Brazilian he may be, but Michel Bastos does not count Ronaldinho-style flicks and tricks among his repertoire. Nor can he execute stepovers at the same speed as Ronaldo or go off on mazy dribbles like Robinho. What he can do, though, is cover every blade of grass, pass the ball with precision and hit the ball hard, very hard. And while he has yet to attract the attentions of aristocratic AC Milan, star-studded Real Madrid or wealthy Manchester City, the 25 year old has built quite a reputation for himself with unfashionable Ligue 1 outfit Lille.
This season has proved the making of the powerful midfielder, as the statistics show. In 30 appearances for the northerners, Bastos has chalked up 13 goals and ten assists, an impressive return for a player who very nearly failed to make the grade.
Bastos served his apprenticeship with his hometown club of Pelotas. A striker with a promising career ahead of him, he joined Eredivisie giants Feyenoord at the age of 18 before being loaned out to Excelsior. Unable to adapt to Dutch culture and the climate, the youngster promptly returned to Brazil in 2003, and after a promising stint with Atletico Paranaense and then the mighty Gremio he found himself back at Pelotas, his career having seemingly stagnated for good.
Modest yet ambitious
Redemption came in the summer of 2006, when Lille's chief scout Jean-Luc Buisine convinced him to make the journey back across the Atlantic. It was another trip into the unknown for the Brazilian, who would take six long months to settle into his new surroundings, his task made all the harder by a series of injuries. "When I left everyone asked me what I was doing there, but the people who spoke to me about the club convinced me it was a good choice," he says.
"He's one of the best players in the league in his position," explains his compatriot and friend Rafael, the captain of Ligue 1 rivals Valenciennes. "There's no other player like him. And despite the success he's had, he's kept his feet on the ground."
Modest he may be, but Bastos is determined to grasp his second chance of stardom. "When you do your work well and you get results, that's when you become a star," says the Lille man, who is hoping for a crack at UEFA Champions League football next season. "I've always wanted to step up to the highest level. It's part of my job after all."
Les Dogues lie fifth in the league and should Bastos help them reach the continent's premier club competition, it would give Brazil coach Dunga a chance to take a closer look at a player who has already caught his eye.
"He's quick and he has a very powerful shot on him," commented the former FIFA World Cup™ winner. "To get the call-up what he needs to do is keep turning in consistent performances. If he can do that, then yes, he'll get his chance."
Should the call come from Dunga, it would represent the fulfilment of a childhood ambition. "The national team has been a dream of mine since I was young," says the in-form midfielder. "I've put in some good displays but it's very tough. Dunga's already mentioned me and some people back home are asking why I haven't been selected yet."
Now happily settled in northern France and the proud father of a baby boy, the South American wide man is in no rush to move on, despite increasing interest from other clubs. "I can't hide the fact that other teams are after me. But what's the point of moving just to sit on the bench somewhere else. I'm respected by everyone here, I've got my place in the team and I feel good. I love the city and the club and I want to repay them for everything they've given to me. I want to keep on improving with Lille."
Deployed as an attacking midfielder since Rudi Garcia's arrival as coach, the Brazilian has used his immense talent to great effect, becoming the most accurate passer in the league this term and confirming the promise he showed last season under Claude Puel, who often used him as a full-back.
And while Bastos is grateful to Garcia for his part in his stellar campaign, he also has warm words for his predecessor. "Rudi Garcia has allowed me to express myself going forward but Puel helped me iron out my weaknesses and to be patient."
"To my mind Michel is an attacking player," argues former Le Mans boss Garcia. And although Bastos' goalscoring feats add weight to that argument, he is more than ready to sacrifice his attacking attributes to take the step up to international football.
"It's not so easy to play for the national team because there are so many players," he once said after learning of Dunga's interest. "I don't really care where I play. I'd go anywhere just to play for Brazil, even in goal."
Julio Cesar, Doni and Dida; you have been warned.