Sweet seventeen for Rio duo

Rio de Janiero’s leading clubs strengthened their squads at the end of 2009 by splashing out on some famous names on the domestic and international stage. Time rarely stands still in the football world, however. With a seemingly limitless supply of talented youngsters continuining to come through, it is no surprise that the current darlings of the Rio scene are two players who are still not old enough to take their driving tests.

Vying for centre stage with star striker Fred at Fluminense is the exciting 17-year-old Wellington Silva, while fellow teenager Philippe Coutinho is grabbing some of the limelight at Vasco da Gama from linchpin midfielder Carlos Alberto. 

Not surprisingly, the two homegrown tyros have become big hits with the Tricolor and Vascaíno fans, who have been enraptured by their tricky skills and ability to shoot from distance. The only downside is that those selfsame skills have long since attracted the attentions of some big clubs on the other side of the Atlantic, namely Arsenal and Inter Milan.

It’s been important for me to learn how to handle the pressure of playing for a big side. This is something that happens at every major club and it’s vital for my development. It’s a better learning experience for me.
Philippe Coutinho on Vasco's dip in form

The Londoners were so impressed with Wellington that they have already secured his signature, while the Italians have pulled off a similar coup with Coutinho. The duo will not be able to make their respective moves to the Emirates Stadium and the San Siro until they turn 18, however, with Coutinho’s departure date coming on 12 June, and Wellington’s on 6 January 2011.

Coping with the pressure
The question for anyone in the know in Rio footballing circles was not if but when the two rising stars would take on leading roles for their club sides. Yet, what has surprised everyone is how quickly they have bedded down in top-flight football.

Serving notice of his abilities as a playmaker in the mould of Kaka, Coutinho was the first to get himself noticed, serving a useful apprenticeship in the side that won the national second division championship last year and then impressing in pre-season training. After earning a place in the starting XI, he chose the clássico against Botafogo in late January as his coming-out party, scoring twice in an emphatic 6-0 win.

Although O Bacalhau have suffered a dip in form since then, Coutinho continues to enjoy the confidence of coach Vagner Mancini and his team-mates, among them striker Fernando Prass. “You didn’t hear him an awful lot last year,” he says. “He would listen rather than speak, but now he’s loosened up more. He less scared of making mistakes and more willing to try things out.”

Prass even likens his youthful colleague to another talented individual he once shared a dressing room with. “Philippe’s a quiet lad who keeps himself to himself. But he’s got plenty of character and he knows what he’s worth. I played with Ronaldinho at Gremio in 1997 and 98, and I can tell you that they have a lot of similarities.”

The one positive aspect of Vasco’s faltering form of late is that it has helped the attacking midfielder mature even more quickly, particularly when it comes to dealing with the club’s demanding fans. “It’s been important for me to learn how to handle the pressure of playing for a big side. This is something that happens at every major club and it’s vital for my development. It’s a better learning experience for me.”

Making his way
Adopting a more advanced role in the Fluminense attack, Wellington was given his first opportunities to impress at the start of the season, thanks to injuries to his team-mates and Maicon’s transfer negotiations with Lokomotiv Moscow. Gratefully seizing his chance, the young forward has been displaying his potential in the Rio state championship.

He scored his maiden first-team goal on his very first start, a 5-1 defeat of Friburguense at the end of February, and also chipped in with an assist. It proved to be an emotional occasion for the debutant, whose family were looking on from the stands at the Maracana. “I started crying when I saw my family,” he said. “I was very emotional at running on to the pitch for the first time as a member of the starting XI. Nothing’s been easy in my life. This means an awful lot.”

The Flu prodigy then played a vital part in a stirring 2-1 comeback win in the clássico against Botafogo in early March, earning the praise of his coach, Cuca. “He came on at the right time and he has this ability to play on either flank. He’s going to bring a lot of joy for sure.”

A question of time
Both Cuca and Mancini have both taken care to ration their young stars’ appearances, preferring to let their more experienced players shoulder the responsibility of leading and shaping their respective outfits. “The fans don’t like it whenever he’s taken off, but they have to remember that he’s a kid who’s just come out of the juniors,” says the Tricolor boss, perhaps speaking for his Vasco counterpart too. “This is a whole new physical challenge for him.”

I was very emotional at running on to the pitch for the first time as a member of the starting XI. Nothing’s been easy in my life. This means an awful lot.
Fluminense's Wellington Silva

It is a challenge both players are anxious to accept. “People know me now,” says Wellington. “They speak to me when I’m out in the street, though I’m trying to live life the same way I did before I moved up to the first team. I’ve still got my childhood friends and I still do the same things,” says Coutinho, echoing those words. “I go to training and I go home. I’m pretty quiet really.”

The recent experience of Santos striker Neymar, a team-mate of theirs in the Brazil side that made an unexpectedly early exit from the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, should serve as further inspiration. Making the step up to the big time last year, Neymar has endured the typical ups and downs of any youngster trying to make their way. After helping his side to the runners-up spot in the 2009 Campeonato Carioca, he sat out the Brasileirão only to come back strongly in this year’s state competition, in which he is currently the second-top scorer.

Wellington and Coutinho can expect some ups and downs of their own in the competitive environment of European football, although their club directors would like to keep them in Brazil for a little while longer, something the fans would surely welcome. Europe lies in the future, however, and for the time being Rio’s upwardly mobile twosome have their minds firmly focused on some state silverware.