Whatever your political views, it is hard not to appreciate the wisdom in the words of Vladimir Lenin, who once said that “sometimes you need to take one step back before taking two steps forward”. On the surface at least, that would appear to have been the thinking behind Julio Baptista’s decision to leave Serie A heavyweights Roma in the January transfer window and sign for relegation-threatened La Liga side Malaga.
Yet according to La Bestia (The Beast) himself, his switch to the Andalusian coast was a most definitely a forward step. “I wasn’t even getting a game at Roma, so how could I be going backwards?” he told FIFA.com. “This comeback has been incredible. This was just what I wanted: to have the chance to play and be a key man again.”
And key is just one way of describing Baptista’s role at the heart of Malaga’s La Liga revival, with the former Brazil international scoring no fewer than nine goals in 11 league games. This purple patch has included seven strikes during a five-match winning streak for Los Malaguistas, which has taken the club into ninth spot with one game remaining, though Baptista will miss that meeting with champions Barcelona due to a muscle strain.
As you would expect, such a remarkable turnaround in such a short space of time for both player and team has raised a few eyebrows. However, the versatile 29-year-old reveals that Malaga’s potential as a club was clear, even when relegation looked on the cards.
“Of course there was a level of uncertainty when I arrived, due to the fact the team was near the bottom of the table," he said. “But I quickly saw that there was a clearly set-out project for the medium term, which aims to narrow the gap between Malaga and Spain’s top clubs. The next step would be to push on still further and try and secure a Champions League spot. And they wanted me to be an integral part of this project.”
That may be the case, but seeing Baptista in a Malaga shirt does catch the eye for one important reason: since leaving Sevilla in 2005, the attacking midfielder has only turned out for such global giants as Real Madrid, Arsenal and Roma. But without playing poorly, nor did the player do enough to cement a regular starting berth at any of those illustrious teams.
“Unfortunately, I suffered from a lack of continuity," explained Batista. "During my spell at Real Madrid the club went through a lot of instability: I worked under four different coaches. That makes it difficult for anyone to get a clear idea of how you play. And then in comes a coach who doesn’t see you as part of his plans, as was the case with [Fabio] Capello.
“So off I went to Arsenal, I settled well there and wanted to stay but Real Madrid were asking for €15m for me. Arsene Wenger was very honest with me, he said that he was interested in keeping me but that at that price it was impossible. So I went back to Madrid, won the title and then came an offer from Roma. [Luciano] Spalletti believed in me and I was playing all the time until, yet again, there was a change in coach (Claudio Ranieri took over in September 2009). Then I picked up an injury and my situation was up in the air again.”
All the while Baptista was experiencing these highs and lows at a series of big clubs, his former side Sevilla, where he first burst on to the European scene, went from strength to strength. In fact, in the two seasons following his departure, Los Rojiblancos won consecutive UEFA Cup titles (2005/06 and 2006/07) and the Copa del Rey (2006/07).
Though understandably averse to the word 'regrets', the well-travelled Brazilian is honest and intelligent enough to question the timing of his exit from the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan. “Nowadays, looking back on my career, I can see that I would have been better prepared if I’d waited another year or two before leaving Sevilla,” he admitted. “But, on the other hand, when you get a great offer from a club like Real Madrid, it’s impossible not to be tempted and find yourself wanting to accept.”
Even during these years of instability, however, Baptista was always able to do enough to stay in the Brazil national-team frame. But despite being called up on more than 30 occasions, including for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the player has not always enjoyed the support of the Seleção faithful.
Baptista himself admits that he is more highly rated in Europe than back in Brazil, and not just because he left his hometown club Sao Paulo for Sevilla at just 21 in 2003. In fact, the main reason is that the pre-La Liga version of La Bestia was, rather than a goal-hungry attacking midfielder or second striker, a hard-working holding midfielder by trade.
“It was only after coming to Europe that I showed my true worth and settled into an attacking-midfield role,” said Baptista. “That meant that, even until recently, when I was in the Seleção or people back home saw me scoring goals, they’d say, ‘eh? But Julio’s a defensive midfielder, isn’t he?’ But I’ve been playing as an attacking midfielder for years and that’s how I made my name in European football.”
And after all the setbacks since leaving Sevilla and the distorted image that many in Brazil still have of him, does Baptista feel hard done by? “Not in the slightest," he responded. "Luck and factors outside your control play a part in everybody’s career. But if you work hard enough things end up going right for you one way or another.
“That’s how it’s been for me so far, and that’s why I always tried to look forward rather than back. I never stopped believing that I still had plenty to offer.”