Robinho in urgent need of fresh start
Robinho is in footballing limbo. He sat out Manchester City's opening game of the Premier League campaign and although he might be in action in midweek in the Europa League, or possibly playing his football somewhere else before the end of the month, he needs to sort things out fast because this is a huge season for him.
I well recall his debut in the Brazilian Championship for an astonishingly young Santos side that went on to lift the title. That was eight years ago. Eight years from now, Robinho will be 34 going on 35, so his time at the top has probably already passed the halfway mark and yet a huge question mark still hangs over him.
There is no escaping the fact that so far he has been a big disappointment in European club football and it would be unfair to pin all the blame for this on the clubs he has played for - because even after playing some 80 times for Brazil, the same doubts surround him at international level..
Robinho captained Brazil and starred in their 2-0 win over the United States. Photograph: Getty
In World Soccer magazine's South Africa 2010 preview, I wrote that Robinho was looking "to dismiss the claims that he is physically and mentally lightweight on the big occasion." He did not do so.
But in all those 80 games for Brazil, few of his performances - if any - were better than the one he gave last week in the 2-0 win away to the United States. Given the responsibility of captaining Brazil's young side, he was the star attraction on a night for the purist.
Abandoning the counter-attacking strategy they had embraced for so long, Brazil's game, under new coach Mano Menezes, was based on possession of the ball. Their fluid and imaginative display was aided by having the extra man in midfield - their 4-2-3-1 against the 4-4-2 of the US - but it was Robinho who ensured they got full value from the advantage.
He floated in from the right to make the extra man, orchestrating the swift passing movements, starting fires the US defence were unable to put out. There have been games where Robinho has tried many more stepovers - but few matches where he has made himself so important to the team, where his extraordinary individual talent was placed at the service of the collective.
Of course, it is extremely unwise to attach too much importance to international friendlies, especially in August. But if this talent is there, and if this willingness to work for the team exists, why is he unable to show it week in week out?
Perhaps his coaches have not worked hard enough to understand him. More to the point, perhaps he has not worked hard enough to understand himself and the situation in which he finds himself.
Like a fair proportion of South American players, Robinho appears to thrive on affection, on being made to feel important. Being given the captain's armband, for example, appeared to do him a power of good for Brazil last week. It was like having favoured son status.
Paternalistic relations are part of Brazilian society and football. After losing his managerial post at Chelsea, Luiz Felipe Scolari complained that his relationship with many of his squad had been "only" professional - as if something had been missing. His Brazil squad in 2002 were known as 'the Scolari family' but he was unable to recreate the same ties and hierarchies with a multi-national squad in a northern European country.
Robinho has never been part of a 'Scolari family', though, of course, his intention when he cried his way out of Real Madrid was to link up with Big Phil at Chelsea, only to find his way to Manchester City instead. But he seems to have struggled with the same problem, an inability to adapt to different cultural values.
Robinho joined Santos on loan last season and won the State Championship. Photograph: Reuters
There are also technical reasons for Robinho's problems in Europe. He is a player who thrives on confidence, and it is much easier for him to take on his markers in domestic Brazilian football where the balance is tipped in his favour by the knowledge that if he can't get past his man, he is likely to be given a free-kick for the slightest physical contact. Put him in a more rigorous environment and he seems diminished.
At heart, though, the cultural and the technical differences come down to the same thing, a desire for protection. Like a spoilt son, he appears to want a guaranteed first team place because of who he is, but in Europe he is going to be judged on what he does. Merit is the criteria.
In the deep squads of a big European club there is no such thing as a guaranteed first team place, he has to earn it.
Sulking when he is substituted or left out is no solution. The answer lies in working to show his coach and his colleagues that his ability is useful to the team - just as he did for Brazil last Tuesday against the US.
"Football in Europe is hard," Robinho said earlier this year when he was loaned back to Santos. "The coach doesn't always pick you." Admittedly, the move back was largely motivated by a desire to stay in shape for the World Cup, but it also came across as the option of a little kid wanting to return to the womb to escape his problems.
The time to grow up has arrived. Approaching 27, with two World Cups behind him, in football terms Robinho is a veteran - with limited time to fulfil his potential. Here's hoping he can sort himself out, whether at Manchester City or elsewhere. The player who captained Brazil last week is worth saving.
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 next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) Could you tell me anything about Javier Pastore and Mathias De Federico, who were in the same Huracan team a couple of years back? Where are they now, and are they the future of Argentine football or just two in a long line of 'the next Maradonas who ultimately collapse under the pressure?
A) They complemented each other so well in that attractive Huracan side, Pastore the languid playmaker and De Federico the little gnat-like support striker. It's a shame they were separated.
Their fates have been very different. Pastore went to Palermo and adapted better and more quickly to Italian football than even his admirers thought he would. He was in the World Cup squad, made a few substitute appearances and looks like being an important player for the future. De Federico, meanwhile, went to Corinthians in Brazil and has struggled to make much of an impression.
Q) I really need to know something, why do Mexican teams play in both South America's Copa Libertadores and the Concacaf Champions league?
A) Because money makes a very persuasive argument. Mexico is in Concacaf, so that one is easily explained. And the Mexicans are invited into the Libertadores for financial reasons - it means access to a market of over 100 million for the tournament sponsors.
Last week's column dealt with this - and the fact that, if a Mexican club wins the competition then it is not allowed to represent South America in the World Club Cup. This year, for the second time, there is a Mexican club in the final - but 2-1 down from the home leg against Internacional of Brazil, it seems unlikely that Chivas Guadalajara will be lifting the trophy after Wednesday's return match.