Paulinho's new lease of life after silencing Barcelona doubters
Wembley could have been Paulinho's home this season if things had worked out differently for him at Tottenham. Instead, on Tuesday, he's a visitor to England's national stadium -- Spurs' temporary home -- as an integral part of a Brazil side which finally appears to have recovered from the depression which followed a 7-1 humiliation to Germany in the World Cup semifinals over three years ago.
Paulinho, like Brazil, suffered after that seven-goal embarrassment in Belo Horizonte. For around 18 months, it cost him his place in the Selecao squad altogether. Meanwhile, back in London, any shoots of encouragement which had been witnessed in his first year -- he felt his style adapted well to the Premier League -- were ripped up. Unused and unwanted by Mauricio Pochettino, who had replaced Tim Sherwood, he was sold to China for a loss at the end of the season. Another failure of the post-Gareth Bale spending spree.
Yet here he is, two years later, reborn in Asia and back in England as a Barcelona player and a fundamental part of Tite's heavily fancied Brazil. Paulinho's path to the top has rarely been straightforward, even before his White Hart Lane stopover. It has certainly not been conventional.
"My life's been a rollercoaster," he said in a recent interview with El Periodico, which was putting it lightly.
Spurs supporters won't have been the only ones to raise eyebrows when Barca announced a €40 million deal to sign Paulinho from Guangzhou Evergrande in August. It's a move which also piqued interest in Lithuania and Poland and, of course, in Brazil and in China. In the latter, it was held up as a sign that times are changing, that the Chinese Super League does carry weight.
Paulinho, 29, first left home as a 16-year-old for Lithuanian side Vilnius in 2006. He wasn't sure about the move, he's since admitted, but it seemed like a good way to make some money for his parents. But the racism he was subjected to while in Vilnius forced him to reconsider his hand. A move to Polish side LKS Lodz followed, where he was not always paid what he was promised.
Three-and-a-half years after leaving Brazil, he returned, disenchanted with the game. He promised himself he would not play again but was eventually convinced to change his mind by his then partner, who told him he was showing a lack of respect to his parents by chucking the towel in so easily after all the support they had given him. So he returned. To the Brazilian fourth division.
The Barca midfielder said in that El Periodico interview that "football without challenges isn't football" and he's certainly well-placed to opine. Things have never been as tough as those early years of his professional career but even subsequent moves to Corinthians and Tottenham raised doubts. This summer, his transfer to Camp Nou was even criticised by many Barcelona supporters.
"I didn't come here to shut mouths," Paulinho told Barcelona's official website last week but that's exactly what he's done, despite not being a regular. And at some speed, too.
Introduced as a second half substitute against Sevilla before the international break, he was given a standing ovation by the home support at Camp Nou. His cult status is almost assured already. "From ridicule to an idol," wrote Ernest Folch, the editor of Catalan newspaper Diario Sport.
The winning goal against Getafe in September was followed by a bullet of a header against Eibar the following Tuesday. Last month, he scored the clincher in a hard-fought 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao after making the type of run into the box which few other Barca midfielders would have made.
"He offers something different to the other players we have in midfield," coach Ernesto Valverde has constantly said when asked for soundbites on the Brazilian.
Different isn't always better, especially at Barca, but Paulinho has made it work. On the face of it, he's not your typical one-touch-pass-and-move player, but against Olympiakos in the Champions League on Oct. 18 he ended his 90 minutes with numbers which would have made Xavi purr: 108 passes completed out of 113. But it's his dynamism, ability to go from box-to-box and brewing relationship with Lionel Messi -- who urged him to come to Camp Nou in a friendly between Argentina and Brazil in June -- which have allowed him to settle in so quickly.
Off the pitch, there have been challenges, too. His partner (who doubles as his own personal nutritionist) recently gave birth to twins in a high-risk pregnancy at 30 weeks. He had spent a number of nights sleeping in the hospital.
Yet here he is. A father to four (he has two kids from a previous relationship in Brazil) and a Barcelona player back in London.
He's loved in Brazil, who he scored six goals for in World Cup qualifying, including a hat trick against Uruguay; celebrated in China, where his ambition and commitment saw him win six trophies and earn a perception-changing move to Barcelona; and increasingly admired in Catalonia, where he's already forced many keyboard warriors into retreat.
And while he doesn't feel he has a point to prove, he keeps on proving them. On Tuesday, against England, he has the chance to prove another one, this time to those Premier League fans who had written him off when he escaped for China to revitalise his career.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.