After three rounds of this year’s Brazilian Série A there is one player drawing all the attention. With two goals in each of his first three games for Santa Cruz, a club from the poverty stricken North-Eastern state of Pernambuco, Grafite is already attracting offers from the big boys of Rio de Janeiro. His goals have propelled Santa Cruz to the top of the league, a big surprise considering they were promoted from Série B just last season.
But here’s the thing, Grafite is not some young emerging talent from the favelas of Recife. He’s 37. This is the same Grafite who won the 2005 Copa Libertadores with São Paulo and the 2008-9 Bundesliga with Wolfsburg, finishing as top scorer and the best player in Germany that year.
He led Wolfsburg into the 2009-10 Champions’ League and became the first player to score for Die Wölfe in that competition, with a hat-trick in the club’s first ever Champions League game, but even then he was already fast-approaching his thirty-first birthday.
After a lucrative jaunt in the Middle-East with Al Alhi and Al Sadd, where he continued banging in the goals, he returned to Brazil in July 2015 with Santa Cruz, making an instant impact and helping the Cobra Coral, as they are known, back into the top-flight.
The fact that Rio giants Flamengo, the most popular club in Brazil, are considering signing a 37 year-old striker is a sign of the current crisis that the Rubro-Negro are going through. But it is also a sign of a much bigger problem for Brazilian football, namely, the complete lack of top-class centre-forwards at the peak of their powers.
This is the biggest cause of angst for the current manager of the Seleção, Dunga, and is a subject deemed worthy of hundreds of hours of television debate and thousands of column inches in the Brazilian press.
Of the five top scorers from the 2015 edition of the Brasileirão, three are 31 or older, one is the Argentine Lucas Pratto, and the other is commonly known in Brazil as André Balada, or André Nightclub, for his penchant for extra-curricular activities and perceived lack of professionalism.
André moved to the champions Corinthians over the summer break but has not been warmly received. He was interviewed pitch-side immediately after Corinthians’ recent exit from the Copa Libertadores and a Corinthians fan could clearly be heard in the background shouting, “go back to Santos, you son of a whore.” He is probably unlikely to earn an international recall any time soon.
For a country that has produced the likes of Pelé, Tostão, Romário and Ronaldo, the lack of an obvious central striking option is something seriously worrying.
Atletico Mineiro forward Pratto was the subject of a poll on the website Globo Esporte last year in which 93% of respondents said they would like him to naturalise as a Brazilian so that he could pull on the famous green and gold shirt. That Brazilians would consider letting an Argentinean play for the Seleção is a sign of the desperation they feel. Pratto reacted by reaffirming his allegiance to the country of his birth.
Over the last four years, Dunga, and the previous coach Luis Felipe Scolari, have used both the aging Luis Fabiano and the excruciatingly immobile Fred as the main focal points of their teams.
More recently Dunga has opted for Diego Tardelli, Robinho, Hulk, Roberto Firmino and Neymar to fill the number 9 role, none of whom can really be seen as a natural solution to this particular problem, and in the case of the first three also have their best days behind them.
In the initial squad for the Copa America that kicks-off in Santa Clara, California on Friday evening, the only recognised out-and-out striker was Santos’ 36 year-old front-man Ricardo Oliveira, who is enjoying a fine spell for his club but who will be 38 by the time the next World Cup comes around.
Roberto Firmino and Neymar were not even included in the provisional squad list of 40 players for the Copa, saved instead for the Rio Olympics coming up in August.
Kaká, now plying his trade as a main striker with Orlando City in the MLS, was called in to the squad as a late replacement for the injured Douglas Costa, a move that has been widely criticised by football journalists in the country, increasing the average age of the attacking options even further.
Like Costa, Oliveira has also had to pull out through injury. He has subsequently been replaced by the comparatively spring-chicken-like Jonas, 32, who fittingly hit 32 Primeira Liga goals on the way to claiming the Portuguese title with Benfica last season.
Even Jonas, who at the moment seems like the best option, spent most of the domestic season playing as a number 10 behind South-West London’s forgotten Greek target man Konstantinos Mitroglou.
On the pitch from the start in Brazil’s only pre-tournament friendly against Panama, Jonas found the net within the first two minutes. After this, however, he contributed almost nothing until he was withdrawn with just over an hour played.
Neither he nor Oliveira can be seen as a long- or even medium-term solution to Brazil’s striking woes.
Against Panama Jonas was replaced by Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa, a talented 19 year-old who has come through Santos’ youth system, but he too is no natural centre-forward. His best position is probably in behind a central striker but for Santos he is often forced to play wide because of the current form of Oliveira and Lucas Lima in the number 9 and 10 roles, respectively.
Making his debut for the Seleção, Gabigol played the last half hour in a fluid front 3 with Kaká and Hulk, the three interchanging positions and alternately popping up on the left, right and through the middle.
This new fluid formation, though it goes against all of Dunga’s conservative instincts, may be the answer for the moment. The pace and movement of a front three including Neymar, Douglas Costa and one from Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Gabigol, Lucas Lima, Firmino or the somewhat forgotten Oscar, would be enough to give any defence something to worry about going into Russia 2018.
But this is not the answer most Brazilians are looking for. This is a country that adores an out-and-out goal scorer, and that will worship anyone who can fill that role for the beloved Seleção. The Brazilian people are waiting, and rest assured, if someone can emerge as a worthy successor to all of Brazil’s great centre-forwards, they will be greeted with the adulation that would usually be reserved for the second coming of the messiah.