Some people say that they don’t make playmakers like they used to. Others will say they don’t make playmakers at all, pointing to the increasing pace of the game, ever more adventurous full-backs and midfielders, and the seeming lack of No10s able to sit on the ball and dictate the play.
In Brazil, Santos prodigy Paulo Henrique Ganso is seen as very much the exception to the rule, as a throwback to bygone days, a collector’s item, a freak of nature who has turned the clock back to produce the kind of football that has not been seen there for years. Yet, it was Ganso himself who pointed out in a recent interview that Brazilian football was graced by a player of similar virtues as recently as seven years ago, a player who has since gone on to become one of the biggest idols in the history of Turkish giants Fenerbahce.
That player is Alexsandro de Souza, better known as Alex, of whom Ganso describes himself as a huge fan. During his most productive years in his homeland, spent with Palmeiras and then Cruzeiro, the artful midfielder attracted the same kind of admiration that is now coming Ganso’s way, gaining a reputation as a classical old-style ballplayer, a breed of footballer thought to have died out.
“I’ve heard a few things from his interview, and the fact they came from someone who plays the ball as well as he does made me feel pretty proud,” says the Fenerbahce man in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “I think there are similarities and differences in the way we play. Ganso is even more of a classical player than I am and he sits a bit deeper than I’ve ever done."
Alex’s view is that, while Brazil is still producing classical old-school midfielders at the youth level, there are too many obstacles for them to succeed at the highest level. “It’s hard for playmakers to come through now, and you don’t see coaches prepared to play them that much,” he explains.
“You’ll find them at youth level but coaches very often go for stronger players who are able to mark opponents as well. And generally speaking, players who like to organise and direct play usually find the defensive side of the game more difficult. It’s less dynamic for them. There are some coaches who’ll find a player like that and build the team around them, but there are others who say they’re not so important and that there are other solutions.”
Alex’s statistics with Fenerbahce read like those of an out-and-out striker rather than a playmaker, even if he does operate slightly further up the pitch than his admirer Ganso. In 316 appearances with the Turkish club he has scored a remarkable 154 goals, nearly one every two games. Even though he is now approaching the twilight of his career at 33-years-old, the Brazilian shows no signs of slowing down. With 18 goals in 24 games this season, he is the top scorer in the Turkish league.
“People ask me, ‘So do you lose a lot when you turn 30?’" The fact is though, I haven’t lost anything because I never had it,” says the self-effacing Alex, displaying the same kind of sharpness he shows on the pitch each week. "Throughout my career people have always had their doubts about me because of it. But even when I was 18 I wasn’t that fast or strong, so I never had anything to lose in the first place. I played alongside Zinho at Palmeiras in 1999, when he was already seen as something of a veteran. But then he went on and had success with Gremio and played a very important role in Cruzeiro’s championship win in 2003.
"We’ve spoken about that and I think it’s the same kind of story. Anyone who values the kind of football I play is always going to put a lot more emphasis on the technical side of the game than the physical. As you get older you lose your physical strength and your speed,” he continues. “For example, I played with Roberto Carlos when he was at his physical peak and again here at Fenerbahce when he was 35 or 36. Obviously he became a different player. He had to adapt.
"I just try and look after what I’ve got. I’ve never had a bad injury and I train every day. I see a lot of younger players who train less than I do and play less too. I can honestly say I feel great right now.”
With so many Brazilian clubs looking to lure foreign-based idols back home, Alex’s talents and longevity make him an obvious transfer target. Only last year, with his contract running out at Fener, a number of sides showed an interest in acquiring his services.
“Palmeiras made enquiries, through Galeano [a former Verdão player and now a director at the club],” he explains. “I hadn’t even discussed the subject with Fenerbahce, but I told them the truth, that my contract was up but that I wanted to renew it. When Coritiba told me about their project and plans for the future, I felt something stirring inside because of my links with the club. But then I felt I belonged here with Fenerbahce and I signed the extension.
"People are always asking me these days if I’m going to end my career here or with Coritiba. All I can say is that I’m not thinking about that right now because there’s not much sense in doing so. My contract here runs until June 2013 and I want to see it out, like I always have. As for what happens later, we’ll just to have to wait until that later comes around. And then we’ll see.”