17 April 2005. The sun is positioned high in the sky in Maracaibo, also known as La Tierra del Sol Amado, Venezuela’s second-largest city. The South American U17 Championships are drawing to a close, with Brazil and Uruguay preparing to play out a tense encounter. Inevitably, the focus would be placed entirely on the result, as the nation to emerge victorious would not only win the entire competition, but would book their place in the U17 World Cup in 2007. Yet, pundits, fans and even the Uruguayan players would have their eye on one player in particular.
The tournament’s top goalscorer, hailing from the city of Ipatinga, was revealed as Cruzeiro’s exciting starlet Kerlon. Another technical phenomenon on the production line for the Brazilians, the 17-year-old was being hailed as the country’s biggest talent since Ronaldinho, and the praise was completely justified. At the SAM U17 Championships he was handed the Golden Boot and Best Player awards, with eight goals, a handful of assists and some man of the match performances to throw in. Soon enough, all of the top European clubs, including Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan, were sending their chief scouts to run the rule over the youngster being hailed as the world’s latest sensation.
A set-piece specialist with terrific technique, should there be a free-kick 25 yards out, you could always rely on him to hit the target, with the vast majority of his efforts crashing into the back of the net. The ability to curl, blast or place magnificent free-kicks wherever he decided to put them gave Kerlon an extra attribute which made him special, and a dangerous weapon. If not in an attacking position himself, he would simply pick out a team-mate with his unrivalled vision and slice open the opposition with an intricate pass. When the ball was at his feet, he oozed confidence with every touch. The coach Nelson Rodrigues even started to encourage his players to use Kerlon as much as possible. And finally, scoring goals was Kerlon’s enjoyment, with eight in just seven games for the U-17 side.
We’re not talking about your standard tap-in, a fluke toe-poke or general headed goals. No, this lad was unique, beating four or five players before thundering a spectacular strike into roof of the net. In fact, to describe Kerlon with the term ‘lad’ is perhaps grammatically incorrect. The Portuguese term ‘foca’ is a better match for Kerlon’s playing style. Foca, for those not familiar with the Portuguese language, means ‘seal’. The intrigued reader may ask why, and the answer is simple. It was this magnificent player who managed to invent the unprecedented ‘seal dribble’.
It doesn’t exactly sound Einstein-esque in terms of historic inventions, but in football, while running at pace against opposition defenders, it was an incredibly difficult skill to execute. Unsurprisingly to think then that Kerlon had indeed mastered it. Scooping the ball from the turf, Kerlon would then use any part of his upper body to lodge the ball onto his head, and with superb balance, keep it hanging on the edge of his nose. If that sounds complex, he would then burst forward with blistering pace and make his way towards goal. And once he had successfully begun the ‘seal dribble’, there were only two methods of halting him: committing foul or conceding a goal.
Rather unfortunate for Dyego Rocha Coelho, a Brazilian right-back who played for Atletico-MG at the time, who decided to choose the latter option in a top-flight game in September 2007. Coelho was penalised for elbowing Kerlon as he scurried down the touchline, and as a consequence was banned for five games after being sent off for the horrific challenge.
After catching attention of clubs and fans with various videos of his skills on YouTube, Kerlon was the target of continued speculation about his future, with Manchester United heavily linked with an £18 million move. At the time, it appeared to be a shrewd piece of business from Sir Alex Ferguson, but Cruzeiro rebuffed their attempts to sign him, and Kerlon stayed at the club for another year before moving to Italian side Chievo.
By then, his reputation had dropped to some extent. After making just 26 appearances for Cruzeiro, Internazionale decided to pay €1.3 million for 80% of Kerlon’s contractual rights in a complicated deal which would see Chievo take Kerlon on loan – using up their non-EU quota – for the Brazilian to then move to Inter in 2009. But the move didn’t exactly go to plan.
Aside of all of Kerlon’s talents and much-hyped potential, he also suffered the unenviable label of being ‘injury-prone’. A knee injury suffered half-way into his fourth appearance for Chievo cut short his season, and although he made several comeback attempts, his injury problems continued to mount. Despite this, Inter unveiled Kerlon in the summer of 2009, with the 21-year-old signing a three-year deal.
Kerlon may have been forgiven for thinking he could kickstart his career at the Giuseppe Meazza. His dream of doing that, however, was all but dashed by Inter’s coach at the time, Jose Mourinho, who decided to loan him out to Ajax with a view of getting some much-needed first-team football. Unsurprisingly, Ajax demoted Kerlon to their reserve side due to his lack of fitness and, as a result, his confidence deteriorated to an all-time low. Returning to his parent club the following season, he was hit with yet another knee injury and was ruled out for the season. In the space of four years, Kerlon had seen himself go from being the nation’s next star to being on the brink of failure. It became clear that his career in Europe was finished, and it was time to return home.
And that’s what he did on the 26th of January 2011, a day before his 23rd birthday. The attacking midfielder signed a loan deal with Parana Clube that would last until August, but he went on to make just three appearances in the Campeonato Paranaense. His loan spell was cut short as a result, and opted to move to Nacional de Nova Serrana until the end of the season. Inter then released Kerlon a year before the end of his contract, allowing him to sign a permanent deal to play for Nacional, who were founded just three years earlier. And this summer, after failing to make an impression at the club, he penned a contract at Japanese third tier club Fujieda MYFC in August 2012.
It’s fair to say what happened to Kerlon was down to his body failing him at the wrong time. Perhaps he wasn’t looked after well enough when being integrated into Brazil and Cruzeiro’s senior squads, with reference to the likes of Coelho above. Alternatively, perhaps the player’s attitude and mindset wasn’t in the right place for him to develop into a world-class player.
Credit must go to Kerlon, though, for he was arguably the catalyst of the emergence of a new breed of footballer: small, quick and possessing a real technical ability. If Lionel Messi can find him in Japan, I’m sure he may want Kerlon to show him how to conquer the Drible da Foquinha. Let’s just hope he doesn’t run into Coelho on the way there.
Follow Joe on Twitter @joekrishnan.