Lucas Moura Seeks Clear Waters at Tottenham After Running Aground at PSGFebruary 7, 2018
It starts and ends with a run.
It is March 2014, and Paris Saint-Germain are drawing 0-0 at home to arch rivals Marseille when Lucas Moura collects the ball in the inside-right channel, about 40 yards from his own goal. Andre Ayew speeds across to attempt a tackle, and as Lucas cuts inside and past him, an approving cheer goes up inside Parc des Princes, a kind of collective 'Wahey!'
Lucas begins to accelerate, and when Ayew launches into another challenge, sliding in from the side, the Brazilian toes the ball beyond him. Another cheer, this one like the reaction at a bullring when a matador succeeds in confounding the bull twice in quick succession.
Lucas powers past Alaixys Romao, crossing halfway as he does so. Lucas Mendes is now in his headlights, and the centre-back makes a fatal error, scuttling to his left and inviting his namesake to drive past him on the inside. The cheers become a roar. Nicolas Nkoulou, Marseille's other centre-back, hurls himself into a desperate last-ditch tackle, but Lucas prods the ball past him and sprints clear.
Parc des Princes is on its feet, the crowd baying, fervently urging Lucas to seize the moment of history that is being held out to him. He takes a touch that's a little too soft as he approaches the box, then overcompensates with one that's a little too firm. Steve Mandanda slides out, Lucas uses his right foot to lift a shot over him and the ball bounces towards the empty net. But Rod Fanni has raced back, and with a sinew-straining stretch, he jabs the ball behind for a corner.
Face down on the turf after hurdling Mandanda, Lucas can only stare in disbelief as Fanni disentangles himself from the net. "After the match, I didn't sleep for a week," he later told So Foot magazine. "I was replaying what happened in my head."
Lucas is 21 and only 14 months into his PSG career, but his unconsummated burst through the OM defence will sum up his five-year stint in Paris. Thrilling excitement, giving way to doubt, giving way to disappointment. More than the 228 matches and 46 goals, more than the 16 trophies, it is the symbol of his PSG career.
Lucas signed for PSG in August 2012 during a transformative summer for the club, in which Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Marco Verratti and Ezequiel Lavezzi also set down their Louis Vuitton suitcases in Paris, the €45 million fee prompting Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who was one of Lucas' suitors, to splutter "the game's gone mad."
Lucas remained at Brazilian club Sao Paulo until the following January, but PSG's more curious fans quickly familiarised themselves with the sight of the diminutive right-winger gaily slicing through opposition defences in the white shirt of the Tricolor, some astonishing YouTube compilations serving to illustrate his credentials as a future craque.
In December a picture of Lucas was splashed across the front page of L'Equipe, accompanied by the headline: "Paris attend son messie" ("Paris awaits its messiah"). PSG's Qatari owners, the paper said, "hope to have unearthed their own Lionel Messi."
Born and raised in Sao Paulo, Lucas was playing football at an academy run by Marcelinho Carioca by the age of five and later acquired the nickname 'Marcelinho' due to his supposed resemblance to the former Corinthians midfielder.
He spent three years on the books at Corinthians, but left to join Sao Paulo at the age of 13 after Corinthians refused his family's requests to pair up the short, skinny teenager with a nutritionist and spare him the arduous journey to the club's training centre by providing him somewhere to stay. He was still known as Marcelinho when he made his professional debut in 2010, only to revert to his given name shortly after, conscious that a Sao Paulo player named after a Corinthians legend fell some way short of a satisfying fit.
The switch to Sao Paulo brought him under the orders of youth coach Bruno Petri, who says that even as a 14-year-old, Lucas was already "a class apart." "He had so much skill and agility, and he was so quick," Petri told Bleacher Report. "I played him in midfield and created a playing system where he could be loose and free in the middle of the pitch."
Off the pitch, Petri remembers an "intelligent" boy and a "very good conversationalist", who was deeply affected by the separation of his parents when he was in his early teens. "It was a very difficult time for him because he was very close to both of his parents," Petri says. "We had many conversations on the subject. There were a lot of tears."
There were tears, too, when Lucas left PSG. His compatriot Marquinhos broke down during a recent Canal+ interview when he was asked to comment on his close friend's imminent departure. Lucas was a well-liked figure in the PSG changing room, quickly learning to speak French and happily acting the clown on the club's social media channels, his cheery refrain of "Champion mon frere!" ("Champion my brother!") becoming a recurring motif in the celebrations that followed each of the four Ligue 1 titles he won in the French capital. "Paris will always stay in my heart," he said in a tender farewell video posted on Instagram.
Neymar also expressed sadness over Lucas' exit, branding it "very unfair" and declaring—not a little provocatively—that "he should never have left Paris". The pair have been close ever since they started playing together for Brazil's under-20s. They both starred for the team that prevailed at the 2011 South American Youth Championship in Peru, where Lucas wore the No. 10 shirt (Neymar contenting himself with No. 7) and stole the headlines in the final, his hat-trick inspiring a side coached by Ney Franco to a 6-0 win over Uruguay.
"Lucas and Neymar are great friends and have always respected each other. They were always close to each other in the Under-20s," says Franco, who was also Lucas' coach during his final months at Sao Paulo, which culminated in victory in the 2012 Copa Sudamericana. "You can't compare Lucas with Neymar, because Neymar is on a different level, but my opinion is that Lucas can play in any great team in European football, as well as the Brazilian team."
The two players' trajectories are no longer so closely aligned, with Neymar spiralling ever upwards into the realms of sport's one-man super brands as Lucas looks to get his career back on track at Tottenham Hotspur. He played plenty of games for PSG, eventually surpassing Rai as the Brazilian to make the most appearances for the club, and he progressively scored more goals in each of his first four seasons. But he is still to mature beyond a highlight-reel player, the huge potential glimpsed in those early-career YouTube videos and that skittering run through the Marseille back line still maddeningly untapped.
Lucas appeared to have made a breakthrough under Unai Emery last season, when he held down a first-team place over the opening half of the campaign, even inheriting penalty-taking duties from the departed Ibrahimovic. But although he would finish the season with 19 goals in all competitions, Julian Draxler's arrival from Wolfsburg in January 2017 cast him back into the role of a bit-part player, and when Neymar and Kylian Mbappe were added to the mix last summer, he disappeared from view almost entirely.
At 25, and having cost Spurs a relatively meagre fee of £25 million, Lucas is no longer the superstar-in-waiting he once was, and it is now 20 months since he won the last of his 34 caps for Brazil. Nevertheless, Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino will relish the opportunity to mould an attacker with all the raw materials into an effective team player. And given the relative lack of pace in the Tottenham front line (Son Heung-min aside), Lucas would appear to have plenty to offer his new club.
"Lucas has excellent technical quality with a lot of physical strength and speed," says Franco, who now runs a football academy in Florida. "He has an above-average cognitive ability to understand the game. For him to succeed, first the coach has to understand where Lucas feels most comfortable on the field. With Lucas in the team, offensive transitions get very strong and the team gains a lot of strength to play on the counter-attack."
Lucas is on the ball once again, surging across the halfway line. The crowd are on their feet.