Can Ganso make his mark?
One of the many wonderful things about covering South American football is the opportunity to watch young talent bloom. Yet too often that process is interrupted prematurely, the player sold off to Europe at a dangerously early stage in his career.
That is what has happened to Marcos Rojo, who made such an impact in the second half of 2010 as Estudiantes won the Argentine championship. Could this be the attacking left-back that his country have been looking for?
I was hoping to draw some conclusions from the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, which kicks off in a few weeks. Yet Rojo will not be participating following his sale to Spartak Moscow.
Further north there is Fernando Uribe, the interesting centre forward in the Once Caldas side that has just won the Colombian title under former Manchester City assistant coach Juan Carlos Osorio.
Uribe finishes well and is highly proficient at timing his runs to get behind the opposing defence. The rest of his game needs work. Could he show signs of development in this year's Libertadores? It seems not, as he looks set to join Chievo in Italy.
European football taketh but European football can also giveth back. Some of those who struggle after moving too early come back across the Atlantic to regain momentum.
A fascinating example looks like being Louis Angelo Pena, the most talented of the Venezuelan squad who played in the 2009 World Youth Cup. He looks set to join Caracas after failing to get much of a look in with Braga in Portugal.
Pena, an attacking midfielder, is by no means the only South American playmaker to find it hard to make the step up - which brings us to the player whose progress will be watched most closely in 2011, Paulo Henrique Ganso of Santos and Brazil.
A tall, elegant, left-footed number 10, Ganso is considered an automatic choice for Brazil after only one game for the national side. Some have talked of him as the best in the world in his position - which I find a bit worrying.
Ganso - a left-footed Zidane? Photo: Getty Images
No doubt about it, the talent is there. This is a player who is strong in possession, with the vision to see the killer pass and the technique to play it. His team-mate, the similarly heralded Neymar, talks of Ganso as a left-footed Zidane - a lovely thought for football fans everywhere. But some context is needed before we start getting too carried away.
There is the view that contemporary Brazilian football offers rich pickings for playmakers. Yet the country has struggled recently to produce attacking midfielders whose game is collective, who dictate the rhythm and bring team-mates into play with inspired passing.
Meanwhile, a number of imports have caught the eye in recent years.
In the 2009 Brazilian Championship, Dejan Petkovic, a 37-year-old Serbian playmaker, was the decisive player. At his peak, he did not make much of an impact on the major European leagues but his intelligence and quality were key as Flamengo won the title.
Last year, it was a similar story with the Argentine Dario Conca at Fluminense, a little playmaker who had failed in his native land before starring in Chile and now Brazil. Another Argentine playmaker, Walter Montillo, has a similar biography to Conca and had a splendid campaign with Cruzeiro.
These success stories can hardly be put down to coincidence. Instead, it would seem that the following conditions apply:
With the defensive lines operating deep, the playmaker has time to pick his pass, the criteria applied by Brazilian referees gives him plenty of protection and he is surrounded by interesting options. For example, he can slip a ball through to the wonderfully athletic attacking full-backs that are a speciality of the Brazilian game.
My cause for concern, then, comes from the fact that, so far, the pedestal on which Ganso is being placed is built of fairly flimsy material. He looked a fine prospect in the 2009 Brazilian Championship, though he found it hard to impose himself on a consistent basis in that year's World Youth Cup. His reputation, then, currently rests on his form in the first few months of 2010, when Santos won two titles.
Indeed, he was outstanding - but in weak competitions. Of all Brazil's 27 state championships, the Sao Paulo one is the best. But that does not make it very good. A quiet consensus is growing in the Brazilian game that all these competitions do is clutter up the calendar unnecessarily. And the Brazilian Cup is essentially a consolation prize for clubs who have not qualified for the Libertadores.
Last year's National Championship was when Ganso could have made the transition from promise to reality - as happened with Neymar. But a serous knee injury put him out of action. He returns this year to find that the tests will be much stiffer.
First, there is the Libertadores, where, if the technical level is not always great, he will be set new tactical puzzles and the marking will be more robust. Then, in July, comes the Copa America, his first senior competition with the national side.
I am optimistic that Paulo Henrique Ganso can meet these challenges. But as he gets ready for them and, in due time, for the move to Europe, I hope he is mentally prepared for the fact that the bar is going to rise.
Denilson had the world at his feet but failed to deliver. Photo: Getty Images
This has not always been the case with young Brazilian talent that has been praised too much too early - and I fear that in the past I have added some grains of sand to unwisely constructed pedestals.
The most glaring case is that of Denilson, the left winger who became the world's most expensive player when he joined Betis in 1998. I was carried away with his power and acceleration, tight dribbling skills and ability to score. But the player was clearly unprepared for the degree of difficulty that he was going to face, was blown off course and never came close to fulfilling his potential.
Denilson was the better dribbler, so it would be wonderful if Ganso can pass his way out of the possible trap of premature praise.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for nest week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) As a Liverpool fan, I have been taken aback at the evolution of Lucas in our midfield over the last 18 months, leading me to believe he was our best player in a dismal previous season and is leading the way again this term.
With Manchester United's Anderson appearing to be starting a similar renaissance, do you think there is a possibility of the two linking up in Brazil's midfield in the future? Both have excellent distribution skills when at their best and, in the English and European games especially, have dramatically reduced the number of fouls they have given away and seem to be revelling in the roles they are given.
A) I wrote about Lucas in a recent answer - he is booked in as Brazil's holding midfielder, which represents a change of role from the one he fulfilled when he previously worked with national team coach Mano Menezes at Gremio.
Anderson has gone through an even more radical transformation since he and Menezes were together at Gremio, when he was a teenage flyer, an attacking midfielder with minimal defensive responsibilities. Menezes knows him, and knows that he has changed - and it could be that the change makes him interesting to a coach who is trying to ensure that Brazil play more football through the midfield.
With Ganso back, I imagine Menezes going for a 4-2-3-1 - Pato up front, Ganso in between Robinho and Neymar, and a midfield pairing currently of Lucas and Ramires. A consistently on form Anderson could be a rival for Ramires - it would need a slight adjustment because the Chelsea man favours the right and Anderson is left-footed. But it is feasible, so it is up to Anderson to make up for lost time and push his claim.