Over the years, the Camisa Seleção Brasileira Canarinho has been worn by a number football’s most celebrated forwards. Pelé, Sócrates, Zico, Falcao, Ronaldinho are just a few names that immediately spring to mind. On 26 March 2008 in the unlikely setting of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, another name jostled to be added to that illustrious litany of talent when Alexandre Pato made his international debut in a friendly against Sweden and announced himself to the watching world by netting mere seconds into his time as a full Brazilian international.
At just 18, it seemed that Brazil had another gem to place into its crown of glorious talents. An elegant style, fluid movement, an ability to dribble past opponents and the crucial eye for a goal had many observers ready to anoint the new hero of Jogo Bonito. Cruel twists of fate with recurring injuries as his career progressed though meant that the full flowering of a nascent talent that promised so much was denied a chance to fully blossom.
At the tender of 16 Pato joined Sport Club Internacional, and initially played in their U20 team, despite often being up against players often four years his senior. Such was his success though that he ended the season as the competition’s top scorer. Here was a player surely destined for great things. Two goals in just a couple of appearances for the full team in 2006 was followed by ten strikes in 24 games the following term. Such lights are difficult to effectively hide, even under the most discerning bushels, and despite acclaim and success for Internacional, when AC Milan came calling for his services in August 2007, brandishing €24 million, the club sanctioned the sale and the starlet was thrust into the world of Calcio. Given his tender years though, Pato would have to wait until January 2008 to don the Rossoneri shirt in any meaningful action due to FIFA’s age restriction regulations.
On 13 January, he entered the Serie A fray, scoring on his debut against Napoli. Two weeks later, he nabbed a brace in the San Siro against Genoa, and at the end of the term had nine goals to his credit, averaging a strike every game in the toughest, most defence-minded league in world football.
The following couple of seasons saw the early promise of the young Pato begin to deliver. Eighteen goals in the 2008-09 season, making him the club’s top marksman were followed by 14 and then 16 as he became an increasingly important element in Milan’s pursuit of silverware. His strikes were not only noticeable for their quantity, he had the enviable ability of scoring in the biggest of games as well. Two goals in a Champions League game against Real Madrid in the fortress of the Bernabéu helped Milan to 3-1 victory, and his flexibility to play anywhere across the front line without any diminution of quality was an invaluable asset to his manager. His stellar performances for the club prompted Carlo Ancelotti to promote him into the pantheon of great Brazilian strikers that had played in Italy, placing him alongside the likes Ronaldo, Kaká and Romário.
The 2010-11 season, however, would see both his zenith and the beginning of what turned out to be a long, sad and drawn out decline. The club would secure the Scudetto with Pato’s 14 goals in just 25 appearances being a major contribution to their success, but towards the end of the season, injuries began to gnaw away at his talent.
A hamstring problem proved to be difficult to shake off, and hurried returns probably did him no favours. Recurrences followed and then became accompanied by other ailments, as the season ended with silverware at the San Siro, but the beginning of nagging doubts for the player.
A brace in the first game of the new season offered up hope, but it would be a false dawn. After the next game, he would spend more time out injured and as the season wore on it became a mixture of returns, and goals, followed by increasing amounts of time on the treatment table. The hamstring issues were a persistent concern. He would score just four goals in the season and appear for the club just 18 times, fewer than half of what had been the norm across the three previous terms.
The following season continued the slippery slope with seven appearances bringing just two goals. At the highest level, footballers are paid an inordinate amount of money, but when that expensive asset becomes increasingly unavailable, clubs are compelled to consider alternatives. With Pato’s absence causing rising concern, Milan brought in other players and the inevitable conclusion was an exit from Lombardy for the Brazilian. At the age of just 23, the sad reality was that the remainder of his career would be regarded as a slow decline.
In early 2013, Corinthians took Pato back to Brazil in exchange for a reported €17 million, with the player signing a four-year contract. It would be a less than perfectly happy experience for club or player. A series of missed chances saw Pato increasingly lambasted by the fans, and despite support from the management and 17 goals, his time at the club would be short. Pato’s fate was probably sealed when a Copa do Brasil game against Grêmio in October went to a penalty shootout. With Pato attempting a Panenka from the spot, the goalkeeper read the intention, and easily caught the tame-looking effort. Confidence can be a fickle mistress. In his earlier career, a conversion like that would have been hailed as genius now however, the fact that it failed so abjectly merely confirmed that fates had turned their smile away for the one they once beamed at merely confirmed the spiral downwards.
The following January saw a loan move to São Paulo, as part of a deal taking Jádson in the other direction. The ‘golden boy’ had now become the ‘makeweight’ in a deal for another rising star, with Corinthians compelled to still pay part of his salary. The move saw an improvement of sorts and brought 38 goals in just short of a century of appearances. At the end of the loan term, there seemed no future for Pato at Corinthians and a brief – comprising two appearances – in west London with Chelsea, passed before a move to Villareal in Spain in July 2016.
As had become his habit, Pato scored on his debut in La Liga, but his stay there would last less than a full season, and only bring a further four gaols. In January, the club were happy to accept, what many considered at the time to be an overinflated, bid of €22 million from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian, then managed by Italian legend, Fabio Cannavaro. The early portents were less than favourable, when he failed to score on his debut, and was confirmed the following week when another miss from 12 yards meant the club squandered the chance to secure their first Chinese Super League triumph.
Given the career to date, it seems a little strange to say that there is still time for Pato to rediscover the dazzling brilliance that once inhabited his boots. Still only 29, however, such hopes may not be mere fancy. It seems far more likely though that the talent that once threatened to dazzle and bewilder has now been lost to cruel ill fortune and injury. Before his mid-twenties, promise had turned to dust in the hands of the player who fate had promised so much to, before snatching it cruelly away.