On Sunday, the first San-São derby of the season took place at the Morumbi stadium. This was a chance for two of Brazilian football’s traditional giants to measure each other up in the relatively inconsequential surrounds of the group stage of the Campeonato Paulista.
Both Santos and São Paulo are in transition, the former acclimatising to life with coach Oswaldo de Oliveira and without departed playmaker Walter Montillo, and the latter desperately trying to forget their nightmare 2013. Both had shown tentative signs of life coming into the weekend.
The game was a washout. (Not surprisingly. Selected results between the four São Paulo state grandes in 2013: Santos 0-0 Corinthians, São Paulo 0-0 Palmeiras, Palmeiras 0-0 Santos, São Paulo 0-0 Corinthians, Corinthians 0-0 São Paulo, São Paulo 0-0 Corinthians.) One man, however, enjoyed his afternoon even less than the fans who had stumped up cash to attend.
“Did you see Ganso?”
The question, posed by Folha de S Paulo columnist Juca Kfouri on Monday, was of course rhetorical. No one saw him. The São Paulo midfielder was denied the chance to face his former employers, relegated to the bench by coach Muricy Ramalho and failing to make an impact after coming on for the final 15 minutes.
The decision to leave Ganso out raised the odd eyebrow, but the truth is that most understood Muricy’s reasoning: converted full-back Douglas came in to offer energy and width on the right flank, with Dorlan Pabón given the responsibility of buzzing around Luís Fabiano. It worked, as well; after a shaky opening, São Paulo enjoyed much the better of the match, even if they failed to find the target. Not for the first time, Ganso was left moping on the bench, wondering what the future holds.
It was just the latest disappointment for a player whose star has waned drastically in the past few years. Paulo Henrique (‘Ganso’ being a nickname meaning ‘goose’) was once viewed as the heir to Brazil’s playmaking crown, but is in danger of becoming a footnote in history. It was not supposed to be like this.
The tale of Ganso, really, is the tale of Ganso and Neymar. The two came up through the ranks at Santos and starred together for Brazil’s youth teams. Their friendship was grounded in a telepathic understanding on the pitch, with Ganso supplying the bullets for his cohort. They looked destined to become key players for the Seleção – a feeling strengthened by the Ganso’s commanding performance in his senior Brazil debut against the USA.
For a time at least, Ganso was seen as the more talented of the pair. A patient passer capable of unpicking the tightest knots, he would coax full-backs forward, slip through-balls to strikers, organise matches. The playmaker was the star turn as Santos won the São Paulo state championship in 2010, memorably refusing to be substituted as the seasiders clung on to beat Santo André in the final.
But gradually, he was overtaken. The process started away from the pitch, as Neymar began to show his flair in the fame game. The forward, after all, was a marketing department’s dream: the photogenic hair; the J-pop grin; the neon boots with “joy” and “daring” stitched onto them; the step-overs. He appeared tailor-made for a generation of football fans who spend more time doing skills on the FIFA loading screen than in the game proper.
The gawky Ganso, on the other hand, always looked ill at ease in the spotlight. A Santos group cameo on Brazil’s version of Hollyoaks in 2011 was surprisingly illustrative: Neymar pranced around like a lost member of an am-dram theatre troup; Ganso looked to be gripped by crushing, existential pain.
That awkwardness often came across as aloofness as Ganso grew into adulthood. With his steadfast refusal to defend and fairly modest physical attributes, he was increasingly seen as a luxury – a classic number ten who could only thrive if the entire side was calibrated to his needs. At times he has resembled a player out of time, born into a generation destined to reject him.
Ganso’s attitude has hardly helped, admittedly. His acrimonious departure from Santos – masterminded by the third-party investors who seem to have his ear – left a bitter taste, while he has shown precious little sign that he is willing to work on his shortcomings.
It would be wrong to write him off as a lost cause just yet; he is still just 24, after all. São Paulo certainly appear to believe in him; their decision to let Jádson leave for Corinthians is perhaps the biggest vote of confidence Ganso has received since joining the club.
But if Ganso wishes to fulfil even a third of his potential, he needs to wake up, and soon. Players of his talent should be starring in clássicos, not watching them from the sidelines.
Jack Lang - @snap_kaka_pop