Football seems to compress time. In the modern game a boy can become a man, be hailed as the “next big thing”, be confirmed as a superstar and then find himself labelled a player in crisis in the space of just nine months. This is what has happened to the 19-year-old Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato.
Alexandre Pato was spotted as a teenager playing with dazzling skill at breathtaking speed for the
Brazilian club Internacional. He was signed in 2007 by European champions AC Milan, scored on his debut against Napoli and then scored on his debut for Brazil. With his boyish good looks and romantic goal celebration he instantly became a darling of the media. But a brief spell of poor form at the start of the 2008-2009 season, after a disappointing showing for Brazil at the Olympic Games in Beijing, generated headlines about the apparent waning of his star.
Alexandre Rodrigues da Silva was born on 2 September 1989 in the town of Pato Branco, in the southern state of Parana. The name of the town, which
means “white duck” in English, was to provide the player with his nickname. Pato Branco is not a hotbed of football like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo but it did not take long for Pato to get noticed. In 2001, aged 11, he moved to Porto Alegre to join Sport Club Internacional, a club which has produced players like Gerson, Falcao, Branco and the current national team coach, Carlos Dunga.
In what was to become something of a habit, Pato made an incredible first-team debut aged 17 in November 2006, scoring with his first touch and setting up three goals in a 4-1 victory over Palmeiras. That season he helped drive Internacional to victory in the FIFA Club World Cup, scoring a goal in the semi-final against Al Ahly. It was not just Pato’s goals that
caught the attention but his irrepressible style of football – all tricks, feints and dribbles at high speed. With comparisons being made between Pato and two other Brazilians, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, it was nor surprising that clubs like Real Madrid, Benfica, Arsenal, Chelsea, Juventus and Inter Milan were lining up to sign him.
BRILLIANT ON THE BALL
Milan beat them all to the player’s signature, paying EUR 22 million for him in August 2007. “I discussed it with my father and with those closest to me but I never had doubts,” Pato said about the choice. “Milan is a great team, a serious club, and there are already lots of Brazilian players here. Milan is like a home to me,
like a family where there are lots of people who help me find serenity.”
Italian restrictions on non-EU minors kept Pato out of the Rossoneri’s first team until January 2008, so the Italian public did not know what to expect. But those at Milan who were watching the player every day in training were certain that the club which had brought Kaka to Europe in 2003 had unearthed another gem. Club captain Paolo Maldini said Pato was “brilliant on the ball, he can get himself Into a shooting position very quickly.” Team coach, Carlo Ancelotti, said that Pato’s speed and ball control brought to mind the 1980s Brazil and Napoli striker Careca.
The stage was set for something special and when Pato duly stepped onto it in January he did not disappoint. In the 75th minute of his debut, in a 5-2 thrashing of Napoli, he plucked a long ball down with perfect technique, skipped past a defender and clipped the ball into the net. He had been ice cool in the execution of the goal but now the emotion surfaced and, surrounded by celebrating team mates, he shed tears of joy.
Despite the promising start, Pato was discovering that time in SerieA is a luxury. “In Brazil you can keep the ball with your head up for 20 seconds, deciding what to do. Here, after three seconds someone tackles you. I like playing this way, it helps you grow. I try to be calm on the pitch and off it and to do the right thing for the team. I still have a lot to learn and I am working hard every day to do so.”
Pato’s assessment was more balanced than that of many observers. When he added a brace of goals two weeks later against Genoa, some newspapers ran headlines such as “Destiny’s Child,” “the Saviour” and “the Messiah.” Others raved about the potential of the all-Brazilian strike force of Kaka, Pato and Ronaldo, dubbed “Ka-Pa-Ro”, in tribute to the 1950s Milan trio of Swedes tagged “Gre-No-Li” after Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm.
Pato’s unusual goal celebration -making the shape of a heart with his thumbs and forefingers for his girlfriend, actress Sthefany Brito – installed him as
the housewives’ favourite and the feeling that everything was going perfectly was confirmed when he scored a stunning goal for Brazil on his debut in a friendly against Sweden in March, earning him :he most flattering comparison of all, with Brazil legend Pele. “I’m delighted to have got on the pitch wearing the national team shirt for the first time,” he said. “I’m happy I scored and for the comparisons with Pele. For me he is a hero, a phenomenon.”
A STUNNING GOAL
Pato went on to make 18 league appearances for Milan last season, scoring nine goals, but he could nor prevent the club slipping our of the places for the 2008-2009 UEFA Champions League and crashing out of the 2007-2008 Champions League against Arsenal in the first knockout round. As Milan stumbled towards the championship finish line -where they were beaten to fourth place by Fiorcntina – Pato was not exempt from the general criticism of the team.
Milan opened the 2008-2009 season with a defeat in the San Siro to newly-promoted Bologna and a defeat away to Genoa. The same observers who had been quick to elevate Pato to the pantheon
of football gods now seemed ready to bury him. “The most worrying thing for Milan is Pato. He’s inert, never incisive,”the Gazzetta della Sport intoned. “What has happened to ‘the little duck’ that charmed us all?”
Perhaps too much had been expected of the player. He had, after all, made only ten first-team appearances in the league for Internacional before being signed by Milan. His natural ability is not in doubt but his experience of playing at the top level is very limited. Fellow Brazilian, Milan team-mate Emerson, provided some much-needed perspective. “Pato is a young kid. We have to be very patient wich him. He came to Italy by himself and he needs people who are close to him. He needs time.”
A stunning goal from a 25-yard free kick in Milan’s 3-1 win over FC Zurich in the UEFA Cup in September suggested that the crisis – if there had ever been such a thing – was over. “I’m happy because I’ve always given the maximum in training and in matches,” Pato said after the match. “Ancelotti has been close to me and now I hope to play like this in the next league game too. My only thought is to do well for Milan and Brazil.”
For more info, please visti the Pato’s fans website