The Second Coming of Pato: Hope Remains for Brazil's Great Enigma at Chelsea

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The Second Coming of Pato: Hope Remains for Brazil's Great Enigma at Chelsea
Sebastian Domenech for B/R

The rumours were true. Alexandre Pato has signed a loan deal with Chelsea until the end of the season.

On the one hand, you have people saying Pato won't cut it—that Brazil's great underachiever has already peaked at 26 and will only burn out from here. On the other, you have the eternal hope that what Pato showed us before he can show us again.

Whatever happens, we'll be watching because the story of Pato so far demands it.


On October 23, 2013, a quarter-final tie in the Brazilian Cup between Gremio and Corinthians went to a penalty shootout. By the time Alexandre Pato stepped up to take his kick, the stakes were high. If he missed, Corinthians would lose.

The ensuing events had a huge effect on Pato’s career. He was the big-money signing Corinthians had made at the start of the year, a message that winning the Club World Cup the previous December was only the beginning.

It had not worked out entirely according to plan. Corinthians’ attempt to retain their Copa Libertadores title faltered at an early stage with a controversial second-round elimination by Argentina’s Boca Juniors. Pato had not lived up to all of the expectations.

But he had stayed fit—a major question mark at the time—and he had by no means been a disaster. What happened over the next few minutes during that shootout against Gremio, though, made it hard for him to have any future at the club.

It was not just Pato had his penalty saved, thus causing Corinthians to be eliminated. It was not even the fact he tried a Panenka—the type of penalty that always looks stupid when the goalkeeper (the veteran Dida on this occasion) chooses not to move early and, as a result, can make a more than comfortable save.

All of this could have been forgiven. Over a decade earlier, when Edu Gaspar, the future Arsenal midfielder, missed a vital penalty in a Libertadores shootout against historic rivals Palmeiras, the Corinthians fans filed out of the stadium chanting his name.

Edu was one of their own, a product of the club’s youth ranks. Pato could not count on the same level of love. But had he shown some contrition and begged the fans for forgiveness, he may well have emerged with extra credit. Instead, when the inevitable TV microphone was poked in his face, he shrugged his shoulders and gave a blase, it-was-one-of-those-things interview.

To fans of Corinthians, a club with a working-class ethic of sweat and sacrifice, this was unacceptable. The apparent indifference also raised a wider question: What did Alexandre Pato really want to achieve in the game of football?

At around the same time, I was on a TV debate show with Clarence Seedorf, who was enjoying a fine spell with Botafogo and who had been a team-mate of Pato at Milan. Wisely, as it turned out, Seedorf identified the centre-forward position as a problem for Brazil in the coming World Cup. He saw his former colleague as a possible solution.

"It’s a great sin that Pato has still not confirmed the potential that he has," Seedorf said.

That potential was apparent within a minute of his professional debut, in late November 2006, less than three months after his 17th birthday. Pato's club back then, Internacional of Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil, had recently promoted him to the senior squad—and they had banned other players from talking about him to the press.

Internacional did not want their secret revealed until they had secured him on a long-term contract. When he was unleashed, away to Palmeiras in a league game, he scored within the first 60 seconds and set up two more of his team’s goals in a crushing 4-1 win. Less than a month later, he was part of the starting lineup that beat Barcelona to win the Club World Cup—in the semi-final against Al Ahly, he stroked home a goal with the fearlessness of the naturally talented.

This was clearly a player destined to be signed by a top European club, so it was little surprise when AC Milan swooped in the middle of 2007. 

Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Pato in his Milan days.

They had to wait a while to give him his debut—regulations prevented him from taking the field before he was 18. And on his first afternoon in Serie A, Pato did not disappoint, scoring a fine goal against Napoli that mixed two of his traits: fluid movement and cool finishing.

True greatness beckoned, and the signs were good in the first few seasons. He was a consistent Serie A goalscorer. Sport reported Barcelona wanted him (h/t Goal). But then it all went wrong.

Corinthians bought Pato at the start of 2013 because his career was badly in need of a fresh start. In his final two years at Milan, he hardly managed to make it onto the pitch, playing just 15 league games between September 2011 and his exit. He had one injury problem after another. Some of this may have been down to muscular imbalance. Some say a concentration on building his upper-body strength made him top-heavy and hard for his legs to carry. But there was clearly more to the story.

