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Ricardo Goulart: Brazil's Manchurian Candidate

Sunday 20th August 2017

When Neymar left Barcelona, Paulinho was given a second lease on life. Maybe we should be asking why Ricardo Goulart wasn't offered a first.

As natural resources go, soy beans, iron ore, and crude oil are not very romantic. That said, you'd be forgiven for thinking footballers are Brazil's largest export. The manner in which Selecao stars are cropping up in this summer's transfer news certainly adds to the illusion.

Neymar began it all with his move to Paris Saint-Germain. Weeks before the deal was consummated, pundits began labeling it as one that could change the face of the game. Others likened it to a natural disaster, even predicted "dire consequences."

That's just panic in the streets. A valuable player wanted a change of scenery. His club put an exorbitant price tag on him. Another paid it. Deals of that ilk have been occurring regularly in football for more than a century.

Admittedly, the leap from Paul Pogba's €120 million United sale to Neymar's alliterative €222 million PSG move is evolutionary. Yet, with classic understatement, the player's new boss, Unai Emery, ranked Neymar among the top five players in the world.

It should be top three but does Pogba compare? I don't think so, and I'm a United fan. The Frenchman might squeak into the top ten, although Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Sergio Kun Aguero, Alexis Sanchez, Gonzalo Higuain, Leonardo Bonucci, Eden Hazard, Isco, Arjen Robben, Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe, Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang, and Phillipe Coutinho would all be jostling with him for the seven spaces not occupied by Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi.

It's going to take a while for any among that group to be recognised as better than Neymar. Whereas transfer fees will likely scramble to catch up to the new benchmark, it's safe to say there is time to breathe before a new record is set.

Still, Barcelona and Liverpool are doing everything in their power to kick-start that scramble.

Desperate to fill the vacancy in its world class triumvirate, the Blaugrana have made three offers to Liverpool for playmaker Phillipe Coutinho. After the first, Coutinho allegedly handed in a transfer request. Barca's last bid approached Pogba's valuation. The next will surpass it,.

At that point, Fenway Sports Group will have to ponder how many more times it can say no. Barcelona have already spent €40 million on a third Brazilian, so the Catalans can increase their bid by roughly €60 million before they exhaust the proceeds from Neymar's sale. Are they willing to do so to convince Liverpool? Is the Anfield mob willing to push their luck that far?

Only time will tell. Meanwhile, there are other "knock-on effects" from the deal to consider. The key one being why Paulinho?

That is difficult to say, unless Barca's braintrust is waxing nostalgic for Yaya Toure or Seydou Keita. Paulinho somewhat matches that description. No witness would ever pick him out in a line-up for Neymar lookalikes, however. That said, Barcelona were allegedly scouting him before the Neymar deal transpired.

For unknown reasons, a very persuasive club figure likes Paulinho. Never mind he was cast off by Tottenham or that the London club took a loss to be rid of the midfielder. Nor was their new man lighting it up under Felipe Scolari with Guangzhou Evergrande. If the lanky journeyman has taken his game to a new level, he and his new club are hiding it well.

Three touches at €13.3 million per. Next, Ernesto Valverde will be installing Heurelho Gomes between the sticks.

To be fair to Paulinho, anyone who has endured a similarly disappointing career only to be offered an opportunity usually reserved for superstars and can't-miss prospects, while having a ridiculous €40 million valuation suddenly attached to his name, would have difficulty not being distracted by the voice in his head shouting, "Don't screw this up! Don't screw this up!"

To be even more charitable, there are many players whose game is better suited to La Liga than the Premier League. And vice versa. Paulinho may prove to be one.

Nor can too much be inferred from his adequate performance with Evergrande. Even with a Brazilian coach and teammate for company, the culture clash may have proved too much.

Regardless, without some positive moments to offset the dubious ones, Barcelona is taking a rather large gamble. In the immortal words of Snagglepuss, huge even. It's difficult to believe Paulinho won't be exiting the Nou Camp, stage left, within a year's time.

The one thing that has worked in the ex-Spur's favour is football's reluctance to fully embrace analytics. For many so-called experts, the eye test still matters. More to the point, the stubborn belief that what one's eyes told them four years ago at Corinthians remains more valid than the mountain of contrary evidence they have witnessed in the interim.

Even in today's digitised, analysed, computerised world, a player deemed a future star will be given chance upon chance to make good no matter what the data says. Conversely, one who didn't give scouts goosebumps at first glance may never find doors open to him regardless what he does afterward.

With that in mind, say ola to Ricardo Goulart. Paulinho said tchau to him when he left Guangzhou.

