“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several
powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms
or into one… from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful
and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” - Charles Darwin
According to Darwinian evolution, the species that survives is the one most responsive to change. Natural selection is driven partly by competition, and the situation is clear: to stick around, be adaptive.
Well over 100 years since Charles Darwin sailed past Anderson’s home town in The Beagle, the struggle for existence has been a theme running through the life of the player from Porto Alegre. His father, a depressive alcoholic who according to Anderson “didn’t want to live anymore”, died when his talented son was 13 years old. Most of Anderson’s childhood friends, in his words, “passed away, mostly from drug addiction or being involved in drug dealing”. Anderson however, clearly fancied sticking around a little longer.
"'Scared? I’ve never been scared of anything," says Anderson."And when the subject is playing football I’m not scared of anyone. In football you can’t be scared. You are there for the football; you are there to have fun, to play."
Anderson’s introduction to first team football, with Gremio at 16 years of age, began with a struggle for existence. Despite scoring a free kick on his debut, and imposing performances, Gremio lost their battle to stay in Serie A, and were relegated. He went on the score the iconic goal that lifted them back to the top division.
By this point Anderson had already been helping his seamstress mother keep the family stitched together, being the family’s main bread-winner from two years prior. Being sent away at 14 to attend a football academy, Anderson adapted to his new environment. During an especially enterprising canteen encounter, he persuaded Gremio first team coach Cuca to give him a shot. Impressed with his precocious self-assurance, he obliged. “I had a hunch” said Cuca. Anderson wasted no time in climbing to the top of the Gremio food chain, soon becoming an icon to the club’s fans.
My personal interest in the career of Anderson began in 2005, on my sofa, with the TV tuned-in to Eurosport’s admirable coverage of the U-17 World Cup, beamed from Peru. I witnessed what Tim Vickery described as “one of the most devastating individual performances I have ever seen”, in the enthralling semi-final against Turkey. Playing alongside Real Madrid’s Marcelo, Anderson, in a modest afro, flamboyantly controlled every aspect of the game. Vickery:
“He charged through to set up a goal after 15 seconds, scored a glorious solo second, hit the bar with a free-kick, put his team-mates clean through three or four times - and in the final seconds, after Turkey had forced their way back to 3-3, his run took out their entire defence before he squared the ball for the centre-forward to tap home the winner.”
In the same year Gremio’s last prodigal son was winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award, their current prodigal son captured the FIFA Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player, succeeding the previous winner, Cesc Fabregas. He left me in awe. He left Gremio fans convinced that they somehow, had yet another Ronaldinho. He left the tournament early in the final, on a stretcher.
And so started Anderson’s long struggle with his own deceivingly frail body. Gremio’s fans soon watched their new icon leave for F.C Porto. Two Portuguese Liga titles were broken up by a broken leg, and Anderson would re-emerge from it as a changed player.
Amsterdam, summer 2006. In a pre-season match more famous for the red-cards for Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney which left them suspended for the first 3 games of the Premier League, United played Anderson’s FC Porto. As he had now become accustomed to, Anderson of Porto Alegre impressed a manager with his precociousness. Anderson put in a startling display, and the next summer added himself to the timeline of Alex Ferguson signings that seemed to have sealed the deal with an eye-catching performance against his own team.
For whatever reason, Anderson’s days of what Brazilian football calls a Meia, were over. He was swiftly put to use mostly as a Volante. The reaction from Brazil was similar to that of the Church when Charles Darwin first published his Origin of Species. Sacrilegious. Playing the New Ronaldinho as a Dunga? But it’s not in Ferguson’s nature to be forgiving, and Anderson, if he wanted to survive, needed to adapt.
Manchester United fans were left confused. They were told they were getting the new Ronaldinho. Yet they were watching a player put in slightly awkward performances in front of the defence. Plus, they had seen videos like this. Not much explanation was given. But, regardless, Anderson was surviving. After a bad leg break, life in a new country, and now playing in the midfield of the biggest club in the world, he was putting his all into his new defensive role, and when fitness permitted, making a new name for himself in England not as Ronaldinho, but more as the new Edgar Davids - a pitbull.
Anderson first made his name at Old Trafford with his feisty, committed displays against the likes of Gerrard, and Fabregas. There was so little in similarity between the Anderson of Porto and Gremio to the Anderson of United, I still remember consulting Google to confirm this was indeed the same Anderson I had watched back in 2005 (his hair had changed a fair bit). It was, and it was yet another a new challenge for Anderson, one he had not yet encountered, a challenge to win over the confidence fans.
Gremio fans were left confused. But to Alex Ferguson, it was a natural selection. Anderson was fairly capable in the role. His natural versatility had given Anderson more possibilities as a player. His versatility and determination in this case had given him a new opportunity after his broken leg that would have possibly caused bigger career problems for other skilful players with less.
Anderson of Gremio was facing extinction. A new form had emerged, and in turn was surviving in a harsh and ruthless environment when perhaps injuries and competition had turned the odds against him. Eventually, he was given a more attacking role in Champions League games, and played a significant role in United’s runs to the final in 2008, 2009 and on his return from a cruciate ligament injury in 2011.
Coming into his sixth year as a Manchester United player (with a contract until 2015) and with nightclubs, car crashes and cruciate ligament injuries behind him, Anderson’s survival abilities have been thoroughly tested. Survival of the Fittest? Perhaps an inappropriate term to apply to Anderson. But he has survived under the microscope of Alex Ferguson’s experimentation, and no matter where he has played on the pitch, has always played with the forceful enthusiasm that he displayed all those years ago in Brazil. Ferguson has called him a big game player. Along with this mental toughness, it is Anderson’s wilfulness and ability to adapt, and of rising to the challenge, that has kept him in favour under one of football’s sternest critics.
United fans may wait in eternal frustration for Anderson to escape his perceived positional purgatory. And to Gremio fans it may have seemed like throwing a peacock into a cockfight. Anderson may have started out with his plumage on show, but to pigeonhole him into that original form is to not understand what he is truly about. He is continuing to evolve, and has struggled past two serious injuries that have wrecked the careers of other players. Anderson’s determination and survival instincts should be commended. At 24, he’s come through more than most.
Read more from Luke at Giggs-Boson.