Inter Milan prodigy Philippe Coutinho would not be the first young Brazilian to move to the fashion capital of the world and dazzle. After arriving at the San Siro in 2003, Kaka went on to become an idol at AC Milan, a status the gifted 18-year-old is already on the way to achieving in the blue and black stripes of their city rivals.
The Vasco da Gama youth product only joined I Nerazzurri in June this year, but rather than being loaned out to gain Serie A experience elsewhere, he has been fast-tracked straight into Inter’s star-studded first team after impressing in training. And what makes Coutinho's rapid ascent even more notable is the fact that he is three years younger than Kaka was when he pulled on the Rossoneri jersey for the first time.
“I thought it would be difficult to break into the squad, because Inter won everything there was to win last season with some excellent players,” the attacking midfielder told FIFA.com. “But thanks to God, opportunities have been coming my way. I’ve been training hard for this and I hope I can make the most of it.”
Inter signed the skillful Coutinho back in 2008 but had to wait for him to turn 18 before finally welcoming him to Milan. Far from being daunted at the prospect of joining one of the giants of European football, the youngster patiently took everything in his stride during his two-year wait.
“I was delighted with the deal because they are one of Europe’s biggest clubs and everyone wants to play there,” he revealed. “Everything went very smoothly.”
In the meantime, Coutinho stepped up to the Vasco first team and played his part in their return to the Brazilian top flight last year, helping them lift the Serie B title. “All I was focused on at the time was staying at the Estadio Sao Januario and helping my team,” he said. “I knew I was going to Italy but that was still in the future.”
Checking in for pre-season training with Inter, Coutinho quickly caught the eye of their newly-appointed coach Rafa Benitez, who had yet to see him in action. It was not long before the former Liverpool manager was heaping praise on the teenager - praise that has been echoed by experienced Serie A observers and Coutinho’s team-mates, among them Colombian defender Ivan Cordoba: “He has a lot of technical ability and you can see he wants to play the right way. He’s also down-to-earth and relaxed, and he always makes himself available on the pitch.”
Having established himself as one of Benitez’s trump cards on the bench, Coutinho confesses to being surprised at such compliments coming his way: “Things like that make me very happy. I’d seen Cordoba on TV and he’s a player who commands a lot of respect. I feel very honoured.”
The dribble wizard, who was already taking language classes back in Rio de Janeiro, has also been brushing up his Italian, with Cordoba promising to help him expand his vocabulary. “He taught me two words in the first training session, both of them to do with man-marking,” explained the eager student. “He said he’d give me a couple more the following day.”
Coutinho’s introduction to life at Inter has also been made easier by the fact he has several compatriots around to help him, among them Brazil internationals of the stature of Julio Cesar, Maicon and Lucio.
“I thought it would be a little harder for me but they’re a fantastic group of players and there are some wonderful people here,” said Coutinho, who also has his family with him in Italy. “The Brazilian guys are helping me a lot. I used to cheer them on as a supporter - now I'm playing alongside them.”
Rubbing shoulders with that esteemed trio has done Coutinho’s international prospects a power of good. Called up for the October friendlies against Iran and Ukraine, he has already joined up with A Seleção for a training session in Barcelona, where he came into close contact with Mano Menezes.
“He’s a great coach, as we’d already seen when he was at Corinthians,” said Coutinho. “He helped me a lot, corrected a few things, and we had a nice, calm atmosphere going. That first session has been very important for my career.”
Menezes employed the former Vasco man out on the flanks in that Brazil get-together, which, incidentally, is a role he is also filling with Inter. After beginning his career as a playmaker or second striker, Coutinho is more than happy to make the positional switch: “I’m just trying to get to grips with what the coach wants me to do. I’m really comfortable with that.”