When Brazil’s Renato Augusto was told that he would be wearing the No5 jersey at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, he could not help but smile.
“I cracked a joke with the defenders, because the first time I was called up I wore the No10 shirt, then the No8, and now I’ve got the No5,” he told FIFA.com with a laugh. "I said to them: ‘Watch out, you lot. I’m coming’. The most important thing, though, is to help out any way you can.”
The jersey is traditionally the preserve of holding midfielders in Brazil, and it was given to him for a very good reason, as was clear to see in the 6-0 semi-final defeat of Honduras, a game in which Renato really did sit deep, playing far closer to the defence than the front line. It was a position he felt comfortable in, in more ways than one.
Able to dictate the play, while also snuffing out any danger, the midfielder has been one of the driving forces behind Brazil’s resurgence at Rio 2016, which has seen them atone for two underwhelming draws with three convincing victories and a place in Saturday’s final at the Maracana against Germany.
Though versatility is one of Renato Augusto’s strong suits, it may have come as a surprise to some to see him in such a withdrawn position, considering that last season, when he was running out for Corinthians, he was voted the best player in the Brazilian championship in recognition of his link-up play with the attack. So impressive were his performances, in fact, that he aroused interest in Europe before signing for Chinese club Beijing Guoan.
Watching Renato play the ball around, get moves going and provide cover when the time comes to defend, it is easy to understand why Brazil coach Rogerio Micale decided to hand him his new role, especially with Walace, stationed in front of him, making such a good job of pressing the opposition in a first line of defence.
“Utility players find it easier to slot in elsewhere, and maybe it was because I can play in several different positions that I got called up,” said the versatile 28-year-old, one of three over-age players in Brazil’s 18-man Olympic squad, along with goalkeeper Weverton and star man Neymar.
It is not the first time that Renato has slotted into a holding role in midfield, and nor is it the case that he has always had defensive duties to fulfil for Micale. There have been times when he has taken up position as a playmaker, his preferred role. This season he has even been seen leading the attack, as he explained: “I’ve never spent a lot of time playing there, but I’ve done it a few times. In China, I’m like a deep-lying forward now. It’s a role I’m gradually growing into and I’m learning every day.”
With Germany providing the opposition in the Rio 2016 final, it is a little ironic that Renato should attribute his versatility to the time he spent in the Bundesliga. Having broken through with Flamengo, he spent four seasons with Bayer Leverkusen, between 2008 and 2012. “Playing in Germany was great for that reason, in terms of gaining a tactical appreciation of the game,” he said. “I learned a lot there and it’s stayed with me.”
In helping A Seleção in their quest for gold, Renato has brought more to the table than just intelligence and talent. He is also a leader, as he showed in standing tall when the team came in for criticism following the two goalless displays against South Africa and Iraq in the group phase, with the team struggling to find their way. As far as he was concerned, it was not just a question of waiting until the team turned their form around. There was also a need to make sure nerves did not get too frayed.
“There’s been a lot of work on getting the mental side of things right,” he explained. “When you have a younger side, I think that becomes a bit harder, as there’s a few of them who still don’t understand it that well, and sometimes you have to sit down with them and sometimes you have to take the responsibility of urging them on a bit more. That’s what I try to do, as I’m one of the older players and I try to calm things down a little for them. And the fact is, we’re doing really well now.”
Bolstered by their big win at the Maracana, A Seleção are now looking forward to the final, not least Renato. “We still haven’t won anything yet,” he warned. “Football can knock you back sometimes. It’s great that we’ve been winning, but if we lose on Saturday, then all that will be forgotten.” Those are the words of someone who is willing to do anything for his national team, even, if it comes down to it, making a sudden switch to defence.