Has Wenger's latest gem lost his sparkle before even arriving at Arsenal?

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Tipped as the latest teenage sensation, life has taken a downturn for Wellington Silva in Brazil. Here, TV Globo’s football commentator Jon Cotterill asks whether Arsenal’s latest promising young signing has already lost his way…

Late last year, Arsenal signed an unknown 16-year-old Brazilian called Wellington Alves da Silva. The Gunners forked out around £3.5 million for the Fluminense teenager who will only complete his transfer after he turns 18 in January next year.

After eleven games and five goals for Brazil’s U17s, the forward was immediately touted by some in the British press as ‘one of the most promising players of his age group in Brazil’ and when he was snapped up by the Emirates Stadium outfit, the ‘new Theo Walcott’.

Yet the signing surprised many in football circles in Brazil, as very few outside his club had even heard of him. There was even some confusion about which player had been signed by the Gunners as there were two Wellingtons at the Laranjeiras outfit at that time.

All looked very promising when Silva scored on his professional debut in the 5-1 rout of Friburguense in the Rio State championship in February (the second goal in the clip below). But in the space of just a few months, Silva went from being the new wunderkind to an outcast at his club.

Fluminense have played 62 games in 2010 and are on the verge of clinching their first league title since 1984. Despite this huge amount of matches, Silva has made just 17 appearances and hasn’t played for Flu since 15th May.

Silva’s downfall began with the arrival of coach Muricy Ramalho in April. Love or loath him, Ramalho knows a thing or two about putting together championship winning sides. Between 2006 and 2008, Ramalho led São Paulo to three straight titles – a feat that no other coach has ever achieved in Brazil. 

Since Ramalho took over, Silva has made just four appearances. Injuries to first choice strikers Emerson and Fred should have opened the door but the teenager found himself dropped from the first team squad altogether. Instead of being part of Flu’s title drive, the Emirates Stadium-bound teenager was stuck at home playing video games.

Things came to a head in October. When pressed on Silva’s situation Ramalho said that despite the club’s problems with their forwards, he was more than happy to let Silva return to England to train with Arsene Wenger's squad, adding that the player had lost all focus at Fluminense.

This statement sparked a war of words between Silva and the coach. The 17-year-old claimed that he had been treated unfairly, that the club have never given him a chance and that Ramalho hardly gave him the time of day.

The coach’s response was blunt: “I am also very unsatisfied with him. He misses training, arrives late, argues with his father, this has nothing to do with Fluminense. He needs to become a player because [right now] he still isn’t one”.

Prospective Gunner Silva, however, maintained that Flu had neglected him. The club’s Vice-president of football, Alcides Antunes, then got in on the act by attacking Silva’s attitude.

“In the Carioca [Rio state championship], we gave him support because he’s a kid. We gave him special treatment with Cuca [an ex-coach], and special physical and psychological preparation, but he never showed that he wanted to establish himself as a professional. I’m not sure if it is his age. We all gave him the attention he needed. He always had a chance to play like all the other playerss”.

Antunes added, “Muricy isn’t going to give a chance to those, who in training, show that they don’t want to play. He started well but later he didn’t dedicate himself and didn’t show the right attitude and behaviour in training. He began to turn up late … [though] we took into consideration that he was 17-year-old boy …”.

Despite Silva’s problems with his club in Brazil, Arsenal fans need not necessarily despair. By coincidence, Muricy Ramalho was São Paulo’s coach when Arsene Wenger moved for the 18-year-old Denílson in 2006. Interestingly, Denílson had also played a handful of games for the first team before being dropped by Ramalho.

Arsenal are doing everything in their power to help smooth Silva’s transition from Rio to London. To their credit, the Gunners have been careful in their preparation in helping him acclimatize to a new environment and Silva has spent several periods training at the club and playing for the B team.

Silva, though, is not the first teenager to be plucked from obscurity by an English team before turning pro at Flu. Manchester United spotted the potential of Rafael and Fábio da Silva when they were 15-year-olds playing in a tournament in Hong Kong. After two years at United, Rafael is now part of the senior set up with Brazil and seems likely to figure in his country’s plans as they prepare for the World Cup in 2014.

The Italians have also been good at getting in quick. Another 16-year-old, Philipe Coutinho, was snapped up from Fluminense’s neighbours Vasco by Inter Milan for around £3.75 million.

Coutinho and Silva lined up together in Brazil’s squad in the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria last year. But while Silva’s career appears to have stalled, Coutinho’s has gone from strength to strength. The midfielder was a regular for Vasco in their Série B campaign of 2009. He continued to play for the Rio club until June before joining Inter a month later when he turned 18. Coutinho has been in the last two Brazil squads.

Off the field, Coutinho is also streets ahead. He kept the football papers interested in his performances for Vasco, his behaviour and attitude were never questioned, and the transfer to Inter was seamless.

In comparison, Silva’s time since his transfer has been a calamity. He’s had a public falling out with his club and if what Fluminense says is true, thinks that he’s already a big star and that he should be treated like one.

But he’s also made some silly mistakes. Allowing himself to be photographed wearing the shirt of some of Fluminense’s rivals didn’t go down too well. There are also photos of him in a Manchester United jersey – though when they were taken is unclear. He has at least been smart enough to use a picture of him in an Arsenal shirt on his Twitter profile.

Image-wise, it would appear that Silva’s isn’t getting that much support from his representatives. The player’s on-line presence is limited to a rather amateurish-looking blog ‘Diary of a new Gunner’ (last updated in August and written in Portuguese) about his spells training with Arsenal. Contrast this with Coutinho’s very slick site, packed with info, photos and videos, and with a choice of three languages. 

Clearly, having a good agent backed up by a decent organization and getting the right advice can make a big difference to the way a young footballer handles himself after being thrown into the spotlight.

But while ‘packaging’ is important to a modern professional, it goes without saying that it’s what a player does on the pitch that really counts.
Silva will arrive at Arsenal having wasted his first year as a pro. He’ll have a lot to prove both to his new club and his critics back in Brazil.  But if his recent track record is anything to go by, the outlook isn’t promising.

Players such as Ronald, Roberto Carlos and Romário had long successful careers in Europe before returning home. But countless other Brazilian footballers start angling for a loan spell back in Brazil before the ink is dry on the contract. It will be interesting to see which group Silva falls into.