Philippe Coutinho arrived at Inter Milan after being sold by Vasco da Gama for €3.8m in July 2008. The youngster travelled for a medical and to a sign contract – but he’d spend almost a week getting to know his new team-mates, and was also given a chance to be part of a training session by Jose Mourinho.
Marco Materazzi would never forget it – he was nutmegged by the 16-year-old. “When I got back into the dressing room, the masseur told me he would buy me snacks for the rest of the week if I did it again,” Coutinho laughed in an interview with Placar magazine. “Materazzi promised he would put me in hospital.”
He’d already been labelled the “new Messi” by Spanish outlet Marca, after Real Madrid and Barcelona had sent scouts to watch him at the South American U15 Championship during the previous season.
However the Brazil international’s progress stalled at Inter. It took a 2013 move to Liverpool for him to find his form.
Now, after four-and-a-half seasons at Anfield, no trophies and a strained relationship with Jurgen Klopp, Coutinho handed in a transfer request last Friday.
The Brazilian doesn’t want to play for Liverpool anymore, and is furious at Klopp for not letting him leave on amicable terms. Sources close to the midfielder assure FFT that Coutinho has told the German coach more than once that he can’t say no to Barcelona. The Spanish giants have brought former Tottenham man Paulinho in a €40m deal, and have told both players’ representatives (Kia Joorabchian and Giuliano Bertolucci) that they expect to present the Brazilian duo together.
The 25-year-old’s desperation to join Barcelona shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though. The lure of the Camp Nou is enormous for most South Americans, whether they’ve been dubbed the “new Messi” in the past or not. Barça or Real Madrid, it doesn’t really matter: Liverpool – and every other Premier League club for that matter – will always be a waypoint to that dream destination.
Coutinho, like most of his compatriots, grew up looking towards the Camp Nou and the illustrious Brazilians – Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho to name but a few – who’ve graced it.
Simply, Brazil’s joga bonito is represented in the Catalans’ soul. A recent survey conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics showed that 69% of the people between ages 16 and 29 root for a foreign side – Barcelona were No.1 with 25% of the preference, followed by Real Madrid and then Manchester United.
Centauro, meanwhile, the biggest sports retailer in Brazil, revealed that Flamengo and Corinthians – the most popular local sides – were the only teams that sold more shirts than Barcelona in its last semester.
Former Brazil team coordinator Erasmo Damiani tells FFT: “The Premier League had its doors closed to non-EU footballers for a long time with the work permit situation.
“No one can blame Coutinho for dreaming about Barcelona – Liverpool are a well-known club but they don’t have a brand as valuable as Manchester United, for example. If Coutinho moves to the Camp Nou he’ll be in the spotlight, and increase his chances of playing for the national team.
“If we go back in time, we’ll find out that Brazilians’ favourite destination in the '80s used to be Serie A – Zico, Junior, Casagrande, Toninho Cerezo and Socrates all moved there. La Liga wasn’t even considered back then. It changed from the '90s on with Bebeto, Mauro Silva and Romario, although it wasn’t like nowadays. There’s now strong propaganda.”
Base in Brazil
Despite the recent successes of Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Lucas Leiva and (relatively) Fabio Aurelio, Liverpool don’t actually have a Brazil-based scout to track the country’s best youngsters – unlike their rivals.
Senior Anfield officials have tried to secure the services of former Seleção chief scout Paulo Henrique Xavier – FFT learned that an offer was made before the 2016 Olympics, then another in December, but both failed to beat the one from Manchester United. Paulinho, as he’s known, has now left his post at Old Trafford and is available. Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City already have professionals working on their behalves across Brazil.
“If [Roberto] Firmino and [Gabriel] Jesus maintain their current level, perhaps the Premier League can become the new La Liga in this sense,” Damiani adds.
South American fans find it hard to criticise players who want to win where other local heroes have done so previously. As Ezequiel Fernandez Moores, Argentina's leading sports columnist, says: “We can say that Argentines have built old and modern history of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Real’s legend was born with Di Stefano, while Barcelona’s was re-established with Lionel Messi – so part of the local preference for the Spanish rivals can be understood from this.”
No turning back
With a World Cup on the horizon, Coutinho’s representatives have confirmed to FFT that there’s no going back on his decision to follow Luis Suarez and Javier Mascherano in leaving Anfield for Barcelona.
Marcos Motta, an international sports law specialist who has Coutinho among his clients, explains: “The transfer request was a demonstration of his will to leave the club, since he has played there for many years. He was happy but he wants to move on.
“Football is a business. There’s investment made in a player, and those seeking to have the investment back. Whoever works with it is aware that the footballer is the one who conducts the negotiation.”
Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, who now works as an academy coach on Merseyside, believes the pressure from Barcelona has made things very difficult for his old club.
“The problem here are Barcelona, because they will be saying to Coutinho’s agents: ‘It’s now or never. If he doesn’t come now, we’re never coming back for him ever again’,” said the ex-Reds skipper.
“So they’re piling the pressure on, and that’s why Philippe has reacted; this kid who’s come from South America, has always had a dream of playing for Barcelona, and he’s panicking thinking that if he doesn’t do it now it’ll never happen again.”
Never isn't an option for Coutinho right now – but that call isn't in his hands.
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