In 2010, right after the final of Brazil’s most celebrated youth tournament, the Copa Sao Paulo, the country’s controversial agent Wagner Ribeiro received a text from one of his clients full of enthusiasm.
“I’m going to be the world’s best player,” it read.
The message had not been sent by Neymar. Robinho had forgotten about such a tag by that stage of his career. And it couldn’t have been Kaka either, who’d already won the Ballon d’Or.
Nope: it was from Lucas Moura, then 18 years old. Sao Paulo’s wonderkid had just lifted a trophy and made his promise to Ribeiro. Indeed: for a while, many others thought Moura really could be Brazil’s next superstar – even more so than Neymar.
His representative, as expected, played his part and tried to make the most of such hype, taking Moura’s parents for a fact-finding trip around Europe. They visited some of the biggest clubs, including the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea and Inter Milan. The Italians lodged a €27 million offer to snap him up before the others.
After Sao Paulo’s initial refusal, Inter tried to include Philippe Coutinho – then struggling to find a space in the first team – as part of the deal, but the Brazilians refused to accept it. The Moura-Coutinho swap never took place and became a mere anecdote for what might have been.
A lot has happened to the pair since then, but on Wednesday night their fates will cross once again as Tottenham host Barcelona in the Champions League at Wembley.
Moura, now 26 years old, will be hoping to prove that he can still establish himself as a major player in European football. Becoming the best in the world seems a little out of his league now, but Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino will be more than happy if his Brazilian forward sustains current form until the end of the season.
For Brazilian players, Tottenham are the last frontier to explore among the Premier League’s big six – the Londoners are widely regarded in South America, especially in Brazil, as a cemetery for Seleção talent thanks to the previous experiences of Heurelho Gomes, Paulinho, Sandro and Gilberto. Some fans even say the white half of north London should be avoided altogether.
That didn’t stop Moura from arriving for £25 million in January, though, and neither did it prevent the former PSG winger proving sceptics wrong by scoring three goals in Spurs’ first three matches of the season to earn him August’s Premier League Player of the Month award. In Pochettino, he has found the perfect man to bring the best out of him and put his career back on track.
Coincidentally, the Argentine was responsible for working the same magic with Coutinho a few years ago during their brief time together at Espanyol. Like Moura, Coutinho is a member of Brazil’s highly-rated Generation ‘92 – a crop also including PSG’s Neymar, Liverpool’s Alisson Becker, Real Madrid’s Casemiro and Everton’s Bernard, among others. After working with Pochettino for five months, Coutinho returned to overcome his frustrations at Inter and by January 2013 was a Liverpool player.
Game of opinions
It remains to be seen if Moura's form will last. He has benefited from a complete pre-season and certainly enjoyed the chance to replace Son Heung-min, who was on duty with South Korea at the Asian Games. Playing as a second striker next to Harry Kane and adapting to a new position has not been an issue for him.
There have been discussions in Brazilian media about whether he should be brought back to the national team after his recent hot spell, although a call-up doesn’t seem very likely considering the competition he has for a place in the squad – Neymar, Willian, Douglas Costa, Malcom, Richarlison, Vinicius Junior and David Neres as the main contenders.
Back home, though, that’s not the biggest topic surrounding his name right now.
With Brazil’s presidential elections coming up next weekend, Moura landed himself in political hot water after announcing his support for far-right candidate and front-runner Jair Bolsonaro – a controversial figure who has threatened to execute rivals, told a congresswoman she’s “not worthy” of sexual assault, and praised torturers (to name but a few).
In September, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen while on the campaign trail in Juiz de Fora, and lost 40% of his blood. And yet despite his incendiary reputation, the politician commands strong support – including that of football icon Ronaldinho, who in December 2017 endorsed Bolsonaro and was even rumoured to become a senate candidate for his party.
Moura’s statement nonetheless caused a giant stir among his compatriots, however, and probably attracted more attention than he expected to. But he has defended himself after the episode.
“Before being a football player, I’m a citizen and I have the right to worry about what is going on around my country,” he said. “I just civilly answered some questions that appeared on my Twitter, but unfortunately some people don’t know how to respect a different opinion.
“Knowing to live with different opinions is part of democracy. I love my family and my friends, but I don’t always agree with them.”
He confirmed he would go through it all again if necessary.
“I felt bad for always being on the fence or being oblivious. We have to respect whoever wants to and who does not want to stand. Sometimes, our fans want to know the opinion of their idols. With a different opinion, we can open someone’s mind. As a public person, that was my goal.”
So far at Spurs, though, it's his excellent performances this season – particularly the one at Old Trafford – that have stood out and rewarded Tottenham’s patience.
He tore Manchester United’s defence apart with his pace and mazy dribbling, scoring twice and sealing a 3-0 victory away from home. But for Spurs’ defeat to Inter Milan in the Champions League, the Brazilian has started every game in all competitions this season.
“I have to take advantage of the opportunities that show up”, Moura said in a significantly less aggravating interview with ESPN Brasil. “It’s my first season from the start here with Tottenham.
“I tried to work hard in pre-season to get started. And the opportunities are there. I have to take them, because they are big ones I have. I will work hard and do my utmost to help the team.”
Tottenham will be hoping they're the only kinds of headlines he'll be making against Barcelona on Wednesday night.
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