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Blue hair or red hair, Vágner Love was recognisable. His braids, tipped with beads, and always colourful, would swish behind him as he accelerated away from flat-footed defenders, and outpaced the ones who tried to follow. In 2009, at the age of just 24, Love returned to Brazil after five goal-laden years in Russia’s capital, his best years already behind him.
Averaging just over a goal every other game, the Brazilian striker recorded 95 goals in 184 appearances. Along the way, he fired CSKA Moscow to two Russian Premier Leagues in 2005 and 2006, four Russian Cups, and three Russian Super Cups. Despite the domestic successes, Vágner Love’s biggest achievement came away from the domestic scene.
In the 2004/05 season, just a year after joining the club, Love scored in the UEFA Cup Final against Sporting CP. Refereed by Englishman Graham Poll, the final was played at the Estadio Jose Alvalade, Lisbon. It was an immediate advantage for their Portuguese opposition – they were playing a European final in their own stadium.
CSKA’s side was a mixture of some of Russia’s finest and a few talented foreign imports. Igor Akinfeev marshalled a defence of the Berezutski brothers, Aleksei and Vasili, Sergei Ignashevich, and Nigerian left-back Chidi Odiah; the midfield was controlled by Evgeni Aldonin and Bosnian Elvir Rahimic, flanked by Yuri Zhirkov and Brazilian right-winger Daniel Carvalho; and up top, the Croatian striker Ivica Olic partnered Vágner Love.
Sporting’s side were good, but not as good. Finishing third in the Primeira Liga, Brazilian-born Portugal international Leidson stood out up-front with 35 goals in all competition, leading to his international debut call-up, as did fellow international teammates Ricardo and Joao Moutinho.
A month before his 21st birthday, and just a year after leaving South America, Vágner Love was starting in the final of Europe’s second-biggest continental competition. Seventy-five minutes later, he was putting the third goal past Ricardo to seal a 3-1 win to come from behind. Countryman Carvalho burst down the left wing and whipped in a cross. Ricardo came out of his box to pounce on it, but Vágner met it with his right foot to take a touch past the onrushing ‘keeper, and then thumped it into an empty net. Running off to left, blue braids bouncing, he stretched his arms out and shouted in celebration.
“In my honest opinion, Jo was the most talented, but Vágner was most successful, so I think he really was the best Brazilian player in the Russian Premier League,” Vitaly Leonov told me. Leonov, a journalist for Russian Football News, is a CSKA season ticket holder and places Vágner in the highest of regards but pointed out that it wasn’t an immediate love affair.
“Sometimes at the start of his career, he was too lazy. He could spend all of the match tying his laces. Fans said to him ‘do not tie your laces or maybe buy boots without laces.’” I was worried that perhaps a turn of phrase had been lost in translation, so I sought to clarify. “It’s literal. But after fans asked him, he stopped doing it.”
As bizarre as it sounds, it is a genuine anecdote and the type that endears you to a player all the more in hindsight. In his first year in Moscow, he scored a respectable 13 goals in 21 games, but 2005 returned just one more goal but in double the amount of games. Fortunately, his best scoring form came in the UEFA Cup, with 7 in 15.
“I remember one more [story]. At the end of the season, he started to collect yellow cards to miss the last matchday and go to Brazil one week earlier.”
That cheeky nature has been a constant throughout his career and what led to his nickname. Aged 17 and in a training camp with the Palmeiras junior side, Vágner snuck in a girl the night before a game and has never lived it down, he told Playboy magazine.
“I have only done that once in my life. I would not recommend it to any player who is starting his career. My name came from that, it was a mistake that ended up sticking with me.”
Three years on from his pre-match romp, Vágner moved to CSKA Moscow with Leonov recalling that it was amidst speculation that the move was for the benefit of Chelsea.
“If I remember correctly when Vágner moved to Russia, there were rumours that it was for a future transfer to Chelsea,” he explained. “The CSKA owner [Evgeniy] Giner was a partner of [Roman] Abramovich. His company Sibneft was the main sponsor of CSKA – one of the biggest [sponsorship deals] in Europe in those years – so it is possible that Chelsea’s scouts found him.”
Abramovich sold Sibneft for £7.4bn to Gazprom a year later, doubling his personal wealth, but by then CSKA Moscow had already signed seven of their UEFA Cup Final matchday squad in the 2004 transfer windows, including Love and Carvalho, and future Chelsea player Yuri Zhirkov.
Despite his often lazy demeanour, love of debauchery, and languid displays, Vágner is considered a legend at the club. “The CSKA owner called him a son,” Leonov said, “He scored in his first match for CSKA, against Baku, and he has personal graffiti in CSKA Arena.”
Over three spells at CSKA, Vágner scored 124 goals in 259 games, a “top result for Russian and Soviet football,” according to Leonov. In fact, only Soviet Striker Grigory Fedotov has scored more for CSKA, recording 161 goals in an 11-year spell between 1938 and 1949.
Keen to put it in context, I asked Leonov if he really believed Vágner Love is the best Brazilian to grace the Russian Premier League. “I think he is the best. Hulk was good but he was not a team player. Jo had problems with alcohol. His problems started in Moscow. In Manchester it was worse, he drank with Robinho.”
His homeland kept calling, though, with Leonov giving Vágner’s love of beans – rice and beans being a staple and much-loved part of a South American diet – as one of the reasons for his longing. When he returned for his last spell at CSKA in 2013, he didn’t recapture the goal-scoring form of the first two, but it was enough to help the club to the Russian domestic treble as he grabbed 7 goals in 15 games.
At the end of the season, despite signing a 3-year contract less than a year earlier and stating the language barrier as one of the hardest parts of his time in Russia, Vágner joined Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng for €12 million. Having only played for Palmeiras, Flamengo and CSKA in the first 12 years of his career, Vágner became somewhat of a journeyman on leaving Russia for good. Since then, he has moved clubs six times, playing for five different clubs across China, Brazil, France and Turkey, in just six years.
Trophies have continued to fill up Vágner Love’s cabinet, winning the Chinese FA Cup with Shandong Luneng and the Campeonato Brasileiro and Campeonato Paulista with Corinthians. However, the closest he’s come to replicating on the field what he achieved at CSKA was with Alanyaspor in Turkey, where he scored 34 goals in 44 games, but silverware did not accompany it.
“He is a legend of CSKA,” Leonov finished our chat with, “fans like him and even now they hope he returns.” Now, 35 years old, it may be unlikely but it is not impossible.