Ask anyone who has watched Paulo Henrique Ganso for any length of time, be it team-mates, opponents, coaches or ex-players, and the verdict is almost always the same: the 22-year-old is real class act.
The curious thing is that not everyone, especially outside Brazil, has seen enough of the Santos man to come to the same conclusion. The brilliance of his play, unlike that of his team-mate and friend Neymar, is not always obvious. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ganso’s subtle genius can be seen in touches of immense creativity, often when least expected. Rather than run with the ball, he’s more likely to weigh up his options and pass it quickly on.
However, a series of long-term injuries have contrived to limit his appreciation by a wider audience, even if most people have already heard of his tremendous potential. Now fit again and raring to go, the No10 is hoping the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011 will provide the chance to show the watching world his ability to dictate play and decide games.
“I’m aware that it’s my responsibility to move the team from defence to attack and put my team-mates in positions to score,” the attacking midfielder told FIFA.com. “I also know it's been a while since I've managed to do that consistently."
When you see the youngster play, you understand just why he says so openly that his creativity can make the difference. Ganso is not your typical attacking midfielder, nor a midfielder who likes to run from deep, but rather a genuine orchestrator of play – a skill not widely possessed nowadays and one that those around the player have been struck by since his childhood.
He said: “I prefer passing, I always have, even when I was a kid with a makeshift ball. Even then, I’d be [looking at a team-mate] thinking, ‘You, run over there and score'. I never worried about scoring myself. I even got criticised because of this. A lot of people used to say, ’That kid is good on the ball, but he looks lackadaisical, half asleep'. Not anymore. Now they say I’m cerebral and outstanding,” he added, laughing.
When speaking recently to FIFA.com, Santos coach Muricy Ramalho was unambiguous about Ganso’s importance to his team’s quest for glory in Japan. In a side that, for the most part, specialises in counter-attacking at speed and going straight for their opponents’ goals, almost every major move features the cultured left-foot of the No10.
Another to cite Ganso’s value is O Peixe centre-back and captain Edu Dracena, who said: “When he’s on the pitch, he’s the first person we look for. When I look up, if there’s any way I can get the ball to him, I’ll do it. It’s normally the best option.”
When it comes to moving play from midfield to the final third, he’s also the preferred choice – just ask Neymar. Despite having had to do without Ganso for much of his remarkable season, the Santos forward was effusive in his praise of the player who has been creating scoring chances for him since their days in the youth team.
“He’s my partner, and when he’s on the pitch, I know I can run where I like and he’ll try to pick me out,” the Santos phenomenon told FIFA.com. “Maybe the move doesn’t always work out, but the idea is always good,”
The comment perfectly sums up the understated brilliance of Ganso. In a given game, he might misplace a dozen passes, but the ones he does make can more than make up for them.
“What happens is this: when I get the ball I never choose a sideways or backwards pass, but always one that’s heading goalwards," Ganso explained. "Obviously that means more of them end up going astray, but when I pick out a striker with the two or three good ones, they can end up deciding the game. That’s why, in tight and difficult games like we’ll get at the Club World Cup, that ability becomes very valuable. In tournaments like this one, we won’t be able to pass up chances, and my aim is to be there creating them."
Much of the expectation surrounding Ganso’s participation in Japan is down to the extent to which the team depended on him in the recent past. Up until mid-2010, his status as Brazil’s finest playmaking prospect was indisputable – and not just among Santos fans. It was with him dictating play that O Peixe won that year’s Campeonato Paulista and the Copa do Brasil, fuelling a public campaign to convince then Seleção coach Dunga to include him and Neymar in his squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
And while neither made it to the showcase event in the end, both would feature in current incumbent Mano Menezes’s first squad for a friendly against USA in August 2010. It was to mark the start of a new era, one with Ganso as playmaker and Neymar as striker. However, just two weeks after that impressive 2-0 win in New Jersey, there began a long period of uncertainty for the 1.82m Ganso. A cruciate ligament rupture of the knee sidelined him until March this year, but even then his return was complicated.
Two further muscular injuries kept his participation in Campeonato Paulista and Copa Libertadores to a minimum, although he would make a decisive contribution in the two-legged final of the latter against Penarol. Nor did he impress greatly in Brazil’s frustrating campaign at this year’s Copa America.
Ganso said: “All things considered, 2011 was a strange year. There was delight for the titles won, but also sadness for the injuries. Still, it taught me the value of patience. Now that’s all in the past and I’m just focusing on getting back to playing regularly again and getting a run of games. Ideally that run would start with a world title."
Were that to happen, perhaps the wider world would finally realise what Brazilians have known for some time: that Ganso really is a class apart.