Few consider Alex Raphael Meschini among the leading lights of Internacional's memorable 2006 season, when they won the Copa Libertadores and FIFA Club World Cup. But whatever the arguments about his influence on that hugely successful side, nobody would dispute that today he is the player most pivotal to O Colorado's ambitions.
Central to the attacking midfielder's new-found status has been the marked improvement in two aspects of his game: leadership and goal-scoring. After inspiring his side to Gaucho State Championship glory earlier this year, the Brazilian now has the chance to captain them in the forthcoming Copa Sudamericana final against Estudiantes of Argentina.
Alex's transformation from valued team member to its driving force owes much to his emergence as a prolific scorer. "Nothing makes a greater difference to how a player is perceived than his scoring. In recent years we had Rafael Sobis, Fernandao and Alexandre Pato doing this job while I was filling different roles, like being our third midfielder. Today I have a different function, which is to score goals and win games," the 26-year-old told FIFA.com.
The results have been nothing if not dramatic. Of the player's 53 strikes for the club, 32 have come this season. "It's not as if I've just learned to play football this year; what's changed is my position on the field," explained the No10, who joined Inter from Guarani in 2004.
"Now that I'm deployed much nearer the opposition goal, I have a lot more scoring chances. Naturally, converting more of these chances boosts your confidence too. Now my team-mates joke that if I shoot at goal blindfolded, I still manage to find the net."
Internacional form, international recogntion
Alex's leading role at Internacional has not gone unnoticed by Brazil coach Dunga, who called him into his squad for last month's 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers against Venezuela and Colombia in place of the injured Julio Baptista. "I have to admit that, at 26, I thought my chances of playing for Brazil were remote," he admitted.
"However, things just seemed to happen naturally. Perhaps at 22 or 23 I wouldn't have been mature enough to integrate myself into the squad in the best manner. Still, it's every footballer's dream to play for his country. I'd even say that a lot of internationals from other nations would love the chance to play for Brazil," added the Parana native, who made another substitute appearance in A Seleção's 6-2 friendly win over Portugal last week.
As Internacional's star turn, Alex knows that he could enhance his Brazil aspirations with a commanding performance against Estudiantes, in what will be the first appearance by a Brazilian side in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. "It's a tournament that is constantly growing in stature, tradition and, above all, quality. We had to get past Gremio, Chile's Universidad Catolica, Boca Juniors and Chivas Guadalajara - all teams of the highest order," said the competition's joint-leading marksman, a mark he shares with three others, including Estudiantes's Mauro Boselli.
"I've seen many of Estudiantes's games and they're an excellent side. They have a very well-defined playing style, a rock-solid defence and, in Juan Sebastian Veron, an exceptional player who can win a game for you. That said, we know exactly what we have to do. We're ready and fully motivated to capture another international trophy," said Alex on the eve of the first leg in La Plata.
It is a prediction his opponents would do well to take seriously. When Alex now speaks for Internacional, he does so with the authority that comes with leading by example and scoring crucial goals, something he will be hoping to continue in Argentina tomorrow and in the return leg in Porto Alegre on 3 December.