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The headline of a Spanish daily, based in Madrid, screams: ‘El ‘crack’ brasileño que se cuela en la agenda del Madrid’. Its literal translation is, “The Brazilian ‘crack’ that sneaks into the agenda of Real Madrid.” Beneath the headline is the picture of a boy in Brazil’s yellow, with a nascent stubble and crew cut, running towards his teammates, pointing the index finger to the Brazil crest. The report claims that Real Madrid is willing to meet the boy’s expensive buyout clause, which is $50 million.
The slight boy of 17, a shade below five and a half feet, in the picture is Alan. The newspaper has coined a very Brazilian name for him too — Alanzinho. He blushes and stubs out the rumour, “I haven’t heard about Real’s officials making enquiries about me at the club back home.” His shrill voice gathers a sudden assuredness, like when he’s with a football in the middle. Not just Real, rumours are plenty that Inter Milan and Manchester United too are keen on shipping him out of Brazil. Alan just shrugs it off, a feeble smile playing on his lips. “I first want to prove myself playing first division football for Palmeiras. Once I prove myself there, I’ll think of playing in Europe,” he asserts.
But the Spanish daily has already fished out the proof of his skills to convince the readers of the protagonist’s gifts. In the middle of the story is a video-compilation of his playmaking skills, which turns out to be the highlights package from a single game, Brazil’s match against Chile in the South American qualifiers for the U-17 World Cup, in which he netted his maiden hat-trick in a competitive game.
The first is a sumptuous free kick from 25 yards, his left-foot-glazed ball squeezing through the tiny space between two Chile defenders before it curls away wickedly in past the goalkeeper, The arc of the ball is devilish. His second is also a free kick, but the intention was a measured ball for one of his tall forwards to nod home. Everybody missed the ball that wobbled mid-air and bounced awkwardly, like a pin ball. It petrifies the goalkeeper as much as it does him. The third was an effortless finish, more like a clinical striker. “I hadn’t scored a goal until that match, and so was a little sad. Then when it came, it was a hat-trick,” he says, chuckling.
Scoring goals isn’t necessarily his business — he also had six assists to boot in the championship — but like modern-day midfield generals, and like how all Brazilian footballers are stereotyped, he feels restless when he is not on the scoring sheet. It wasn’t always the case so.
When he appeared for trials at the Sao Paolo Academy back in 2013, he was more defensively inclined. The bigger boys in his favela used their physicality to push him back. But he used to fight his gut out to win the ball back. For without it, he felt lost. He derived a lot of pleasure from it, nipping goals-scoring opportunities out of the big lads who pushed him back.
But the academy’s technical staff spotted something different in him. “I thought they’ll never pick me, because of my height as they have a physical specification for each 000. They told me I cannot become their defensive midfielder. I was disappointed. But they assured me that I can be a good attacking midfielder. Like (Andres) Iniesta,” he recollects. Maybe, it was the similarity of height that prompted the comparison. It fired his imagination up.
He soon stuck an Iniesta poster on the wall his bedside in the academy. Just like, two decades ago, the Spanish virtuoso himself had nailed a poster of Pep Guardiola, alongside the only other occupant of that wall, Catherine-Zeta Jones.
Everyday, whenever he found spare time he borrowed his friend’s laptop and raided the archived Iniesta footage on the web. “It’s become a habit now. This is how I relax also, watching his footage before every match,” he says. The complex about his height gradually ebbed, as he tried to inculcate “as much as Iniesta into my game as possible.”
Like Iniesta, he’s balletic, floats than flies on the field, minimalistic in flourishes, finds the narrowest of spaces to slit in measured crosses, and has a similar ability to modulate the game’s tempo. He gets, he gives and he keeps that samba beat regular. A goal down against Spain in the opening match, it was he who insidiously reversed the tide, by slowing down the game, helping them keep the ball pinging among themselves before lifting the tempo to a hellish crescendo with his intuition and calmness. “But I have a long, long way to be even compared to him,” he says.
Unlike Iniesta — who doesn’t dye his hair, wear earrings or inscribe tattoos — Alan experiments with hairstyles, flaunts his abs, gadgets and silverwares, like most young sportsmen of these times. But on the field, he is different, unpretentious and unperturbed, trying his best to match his hero in gait and demeanour.
His coach Carlos Amadeu calls him the volante, steering wheel in Portuguese. “He reads the game really well and has shown a maturity beyond his age, especially his awareness and selflessness,” he says. He uses him judiciously as well. Since he was on a yellow card, the coach didn’t play him against Niger. His friends call him the pass-master. The beauty of his pass is its luscious simplicity. There’s no haste or force, but just laser-guided precision, as it drops on his receptor’s feet, ensuring that his teammate can shoot first time without breaking stride.
There was a classic instance in the game against Spain, which unfortunately didn’t culminate in a goal. When he received the ball from Marcos Antonio from the left, he was facing him. He then gracefully swivels, beats the marker with a neat dink, drifts further left and whips up a cross with needle-eye perfection. It strips their defence naked, beating the last defender at the last second, only for Lincoln to fluff the golden opportunity.
He has yet to score a goal or register an assist this World Cup. But he is not bothered as long as he’s influencing matches in one way or the other. And back in his mind, he knows when the goals begin to rain, it usually pours. And that more such headlines would roll out.