Ganso and Neymar: 2 Great Friends, 2 Great Talents, 2 Different Careers

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IOctober 19, 2018

Santos's Paulo Henrique Ganso (L), celebrates his goal against Guarani with teammate Neymar during their Paulista championship first final match at Morumbi stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 6, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Nelson ALMEIDA        (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/GettyImages)

For anyone in Brazil watching the 2010 FIFA World Cup, three talented young players dancing to Beyonce were never far from their TV screens.

To the tune of "Single Ladies," Brazil forward Robinho was seen joking around and doing football tricks with two of his Santos FC colleagues, Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso.

The advertisement, promoting a Brazilian poultry giant, was broadcast all summer long, and even in World Cup stadiums, but to the frustration of many back home, that was the closest Neymar and Ganso (his nickname means "goose") got to joining Robinho in South Africa.

Despite a nationwide campaign for their inclusion—which included a TV crew pitching up outside coach Dunga's house to record a live show, a statement from a front-running presidential candidate, and billboards calling for them to make the squad—the exciting pair were left out of the final list.

"If [the World Cup] was about getting experience, I'd bring my kid," Dunga snapped in a press conference.

While Neymar was still 18 years old, Ganso was 20.

At the turn of the decade, they were striking fear into rival centre-backs and establishing themselves as the new deadly duo coming through at Santos—a long-standing tradition at the club that started with Pele and Coutinho's formidable partnership in the '50s and '60s, continued with Pita and Juary in the '70s, and carried on with Diego Ribas and Robinho in the early 2000s.

As surprising as it may sound now, many were convinced that Ganso was the one destined for fortune and fame, not Neymar.

A tall, elegant, cerebral number 10, he was instantly recognised as something special in Brazilian football—an old-fashioned midfielder who seemed capable of dictating the tempo and slowing the game to his pace.

He was a joy to watch and caught the eye of the legendary Socrates, who said he was the greatest player produced by Brazil in a decade.

Santos's Paulo Henrique Ganso (L), celebrates his goal against Guarani with teammate Neymar during their Paulista championship first final match at Morumbi stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 6, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Nelson ALMEIDA        (Photo credit should r

Ganso embraced the hype, he didn't distance himself from "left-footed Zidane" labels—instead, he was never afraid to endorse them in interviews.

Ganso now plays in Zidane's homeland of France, but such comparisons seem a distant memory. He is now trying to relaunch his career at Ligue 1 minnows Amiens after arriving on a season-long loan from Sevilla in August.

On Saturday, the 29-year-old will travel 130 kilometres with his new club to Paris to face his former pal Neymar's Paris Saint-Germain team at the Parc des Princes.

An emotional reunion is assured, even though Neymar is now set to watch from the stands after being granted a rest  by PSG coach Thomas Tuchel. 

"It will be a match between compadres," Adilson Durante, a former Santos executive director, tells Bleacher Report.

Although their relationship is not as strong as it used to be, the duo have always been like family to each other—Ganso is the godfather of Neymar's seven-year-old son Davi Lucca and invited the forward to be one of his best men at his wedding. The two of them were inseparable in the past.

A four-time Brazilian champion, Muricy Ramalho worked with both players between 2011 and 2012 and still smiles when he speaks about his former proteges.

"When Neymar found out when his son would be born, they [Ganso and him] broke into my room late night, asking me to release them from the training session. Neymar deserved it. Of course, I would never say no to a request like that. But taking the godfather with him? I had never seen that in my life," Ramalho recalls, laughing.

"I still think it was an excuse from Ganso not to train, but that's alright. They were amazing kids and came back to play later that week".

Ganso was with Neymar when his friend's son was born
Ganso was with Neymar when his friend's son was bornNicola Labate/Divulgação

Neymar and Ganso shared the pitch 143 times for Santos and the Brazil national team, with 78 wins, 31 draws and 34 defeats. The duo lifted four trophies together, including Libertadores and Brazilian Cup titles.

The duo quickly became close once they teamed up at Santos, although it was a surprising development for those at the club.

"They built this bond when they were already close to the first team. Before that, they had never played in the same age group—there is a three-year gap between them," explains Durante.

"They had only featured together once during a Copa Sao Paulo [Brazil's most celebrated youth tournament] in 2008. Their friendship got stronger a while after that.

"But to be honest, we did not expect it. We initially reckoned Neymar's partner would be someone between Alan Patrick [Shakhtar Donetsk's midfielder] and Geovane Batista [currently unemployed after a disappointing career that included a trial at Arsenal].

"It didn't take long for everyone to realise, though, that Neymar and Ganso were the real deal.

