He was the world’s second most famous seal, after... er, Seal. Kerlon’s unique trick, the drible da foquinha (‘seal dribble’), is all that the once-promising playmaker has to show for his top-flight career – over at the age of just 29.
So where did it all go wrong for the thrilling youngster who became a YouTube sensation in September 2007, after being cleaned out by an irate defender while performing his trademark head juggle for Cruzeiro?
Little did he know back then that his viral-friendly circus act would soon take him to Inter Milan, an experience playing under Jose Mourinho – and eventually, something of a world tour.
Moving to Europe
Kerlon signed for Inter in 2008, when Roberto Mancini was still in charge of the Italian giants. Since all of the non-European places were taken inside the squad, however, the Brazilian wonderkid was immediately sent out on loan to Chievo via a complicated part-ownership move.
A season later, after only four appearances in Serie A, he was back at Inter’s Appiano training ground hoping to get the chance to prove that his football went beyond bouncing the ball on his forehead as he scuttled past defenders. He started pre-season with new coach Mourinho, but things didn’t exactly go the way he’d hoped.
“I remember arriving one day and seeing Mourinho calling about eight to 10 players inside a room,” Kerlon, now 31, tells FourFourTwo.
“Among them were the likes of Crespo, Vieira, Dacourt, [Luis Antonio] Jimenez and others. He sat in front of all of them and was very honest and straight to the point about what he had to say. He basically told them that he didn't count on them and wouldn't need their work.
“I was sitting outside the room. After speaking to them, Mourinho called me and said he wanted to talk to me privately. He asked me if I spoke Italian, and I said, ‘Of course, but if you want we can talk in Portuguese’ – after all, it’s our native language.
“‘We're in Italy so we're going to speak Italian’ he replied, then told me I wasn't part of his plans either. He said I could stay training apart from the others if I wanted, since I was still under contract.”
That conversation happened nearly a decade ago, in the summer of 2009. It’s safe to say that it was the last time Kerlon was in touch with a top-level environment in football.
Long way down
After that he was transferred to Ajax’s reserve side without ever playing for the first team, before accepting his lowly status and beginning a global tour – turning out for clubs in six different countries, and even having his face stamped on bottles of soda water while displaying his skills for a short time in the Japanese third division.
The man once dubbed the ‘new Ronaldinho’ invented an amazing dribble that no centre-back ever found out how to stop – legally, anyway – but wasn’t able to avoid getting hacked down or, as was most common, elbowed. As an attacking midfielder who hadn't been blessed with natural physical strength, he was left in pain every time he was barged to the ground.
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Because of it, and after enduring eight surgeries – six on his knee and two on his ankle – Kerlon decided he'd had enough and retired from football aged 29 in October 2017.
The announcement came in the middle of a Friday afternoon, when no one was really paying much attention and people in Brazil were more concerned with happy hour drinks. The decision was explained in a seven-paragraph statement sent to a local reporter through WhatsApp.
It was hardly the goodbye you might expect from a boy who seemed destined for the top after leading Brazil to glory at the U17 South American Championship in 2005, scoring eight goals in seven matches and being named the best player and top scorer.
A new life
But Kerlon hasn't abandoned his seal dribble.
He still goes by the nickname of Foquinha (little seal), but the one-hit-wonder is now a grown-up father and has moved from Brazil to the United States with his family. Believe it or not, flicking the ball into the air remains part of his routine in Monroe, Connecticut: he’s currently handling private football classes and even launched his own club.
It’s called Ole Soccer International and features in the Connecticut Soccer League (CSL), with a roster formed mostly of Brazilian boys aged 18-22 who dream about getting into college far from home and becoming professional footballers.
For five months they get the chance of learning some English with classes three times a week, training every day and getting themselves on the radars of some of the best college coaches. If that’s not attractive enough, imagine going through this and also having Kerlon watching your moves. Few would have seen that coming a decade ago – not even Mourinho.
Kerlon may not have lived up to the hype and become the next Ronaldinho, but he'll always have the dribble. His dribble.
As he recently posted on his Instagram stories, quoting famous actor Robert Downey Jr.: “Just because you hit the bottom doesn’t mean you have to stay there.” He hasn’t.
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Marcus Alves is a freelance journalist based in Lisbon and has written for FourFourTwo since 2012. He can also be found at BBC Sport, the Telegraph, Kicker and Yahoo. A former ESPN reporter, he covered 12 games in 15 days during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but can barely remember any of them. He blames cachaça for that.
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