Goulart may just be the best Brazilian footballer whose name no Anglo has ever heard. I hadn't until recently, even though his older brother, Juninho, is among my favourite MLS stars.

Goulart is the Chinese Super League's answer to Phillipe Coutinho. He can dribble, pass, read play, poach goals, knock them in with a thunderous right foot, or his head. Before Paulinho departed, Evergrande had played 22 matches. The new Barcelona man had seven league goals (two more in the Club World Cup) and two assists. Over the same period, Goulart had 16 and eight with a further three goals in the Asian Champions League. If you were worried about losing Neymar, which teammate would you chase?

The case against Paulinho worsens when you remember he began his senior career with Lithuanian side Vilnius, then Polish club Lodz. After a combined 55 appearances that produced just five goals, he went home to Brazil. Following spells at Bragantino and Corinthians, during which his scoring rate improved to roughly once every four matches, Spurs rolled the dice. The London club crapped out. Paulinho managed just six goals in 45 appearances.

In his 63 Evergrande matches, the well-traveled midfielder rebounded with 17 strikes. Either that or he had returned to a less competitive level at which he could succeed.

Comparatively, Goulart's three full Campeonato Serie A campaigns from 2012-15, with Goias and Cruzeiro, comprised 37 goals in 93 games. In his 78 caps with Evergrande, he netted 54 times.  We're talking three times the goals Paulinho provided in just 15 extra matches. Oh, and he's three years younger.

Yes, the older man occupies a deep-lying role but we are discussing a Barcelona team reacting to having just lost Neymar. A number ten.

Despite having won CSL and Asian Champions League titles while not only outperforming his erstwhile running buddy, but top stars such as Carlos Tevez, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Asamoah Gyan, it is a big ask to throw Goulart into the deep end also known as El Clasico. However, it's not as incredulous as asking the same from Paulinho, whichever position he plays.

Turnabout being fair play, the one thing working in Ricardo Goulart's favour is Paulinho's sale. In its own fashion, it's the game changer Neymar's deal really isn't.

Think about it. Off the top of your head, you can probably name a half-dozen premium signings made by CSL clubs, a dozen given a moment or two. But can you name another major sale a Chinese club has made to a European side? You can't. Paulinho's transaction sets a precedence.

CSL clubs can now be sellers. European clubs may begin looking east for potential bargains. Unfortunately, as one of the league's absolute best, and with his Brazilian teammate already sold, Goulart's fee may be steep. He could go in the €25-35 million range.

La Liga's technical nature seems his best fit. With the player having no European experience, good or bad, Real Madrid and Barcelona can be ruled out. Atletico Madrid might show interest, especially if they lose Antoine Griezmann or Kevin Gameiro. Diego Simeone demands responsibility off the ball, however. That aspect of Goulart's game has yet to be tested. A lesser Spanish club, perhaps?

As Joseph Sexton, Ireland's curse to Spanish football told me, "That sort of fee is really beyond any other club. Perhaps Valencia, a couple years back, when they were spending money like a drunken sailor, but not currently."

Goulart deserves an opportunity. If one isn't forthcoming from La Liga, which league might take a flyer?

The temptation, given Phillipe Coutinho's seemingly eminent departure, is to look first to England and Liverpool. Goulart bookends with Jurgen Klopp's positive tactics, as he would in Tottenham's set-up. Again, however, top English clubs might deem defensive responsibility and the Premier League's intensity as risks that outweigh the possible reward. Swansea just lost Gylfi Sigurdsson and were subsequently hammered by Manchester United. The Welsh outfit may be sufficiently desperate to gamble.

A more likely bet is Ligue 1. There is more money than talent in France, even with Neymar's arrival. As well, the competition has been historically kind to Brazilians. Ronaldo--the gravity-challenged original--and Ronaldhino used the French competition as a stepping stone to elite clubs. Juninho Pernambucano never left, winning seven consecutive titles with Lyon.

Les Gones could use a boost from a genuine number ten as they chase Monaco and PSG for a title. So could other clubs. The current champions themselves might be interested, following Bernardo Silva's exit.

If the cost proves too prohibitive for any interested parties, Goulart could move on a free after his contract expires in 2019. He'll be 28, then. Older, but still younger than Paulinho is now.

Just for the sake of watching an underdog make it to the top, Ricardo Goulart playing in Europe would be a happy sight. Should his move, following Paulinho's and stemming from Neymar's, send more Asian dominoes tumbling into UEFA's sphere, where they have been conspicuously absent, it would be all the more worthwhile.

And people say money is ruining football.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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