer in the nation’s history. Only Davor Suker, nowadays the president of the Croatian Football Federation, scored more.
But Eduardo has never played at the World Cup so far.
In 2006, his omission from the Germany-bound squad caused widespread public outrage in Croatia, as the then-national team manager Zlatko Kranjcar (father of QPR’s Niko) instead selected Ivan Bosnjak, a mediocre player who was Eduardo’s teammate at Dinamo Zagreb at the time. In 2010, the national team failed to qualify for South Africa.
Eduardo’s luck hasn’t been much better when it comes to European Championships, either. He missed the 2008 edition of that tournament due to a terrible leg fracture, suffered while playing for Arsenal in the Premier League: prior to injury, he had been on top of his game both for the club and for Croatia. It took him almost a full year to recover, but he hasn’t been the same player since. In 2012, he was out of form and lacked first-team football, so he only played a marginal role for the team in Poland.
“Accepting the invitation to play for Croatia was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” he recently told Radio Globo in Brazil (interview in Portuguese). “But I never could have imagined that I, as a Brazilian, could be given a chance to play in the World Cup opener. In football, the impossible becomes possible.”
His career path took a strange turn very early on. At 16, having failed to make the youth side at Bangu Atletico Clube, a team from his neighbourhood on the outskirts of Rio, he followed a local agent to Europe and passed a trial with Dinamo Zagreb. He would stay there for almost eight years, eventually winning league titles, Player of the Year and Top Scorer awards before moving to Arsenal in 2007.
Dudu, as he’s affectionately called, married a Zagreb girl and adopted Croatia as his new homeland, becoming the first national team player of mixed race in the process. He has always been one of its most popular members, too. A lot of people there would love to see him fulfil his dream and start for the Vatreni against Brazil; allegiance has never been in question.
Croatia’s star striker Mario Mandzukic, of Bayern Munich, will be serving a one-match suspension for the red card he received in the qualifying playoff game against Iceland. That leaves three other realistic candidates for the starting role against Brazil at the Arena de Sao Paulo.
Hull City’s Nikica Jelavic started in Croatia’s friendly match against Switzerland last month. But he’s the type of a player that doesn’t suit the team’s style: almost a classic, old-school No. 9, who plays with his back to goal. His statistics are far from impressive: four goals and three assists in 22 Premier League appearances this season.
Wolfsburg’s veteran Ivica Olic has a much stronger case. He already has 13 goals and five assists in 29 matches for his club this season, scoring a goal in each of his last four Bundesliga appearances. But while his club boss Dieter Hecking almost exclusively fields him as a centre-forward, Croatia manager Niko Kovac is more inclined to use him as a winger. Starting on the left wing, Olic scored both of Croatia’s goals in that Switzerland match last month, which ended 2-2.
Eduardo, on the other hand, hardly ever plays as a centre-forward for his current club, Shakhtar Donetsk. Half of his 18 league appearances for the Ukrainian giants have come off the bench and he’s been used as winger, second striker or even attacking midfielder. Still, he scored seven goals in 814 league minutes—or a goal every 116 minutes, which is actually a much better ratio than Olic’s (163 minutes per goal) and even pretty close to Mandzukic’s (109 league minutes per goal).
All things considered, Dudu should have a very good chance of fulfilling his “impossible” dream and starting against Brazil in the World Cup opener.
If he does, he told Radio Globo, he will sing both national anthems. “The feeling would be strange, but it would make me proud to play at the World Cup in my country,” he said. Proud for both of his homelands.