Short answer: no. The Everton left-back could be England’s best-kept secret – and, as FFT's Huw Davies explains, their weapon of stealth at next year’s World Cup
It may have taken a while to get off the ground, but Leighton Baines’ star is rising in England. The 28-year-old was the subject of a summer bid from champions Manchester United; the country is debating whether he should be England’s first-choice left-back ahead of globally-renowned Champions League winner Ashley Cole; and in our Top 100 we’ve just ranked him as the fourth-best English player.
But just as it can take some time for news of a talented Brazilian youngster to hit these shores (by which time he’s already played 50 games, hit his peak and put on eight stone), Baines’ growing reputation hasn’t stretched across England’s borders.
We asked our journalists from around the world whether Baines is known in Brazil, in Germany, in the USA – and we were a bit surprised by their answers.
The very first response was from Argentina. Are football fans in Buenos Aires, some 7,000 miles from Goodison Park, aware of this Everton star? No. “If you leave aside Premier League addicts and Football Manager fans who play as Everton, nobody could say who he is, what he looks like and where and how he plays,” we were told. An inauspicious start.
“Not even I know much about Baines, apart from him looking like one of the Beatles,” said a journalist who works for ESPN in Brazil. “His name has never been mentioned by any Brazilian player – not that I’ve seen.” In fairness to the lank-haired left-back, most Brazilian footballers don’t pay attention to leagues, teams and players in Europe, and the odd exception does not include a team boasting Tony Hibbert.
Brazilians love their teams, not football
Our man in Brazil also asked a dozen people at the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana semi-final (South America’s Europa League equivalent), and none had heard of Leighton Baines. It’s not surprising: fans watch as little international football as the players do – “As we say around here, Brazilians love their teams, not football” – and the only Everton Brazilians care about right now is hotly-tipped Cruzeiro midfielder Everton Ribeiro.
It’s a little different in mainland Europe – but only a little. In Italy Gazzetta dello Sport linked Baines with Napoli and, a couple of years ago, featured him in a bizarre article on the Premier League’s best left-footed players, a list that inexplicably included George Elokobi shortly after Wolves’ relegation. Esteemed company indeed. In the summer it was also suggested that Inter were, er, interested. These stories would have brought Baines’ name to the ears of Italian fans, but one journalist there tells us: “Fans of English football know him, hipsters might like him, but the average fan doesn’t recognise him.”
Meanwhile, a French journalist informs us: “It’s funny because [former team-mate Marouane] Fellaini is well-known – the other week he was the star guest on a football show here – but I’ve read L’Equipe every day and France Football every week for years and I cannot remember Baines ever getting singled out for comment, praise or analysis. I’ve never heard a French player, international or otherwise, mention him. Ever.”
It’s hard to say if this is down to Baines’ low profile, having never played in the Champions League or at a major international tournament, or if this is to be expected and English football merely has an inflated sense of self. After all, could the average English football fan name Gremio’s star player, or Italy’s second-choice left-back? Could the average English journalist?
If they could, it’s because our knowledge of the global game is growing thanks to wider television deals – but another reason we may recognise players from foreign climes is because of transfer rumours. However, it’s much rarer to see top English players linked to clubs abroad, simply because it’s so rare for a top English player to move abroad. So while there is an enjoyable novelty in the idea of an espresso-sipping AC Milan fan espousing the merits of Tom Cleverley, telling fellow fans he’s exactly what the Rossoneri need in midfield, it’s not something that happens often.
Baines has been mentioned in high places, though. Bayern Munich were tracking him three years ago but without any success, player-turned-club-suit Karl-Heinz Rummenigge saying, “Everyone at the club is convinced by him” (and not just that he exists) and then, less happily, “We can’t force him to join us – he would rather live in Liverpool than Munich, and that’s that.” Imagine what could have been had Baines had the same adventurous air off the pitch as he does charging down the left wing.
Get past Leighton Buzzard
So curious Bayern fans may have looked into Baines, though if they used Wikipedia they’d have to get past Leighton Buzzard first on the search engine. Other supporters? Not so much. “I can’t really imagine a more parochial player,” says one of our German correspondents, “and I can tell you that your average German football fan has not heard of him.” Another German writer told us: “I’ll be completely frank: who the heck is Leighton Baines?”
The Spanish media, always fond of a transfer rumour, is reticent. Sport featured videos of his two free-kicks against West Ham online, saying he’d taken Gareth Bale’s set-piece mantle in the Premier League, while Mundo Deportivo harshly called him “slow”. But fans seem to know who he is. A number of readers commented on Marca’s story ‘BAINES EXPLOSION’ to alternately call Baines “the best English left-back”, a player Real Madrid should sign to challenge Marcelo, or just discuss the merits or otherwise of Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar (hipsters). One person calls him ‘una copa de pino’ – a ‘whopper’ of a player. Leighton Baines: big in Spain.
He’s surprisingly well-known in the US of A (“Great hair”; “A great crosser”; “One of England’s best full-backs”; “Mediocre”) but otherwise, Kirkby’s finest seems to fly under the radar. That could make him the Three Lions’ secret weapon at the World Cup, instead of the well-known Ashley Cole.
Our final words come from Croatia. “There’s a line in Seinfeld when Kramer says, ‘Who’s this Joe Mayo everyone’s talking about? I’ve never heard of a Joe Mayo. Frankly, it sounds made up.’ I can easily imagine a fan in Croatia saying the same thing after hearing a couple of English guys discuss Leighton Baines.”
Made up? It looks like the stage is set for this apparently little-known left-back to stun the world in Brazil.