"Back then, they had no mobile phone, there was no social media, it was a different time. I still remember the night when Neymar scored his first goal in that Copa Sao Paulo [against Nacional in a 4-0 win]. After the game, they came knocking on my door, and Neymar asked me, 'My dad said I'm on the cover of UOL [Brazil's biggest media outlet]. Can I borrow your laptop?' They sat on the floor and remained there for almost two hours."

Since those memorable days, their paths have seldom crossed again.

When Robinho returned to Santos on a six-month loan in 2010, Manchester City secured a purchase preference on the two hot-prospects. But Ganso repeatedly insisted to the club's board to leave him out of any deal because he was not interested in moving to the Etihad Stadium.

"I don't want to play for them. I'd rather play for a big team in Europe, such as AC Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid," he told Globoesporte.

Art at Santos' training ground
Art at Santos' training groundAFP/Getty Images

Despite his lack of experience on the big European stage, it was common to hear the local media saying that Ganso was the best in the world in his position. The Brazilian seemed to believe his own hype, too, and felt he deserved better than City, PSG and other powerhouses that came after him.

People often mentioned Neymar and Ganso in the same breath, although in truth they were, and are, very different players.

"Neymar was like a champagne, a sparkling wine, bubbles everywhere—one that you open and throw a party. A joy," former Santos chairman Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro said in his autobiography. "Ganso, on the other hand, was like a Bordeaux wine, had a fantastic quality, but you drink more discreetly. Both of them are essential for a good dinner."

Ribeiro also suggested that Ganso required more attention from him than Neymar.

One day, Ribeiro even brought his own chef—also born in the Para state, like the midfielder—to prepare a native dish for him, "pato no tucupi" (duck in tucupi sauce), at the training ground.

Ganso seemed destined to be the heir to Brazil's playmaking crown, but he never managed to live up to his promise.

While Neymar signed for Barcelona and swapped continents in 2013, Ganso moved across town in 2012 when he made a €10 million move from Santos to Sao Paulo.

In part, his career has also been held back by knee problems—he has gone through two surgeries on each of them. Perhaps bitter with Ganso's cross-town move, Ribeiro was quoted by Estado de S. Paulo newspaper as saying "in my opinion, what Ganso has is incurable." He denied he ever made the comment the following day. 

Whether Ribeiro uttered those words or not, Ramalho is in no doubt the injuries played a big role in his decline.

"In the best moment of his career, being called for the national team, outshining everyone, he had his progress disrupted by those injuries. They got under his skin. It was his biggest problem," he recalls.

"That derailed his life."

Ramalho knows Ganso better than any other coach. After working together at Santos, they were reunited once again at Sao Paulo's "Galacticos" side. Alongside Kaka, Alexandre Pato and Luis Fabiano, Ganso enjoyed his best run of form since 2010 and made Placar magazine's Brasileirao team of the season in 2014.

Predictably, comparisons between Ganso and world-class talents were again being made on Brazilian football shows, but few took them seriously this time. It was as if people had given up on trying to figure out the enigma that he had become.

Even former Brazil striker Tostao, one of his most enthusiastic supporters, showed signs of tiredness in his Folha de S. Paulo newspaper column.

"For the thousandth time, I insist that, if he had developed elsewhere, he would be now as good as [Cesc] Fabregas, as a mixture of central midfielder and playmaker. I miss a version of Ganso that never existed," he wrote.

Ganso struggled at Sevilla
Ganso struggled at SevillaAitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

Ganso finally made the move to Europe in 2016 when Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli persuaded Sevilla to pay €9.5 million for him. Sampaoli reportedly told Ganso he wanted to reinvent him as a deep-lying, Andrea Pirlo-style "regista."

Sampaoli, who left the Liga club to take charge of Argentina's doomed World Cup 2018 campaign, couldn't get the best out of the Brazilian maestro, though, and his successors at Sevilla, Eduardo Berizzo, Vincenzo Montella and Joaquin Caparros, had no luck either.

In two years, he made just 28 appearances and netted seven times.

On the deadline day of the transfer window, he reached a deal with Amiens, a small team with average attendances of around 10,000 this season.

Ganso at his Amiens unveiling
Ganso at his Amiens unveilingFRANCOIS LO PRESTI/Getty Images

At his unveiling in early September, Ganso's press conference was attended by an array of foreign journalists. The outfit from Picardy in northern France had never witnessed anything like it.

"Amiens had lost their main player, Gael Kakuta [former Chelsea, Lazio and Sevilla], and were after a new No. 10. It wouldn't be good for Ganso to remain on the sidelines. With his talent, he can't afford that. The whole transfer then happened in 72 hours," explains Glauber Berti, a former Manchester City centre-back who intermediated the deal.

"We want him to make up for lost time, recuperate this genius and put him back on track."

Ganso and Neymar now find themselves in the same league, and on Saturday, their paths will cross again. But in many ways, their careers have never seemed so far apart.


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