Thiago Neves’s career to date has been anything but uneventful. In his six years as a professional the 26-year-old has played for six clubs in four different countries. Having started out as one to watch, the goalscoring midfielder fulfilled his rich promise in a sparkling spell with Fluminense, lost his way abroad and is now back in Brazil and back in the national team set-up.
That return to the national fold has come as a result of his excellent form alongside Ronaldinho at Flamengo, where his performances led Mano Menezes to call him up for this Saturday’s friendly against the Netherlands and next Tuesday’s meeting with Romania. Yet, as Thiago explained to FIFA.com, it has all come as something of a surprise: “I honestly wasn’t expecting things to happen so quickly. I thought I’d need more time to get used to Brazilian football again, but everything has started to come together quicker than I’d imagined.”
Ups and downs
Given his unconventional career path to date, Thiago should not be taken aback at another unexpected turn of events. Since making his professional debut in 2005 with Parana Clube, the club where he learned his skills, the midfield man has made one move after another. After turning 21 he was loaned out to Japanese outfit Vegalta Sendai before making a low-key return to Fluminense in 2007. As it turned out, he became a vital component in the side that won the Brazilian Cup that year and then fought their way to the final of the Copa Libertadores in 2008, one they lost to Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito.
Unnoticed no more, in 2007 Thiago collected Placar magazine’s prestigious Bola de Ouro [Golden Ball], awarded to the best player in the Brazilian championship, and got the call from Brazil coach Dunga at the start of the following year, going on to form part of the side that took the bronze medal at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008. So impressive was he in China that he earned himself another move, this time to Germany. Instead of taking a step forward, however, the Brazilian would find himself marking time.
I honestly wasn’t expecting things to happen so quickly.
“I went to Hamburg, a club who I thought would be up there fighting for silverware,” he explained. “Things did not turn out the way I’d hoped though, and the coach played me out of position.”
He then swapped the bench at Hamburg for a place at Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia, but not before making a brief but less distinguished return on loan to Fluminense, where he stayed only six months.
Exiled in a distant league, he dropped out of the public eye and the reckoning for a slot in the Brazil squad for the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™, his name barely coming up in the debate as to who should make Dunga’s squad.
Back in contention
While reluctant to express regret at the moves he has made, Thiago would now think twice before leaving Brazil again: “Most definitely. Brazilian clubs are getting better organised and if you’re playing here, then you’ve got a higher profile when it comes to getting into the national team. The money has got better too. These days there’s not much difference between the best-paid players in Brazil and the salaries they pay in Europe.”
Signed by Flamengo in January 2011, though with much less fanfare than that which accompanied Ronaldinho’s arrival, Thiago has since rediscovered his best form, finding a more than able sidekick in the former Barcelona and AC Milan star. Released from the pressure of being the big star and living up to the expectations that come with it, Thiago is reproducing the kind of football that made him a well-known name before he lost his way on his global odyssey.
Such has been the extent of his renaissance that it is he and not Ronaldinho who is currently flying the flag for Flamengo in A Seleção. Delighted to be back in the limelight, he is unwilling, however, to compare himself to the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, who has been a good friend of his since they shared a dressing room at the 2008 Olympics.
“I don’t think about things like that,” he said. “I was delighted at the recognition I got from everyone for my performances in the Rio state championship, but Ronaldinho has scored some great goals and he got the winner in the Guanabara Cup [the first phase of the Rio state championship]. The better we play, the more chance Flamengo have of winning. We’ve got a strong side and we can fight for the Brazilian title too.”
Though his journey has been a circuitous one, Thiago finally finds himself in the position many people had expected him to reach when he started out: up there with the country’s biggest stars, winning titles and firmly in the national team picture.