Lulinha: The new Ronaldinho?

There are those teenagers who explode on to the footballing scene seemingly overnight. Alexandre Pato is a recent case in point. Then there are those who arrive on the big stage following years of hype, their faces having already decorated the pages of sports publications, their names having long frequented online forums and been linked with some of the biggest clubs on the planet, à la Gremio revelations Ronaldinho and Anderson.

Brazilian football's latest superstar-in-waiting, Lulinha, certainly fits into the latter bracket. For quite some time now, his towering potential has been public and after emphatically living up to his billing at the South American U-17 Championship earlier this year, he will now strive to emphasise his status as Ronaldinho's heir apparent at Korea 2007.

Although Lulinha's playing style is not a carbon copy of the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year's, it is evident why the comparisons have emanated. With his breathtaking cocktail of flicks and tricks, defence-splitting through-balls and assured finishing, the 17-year-old, who is equally at home in an attacking midfield role or operating as a second forward, is every bit the classic Brazilian No10. With Ronaldinho's throne his target destination, inspiring the Seleção to glory at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, just as the Barcelona luminary did at Egypt 1997, would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Young headliner
If word of the Corinthians starlet's precocious talent had long been common knowledge within the club he joined as an eight-year-old, then it began to spread beyond the Parque Sao Jorge gates in 2004. Even back then, aged 14, the aspiring player was likened to Ronaldinho and tipped to follow his path into the senior national team. The 2002 FIFA World Cup™ winner was once himself the subject of such hype. As a preteen, his unmistakable grin greeted readers of Placar magazine, while his potential was consistently advertised in the local press over the ensuing years.

In 2005, Lulinha represented his country at U-15 level, shining as they won the Tampa Tournament and the following year he established himself as the pick of a constellation of stars in Brazil's U-17 side, while also netting 27 goals in 15 games for his club the Paulista U-17 Championship. "I want to progress to the Corinthians first-team and then reach the senior Seleção," the teenager revealed.

The former of the two ambitions he realised earlier this year, three days before he turned 17, helping O Timão beat America-SP 2-0 in the Paulista State Championship. If he can live up to his reputation at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, a promotion to the five-time world champions' senior ranks may around he corner for Lulinha, just as it was for Peru 2005 headliner Anderson, who is now on the books at Manchester United and was part of Brazil's triumphant Copa America Venezuela 2007 squad.

Gold the target
Justifying his mega-hype in Korea will not be an unfamiliar objective to Lulinha. In March, went into the South American U-17 Championship under the weight of expectation. Nonetheless, he emerged from the tournament having propelled the Seleção to victory, providing a number of assists and finishing as the event's 12-goal leading marksman to vindicate his esteem.

More recently, he impressed in the Pan American Games Rio 2007, scoring a hat-trick as Brazil opened up with a 3-0 win over Honduras. After cruising through to the semi-finals, though, Lucho Nizzo's youngsters lost 4-2 to a more experienced Ecuador side, leaving Lulinha to switch his attentions to the world finals, where Brazil will be bidding to extinguish the memory of a final defeat by Mexico two years ago.

Alongside Spain's serial goal-getter Bojan Krkic, Lulinha will enter Korea 2007 as one of its two most talked-about participants. If Catalan giants Barcelona have their way, the latter will be joining the former at the Nou Camp sooner rather than later. Indeed, Barça have courted the Maua native's signature for quite some time now, undeterred by Corinthians' huge valuation of their prize asset.

Not that they have been alone in paying the Brazilian boy wonder complimentary glances. Real Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan have also been linked with a move for the player whose current contract is due to expire in June 2009.

With the FIFA U-17 World Cup providing Lulinha a platform on which to exhibit his captivating gifts, this list of admirers can only elongate. And while it seems inevitable that the Brazilian will thrill audiences in Korea, he will only return home fulfilled if a winners' medal is in his pocket.