Wagner runs into Brazil reckoning
In 2005, Fred was the rising star making waves in the blue of Cruzeiro. His goals had catapulted the Raposa into Brasileiro title contention and were attracting admiring glances from the European talent-spotters.
Eventually, Lyon whisked him across the Atlantic in exchange for 15 million Euros, and his departure effectively ended Cruzeiro's bid to snatch the domestic crown. Without an artilheiro, the Belo Horizonte outfit plummeted down the standings, eventually finishing a lowly eighth.
The heir apparent
This season has seen Cruzeiro unearth Fred's successor in the goal-getting department in the shape of a prospect every bit as exciting.
Prior to the crucial Campeonato Mineiro semi-final second leg against arch-rivals Atletico-MG, Wagner had performed competently, if not spectacularly, in his outings for the side, but with Leandro Bonfim suspended, the 21-year-old made a spectacularly successful deputy. Asked to step into the breach, he did so with aplomb, firing home a free-kick en route to a much-celebrated 2-0 victory.
Wagner had also succeeded in cementing his place in the starting
11 for the final, and after the first-leg against defending
champions Ipatinga had ended 1-1, Cruzeiro travelled to the home of
their rivals for the decider. One goal settled the contest in the
visitors' favour, and it was claimed by Wagner on the stroke of
half-time. A new hero had been born.
Like Fred, Wagner is ironically a product of America-MG's youth system, although he left the club for more illustrious pastures in 2004. That's not where the similarities end. Although naturally an offensive midfielder, Wagner is also a prolific marksman, and when the Brasileiro took a break for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, with Cruzeiro resting at the summit of the division, he proudly sat at the top of the scoring charts with 8 strikes to his name. In fact, he was on target in each of his team's opening seven games.
Not that Wagner's game is restricted to scoring goals. His
pre-Germany 2006 return was complemented by 7 assists, a factor
that has led to comparisons being drawn to a former Raposa midfield
all-rounder, Alex, the pre-eminent idol in Cruzeiro's 2003
However, though his goals dried up following the re-commencement of the national championship, in part due to ankle and thigh problems, finding the back of opponents' nets remains Wagner's foremost attribute.
It is the variety of his efforts that make him largely irrepressible. Capable of scoring from dead-balls or from open play, from close-range or from distance, with cushioned shots or scorching piledrivers, with head or foot, left foot or right, Wagner epitomises the art of goalscoring.
Another key aspect of the 21-year-old's play is his movement. Able to drift into the penalty area unnoticed, à la Kaka, or to find space on the edge on the box, at times the ball seems to be almost magnetically attracted to him.
Wagner was one of five home-based players included in Dunga's first Brazil squad for the trip to Norway last month.
It was an invitation that caught him a little by surprise. "I was asleep and my mother knocked on the door twice to call me," he recalled. "I thought that she just wanted to waken me, but then I saw the good news."
He wasn't given any playing time against the Norwegians, and when Dunga named his squad for the Brazil's subsequent matches against Argentina and Wales in the English capital, Wagner was one of the players to make way for Kaka and Ronaldinho. Nevertheless, his inaugural call-up was recognition that he is in the thoughts of the new Brazilian coach.
Indeed, Wagner was widely assumed to be the subject of Dunga's visit to the Maracana for a meeting between Botafogo and Cruzeiro in late August, and afterwards, the former midfield enforcer made a point of praising the €15 million-rated youngster. Days later, on what was 100th appearance for Cruzeiro, Wagner returned to the goal trail against Sao Caetano.
With competition fierce for attacking midfield berths in the Brazil squad, Wagner faces a struggle to establish himself. Elano, Julio Baptista and Daniel Carvalho all staked their claims for places during Brazil's trip to London, and aspirants Diego and Anderson have been in sparkling form this season for Werder Bremen and FC Porto respectively. However, following his meteoric ascent, the Sete Lagoas native is high on confidence. If he continues to shine so brightly, Wagner will be hard for Dunga to ignore.