How Coutinho overcame his setbacks to become Barcelona's record buy
What on earth must Inter Milan be thinking at the moment?
They identified the special talent of Philippe Coutinho before the Brazilian attacking midfielder had even turned professional. They bought him in 2008, when he was 16, and had to wait two years to take him across the Atlantic. But after all of this scouting work and the investment of time and money, they effectively gave up on him.
After three disappointing Serie A seasons -- 28 league appearances and three goals; 47 games and five goals in all competitions -- they sold him on to Liverpool for, in the terms of today's market, the price of a banana. The Premier League club have made an extraordinary profit, acquiring a player for £8.5 million, getting five good years out of him and selling him on in a deal that brings them, after all the add-ons, a reported, and scarcely credible, £133.5 million more than they paid.
Inter, meanwhile, have neither the player nor the money. How could this have happened? How can it be that a player valued so highly in 2018 was discarded in 2013?
Some have argued that Coutinho's failure to shine with Inter is predominantly a tactical question, that Italian opponents were better at denying him space, which he found in abundance when he made the move to England.
There may be something in this. But it is surely also arguable that the change in form and fortune has at least as much to do with psychological factors. A timid young man needed to feel sufficiently confident to reveal the full range of his talent. Thrown into the deep end in Serie A, perhaps he was not mentally prepared for the challenge, left without the necessary support to make the transition from promise to reality.
He joined Inter after having played a grand total of seven first-division games in Brazil for Vasco da Gama, scoring one goal. He had made his first-team debut the previous year, 2009, when Vasco were in the second division, playing 12 games and scoring no goals. That year also brought embarrassing failure in the Under-17 World Cup, when a front line of Neymar and Coutinho failed to score in defeats against Mexico and Switzerland which, amazingly, dumped Brazil out of the competition at the group stage.
Inter declared him the future of their club in 2010, but maybe they were asking too much. When he joined Liverpool he initially thrived in the protective shadow of Luis Suarez, who has been talking enthusiastically of reuniting with his "little brother." With lower expectations and more protection, he began to flower, showing the incisive play that Inter's scouts had seen in him as an adolescent.
There is a hidden side of football, usually out of reach of fans and media, not included in the calculations of video games. It is the field of human relations; the dynamic inside the dressing room and between coach and players. It is surely significant that, before joining Liverpool, Coutinho's first European success came in a six-month loan spell at Espanyol. Then-coach Mauricio Pochettino has gone on to demonstrate his effectiveness as a developer of young talent.
A similar narrative is present in Coutinho's international career. Suspensions and absences gave him plenty of opportunities to stand in for Neymar. But under the snarling and aggressive coaching of Dunga, Coutinho seemed to shrink in his boots. The 2016 Copa America Centenario in the U.S. supplied a typical example. He went on a rampage against a weak Haiti side, grabbing a hat trick. But in the games that mattered, against Ecuador and Peru, he made little impression and Brazil were bundled out at the group stage -- which turned out to be just as well for the team and the player.
Dunga was sacked, in came Tite and neither Brazil nor Coutinho have looked back. In addition to his tactical insight, Tite is acknowledged as a splendid man manager. A confident Coutinho has become a match winner for club and country. Inter should surely be studying the player's time in Italy to identify how they managed to get it so wrong.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.