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The world of football is littered with stories of players who were set to become the next big thing, only to drift away into relative obscurity amid talk of unfulfilled potential and what could have been.
Brazil is a hotbed for these tales, where players are often dubbed the next Pelé or Rivaldo immediately upon breaking onto the scene. Kerlon is perhaps the most extreme example – the young prodigy rose to fame after winning the Under-17 Campeonato Sudamericano in 2005, receiving added attention for his ‘seal dribbling’ antics. Fast forward 12 years and the midfielder retired from the game in 2017 after spending the latter years of his footballing life with lower-tier clubs in Japan and the US, before moving on to Malta and Slovakia (either side of a brief return to Brazil).
Others have fared better but still not reached the levels expected of them. Adriano is the name that stands out most after personal issues derailed a career that saw him receive 53 international caps and score 27 goals. The powerful striker won a host of titles with Internazionale and the Copa América in 2004, but a player with so much natural talent had the potential to become one of the all-time greats and never hit those heights.
So where does Alexandre Pato fit into the equation? The forward will be remembered by some on these shores for an ill-fated loan spell with Chelsea in 2016, but it is his time with Milan from 2007-2013 when the 30-year-old’s star burned brightest.
Pato was seen as the poster boy in waiting for Brazilian football after becoming the youngest player to score in a FIFA-organised competition at 17 years and 102 days, when he found the net for Internacional against Al Ahly in the 2006 Club World Cup. He initially lived up to that tag too, securing a €24million move to Milan a year later and helping the Rossoneri to a Serie A title in 2010/11.
But, despite scoring 57 goals while in northern Italy, injuries were starting to take their toll on the man from Paraná. He only managed more than 30 league appearances in one season at San Siro and played just 11 Serie A matches during his final full campaign in Milan. Eventually, the club decided to cut their losses, recouping €15million by selling Pato to Brazilian giants Corinthians in 2013.
“A small injury eventually became a very big thing. I lost faith, I felt a little lonely because they blamed me,” he revealed to Gazzetta Dello Sport this week, while also suggesting a move back to Europe could be on the cards in the near future.
“I would like to go back to Europe… Come on, I'm doing well this year, I win the Libertadores and then I'll be back. At Milan, it would be really nice,” the 27-cap forward explained.
It is true things have improved for Pato in recent years. Injuries have been less of an issue and he played a healthy 98 times in three seasons for Corinthians and São Paulo immediately after leaving Italy. While spells with Chelsea and Villarreal were largely unsuccessful, a move to China in 2017 yielded 36 goals in 60 games for Tianjin Quanjian. That was enough to convince São Paulo to bring him back to the club ahead of the 2019 season.
But to suggest that his form has been worthy of interest from one of Europe’s heavyweights might be a stretch. Five goals in 20 matches during the 2019 Campeonato Brasileiro Série A is a solid if unspectacular return, and there are very few other metrics where Pato really stands out above his peers.
The former Serie A Young Footballer of the Year only just crept into the top 100 players when it comes to chances created last season (1.25 per 90) and fares little better if we look at Big Chances scored – 0.12 per 90 is a figure surpassed by 66 other players in Brazil’s top flight.
While the picture is a little rosier with Pato’s record for shots on target (1.06 per 90), touches in the opposition box (4.37 per 90) and completed take-ons (2.18 per 90), none of these fall within the league’s top 30.
The football romantic in us would love to see the Brazilian return to Europe and finally fulfil his potential, preferably with the club where he made his name. But those desires aren’t matched by the weight of evidence – the one-time Milan star’s previous attempts to relaunch his career in England and Spain perhaps demonstrate that, at 30 years old, his best days may now be behind him.
Pato is enjoying a relatively fruitful Indian summer to his career in Brazil, but a successful European renaissance may be more of a pipe dream than a potential reality.