Give any South American youngster a choice of shirt number and the chances are that they will choose the No10. In Philippe Coutinho’s case, however, it was a choice he never had to make. From his early days in the youth ranks at Vasco da Gama and with Brazil, the No10 jersey was always his by right.
It is for that reason perhaps that the young Brazilian had no inkling of the difference a shirt bearing these particular digits can make, of its power to turn despair into hope, to transform a season, much like a magical pass sometimes can.
The player experienced such contrasting emotions for himself when making only his second appearance, and his first in the starting XI, for Liverpool against Swansea City last February. With his club at a low ebb and its fans despondent at the team’s lacklustre form, the former Inter Milan man suddenly gave them something to smile about, surging forward to play neat one-twos with Uruguayan spearhead Luis Suarez and scoring a goal in an emphatic 5-0 win, bringing a smile back to everyone’s faces.
As the Reds’ morale improved, along with their immediate prospects, so too did Coutinho rediscover the kind of form he was unable to produce on a consistent basis for the Milan giants. Speaking to FIFA.com about the move he made to England at the start of the year, the 20-year-old midfielder said: “Everything is working out for me. It was just what I needed.”
Reflecting on his time in Italy, he added: “I’d been thinking for a while about leaving because I wasn’t getting that many opportunities at Inter. And players need opportunities. I was upset things hadn’t worked out but the offer was a really good one and it came at the right time. I think I did the right thing.”
Judging by the plaudits he has earned and the club’s player of the month award he picked up in March, when he attracted even more attention by scoring another goal and serving up four more assists, his decision to move to Anfield certainly looks a wise one.Team-mate Steven Gerrard and coach Brendan Rodgers have been heaping praise on the Brazilian, as has Southampton coach Mauricio Pochettino, formerly in charge at Spanish side Espanyol.
While Gerrard has spoken of Coutinho’s “brilliance” on the pitch and his belief that Liverpool will be even stronger next season, Rodgers extolled the youngster’s “tremendous talent” and his creative vision, with Pochettino comparing him to luminaries such as Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi: “He’s got something magical in his feet, like all good Brazilians.”
Wearing a smile that has become a trademark of his in his first few months in England, the player himself explained the reasons behind his success: “I think it all comes down to a question of confidence. I got a great welcome here. I feel people are doing all they can to support me and I’ve been getting on well with my team-mates. Playing with people like Suarez and hearing what idols like Gerrard have to say is great for my confidence. What’s helped me the most is knowing that I’m important and that they have faith in me.”
Rodgers’ belief is based on the fact that Coutinho has slotted straight into what had been the team’s problem position, a wide attacking role, one in which the new recruit has struck up a productive partnership with Suarez, much to the benefit of the side.
“I’ve played in a more central position before, in a creative role in the middle, but I think I’m performing better now further out on the flank,” said the player. “Out there I can cut back in, shoot or play a pass.”
As well as continuing to light up Anfield, Coutinho is also hoping to return to the Brazil fold he formed part of as a youth player and to carry out a similarly incisive role for them. As fate would have it, his return to A Seleção would more than likely see him battling for a slot with Santos ace Neymar, a team-mate of Coutinho’s when he was first tipped for stardom while excelling as a teenager for his country. The prospect of such a duel does not seem to unnerve him, however.
“I don’t think that’s important right now,” he explained. “What I need to do is keep on playing well at Liverpool and keep progressing for the rest of the season, so that I can give myself a chance. The English league is strong and everyone will be watching.”
“Obviously I’m dreaming of a return to A Seleção,” he continued, pondering an international career in which he has won just one cap, under Mano Menezes in 2010. “I’d play in any position just to do that, even in defence!”
As well as Neymar, another good example for Coutinho to follow in his first few months in England is Oscar, whose contribution to Brazil’s win at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, their fifth at that age group, helped him graduate to the full national team. Though a team-mate of the Chelsea man in that world-title winning side, Coutinho has been unable as yet to follow his path.
“I was happy for him because he’s a nice guy and we had some good times together in the U-20s, but everyone’s different,” said the Rio de Janeiro-born player, who will be taking on his former colleague this Sunday, when Liverpool entertain Chelsea.
For the time being Coutinho is concentrating only on giving his best and building his relationship with the Liverpool fans. And if the chance one day comes to relive his U-20 glory days, he will gladly take it. “I’d like to play alongside Oscar again," he said, "but this time for the full Brazil team.”