On the TV show, I pressed Seedorf for an explanation. "I think that it was not just a physical thing," he said. "The environment is also important to a player; confidence is important. [His time at Milan] had turned into a problem that could not only be resolved with the physical aspect."

The great Dutchman was understandably circumspect. It seemed clear, though, that he was referring to Pato’s private life.

In 2009, Pato married Sthefany Brito, a TV Globo soap opera actress. It was a recipe for disaster. Brito had to put her glamorous, high-profile and lucrative career on hold to live in Italy. Pato, meanwhile, was at an age and with a bank balance that saw the doors to the sweetie shop flying open.

JUAN MABROMATA/Getty Images
Pato and Neymar on Brazil duty in 2011.

Many in youth development in the Brazilian game talk about the phenomenon of a footballer’s delayed adolescence. As he makes his way up the ranks, concentrating on his game, his non-footballing friends are out having adventures. Then, at the time he signs his first big contract, he feels more secure, the temptations of celebrity appear, and he suddenly wants to catch up on all of those experiences his friends have been enjoying.

The Pato-Brito partnership quickly and predictably resulted in acrimonious divorce. There followed a two-year relationship with Barbara Berlusconi, Milan owner Silvio’s daughter, and press speculation of other affairs. It became more common to see Pato in the style or gossip pages than in the sports section.

Dunga, then in his first spell as Brazil coach, was quick to spot the player had lost focus. He gave Pato his international debut in March 2008, when the player came off the bench to score an audacious winning goal. But a little more than a year later, he was discarded.

Known for his intense obsession with commitment, Dunga weighed Pato and found him wanting. After the 2010 World Cup, new coach Mano Menezes immediately reinstated Pato, but following mixed fortunes in the 2011 Copa America, the injury problems started to bite, and Pato was soon once more on the international sidelines.

The return of Dunga in 2014 may not necessarily mean the door is closed. The striker’s position remains a question mark for Brazil—over the past few years, under different coaches, they have veered between target man centre-forwards and more mobile strikers and seem no nearer a definitive solution. And at 26, Pato has been giving signs he may have put adolescence behind him.

Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Pato in Sao Paulo colours, 2015.

After the trauma of the breakdown of his relationship with Corinthians, his loan move to Sao Paulo in February 2014 was clearly good for him. Club and player were a better fit; in contrast with Corinthians’ proletarian ethic, Sao Paulo have something of an aristocratic touch about them. And an even better fit for Pato was the chance last year to work with Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio.

Once on the Manchester City staff, with MLS experience and in charge of the Mexico national team, Osorio is one of the most interesting coaches around. His typically bold approach places great importance on strikers in wide areas, and this is where he used Pato, cutting in from the left onto his stronger right foot.

The player received a boost in confidence and responded with his best football in years. Osorio went as far as to describe Pato as among the best five players in the world in that position and wondered aloud what he was still doing in domestic Brazilian football.

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He would not be there much longer. Corinthians were desperate to sell, as their president told ESPN Brasil. They paid most of his wages while he was with Sao Paulo, and it was galling for them to foot the bill while he was doing well for their cross-city rivals.

They wanted him off their books, and they need to move quickly. And so in stepped Chelsea.

As the asking price kept coming down, Chelsea decided the smart play was a six-month loan, with an option to buy—first to ensure Pato is fit and ready, and second because whoever manages them next season might not be interested.

But as Pato's Corinthians contract stood, he would be a free agent in January 2017. From a Corinthians point of view, then, a loan deal on those terms made no sense—no one in their right mind would pay a handsome transfer fee for a player in June in the knowledge they could have him for free the following January.

So the discussions have centred around Pato extending his deal with Corinthians for another year in a bid to ensure the club can loan him out and still collect a transfer fee later.

Now it is up to Pato to prove his worth at Stamford Bridge. It will not be an easy task. He is not a classic No. 9 in the mould of Didier Drogba or even Diego Costa; he lacks the physical strength to play that way and is better running from deep off a target-man centre-forward.

But Chelsea have plenty of options in the wide areas. Getting a game under Guus Hiddink, then, may not be easy. But there seems little doubt Pato wants to show he can still play top-level European football.

Corinthians were none too pleased when Pato recently showed no interest in a move to China, as per ESPN FC. A move to Premier League Chelsea, though, is surely a good sign the Duck is intent on flying again.

 

Tim Vickery is a South American football expert based in Rio de Janeiro who contributes to the BBC and Sambafoot.

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