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By Giancarlo Giampietro with Brazil
The tattoo on Philippe Coutinho’s left arm bears a simple message: “Never stop dreaming”. It is a short phrase that neatly sums up the resolve that Brazil needed to draw on in their dramatic 2-0 victory over Costa Rica on Friday in Saint Petersburg.
On a personal level, however, the three words also neatly encapsulate Coutinho’s career in football. The attacking midfielder has chosen an appropriate moment to suddenly take centre stage for his country. “It’s something that’s in me: never give up, whatever you’re going through,” he told FIFA when questioned about the tattoo. “The match today was proof of that.”
You could be forgiven for wondering exactly which obstacles life has laid in the path of a player who first shot to recognition in the English Premier League and is now starring for Barcelona. Indeed, life seems rosy for the midfielder, and even more so having played a crucial role in Brazil’s start to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia with two goals in two games.
But that is not to say that Coutinho’s road to the top has not taken some unexpected turns.
A disjointed journey
The attacking midfielder left Brazil when he was still only young, when Inter Milan reached a deal with Vasco de Gama to bring him to Italy in 2008. At the time Coutinho was still just 16 years old, therefore needing to wait two years before being able to sign as a professional and play at his new club. He never truly settled in Milan and, following a season on loan at Espanyol, he signed for Liverpool in 2013. The rest, as they say, is history.
But it was a story that was initially only played out in club football. Coutinho steadily rose to prominence with the Reds, but not quickly enough to earn a place in the national squad for Brazil’s home World Cup in 2014. Meanwhile Neymar, a former international team-mate at youth level, was already well on the way to becoming a national idol.
Still returning from a foot injury, the Paris Saint-Germain striker has had a difficult start to this year’s tournament in Russia – hence the superstar’s tears at the full-time whistle on Friday. But as Neymar works his way back to full fitness, Coutinho has emerged as Brazil’s key man.
Seleção's shining star
First came his superb strike in the draw with Switzerland, a trademark curling effort from the edge of the penalty area. The contrast with the finish for his second goal, a toe-poke from close range against Costa Rica, could not have been greater. “It was the way it had to be hit,” he chuckled. “It worked out. Having opened the scoring we then grew, so it goes without saying that the goal was more important too.”
Coutinho’s exuberant celebrations on the field contrast with his shyness in front of the microphone. For the second consecutive game, he was chosen as the Budweiser Man of the Match. Yet it does not seem to bother him that he has scored two goals and, in truth, has come to the rescue of a team that is struggling in front of goal. Deep in the bowels of the Saint Petersburg Stadium, he once more paid tribute to his teammates.
Earlier in the week, in Sochi, Coutinho was asked whether he should already be considered as one of the best players in the world. “I don’t really like talking about myself,” he replied. “It’s not something that I’m thinking about. I’d rather leave other people to talk about that. I’m focused on preparing, improving and doing my best for A Seleção.”
“Happy to receive this prize again, but the win was the most important thing,” he said following the Costa Rica match. “We suffered right up until the end, but it was deserved.”
The victory means that a relieved Brazil squad can still dare to dream. We can but wonder about Coutinho’s own dreams, but one thing is for certain: at Russia 2018, he is already right up there with the very best.