Football Features

How Sao Paulo could have lined up if they hadn’t sold their best players

By Ben Green

Published: 11:24, 27 August 2020

Sao Paulo have a history of producing some of the finest talent football has to offer, gracing the game with Samba silk and Selecao magic.

From defensive virtuosos in Cafu, to attacking royalty in Kaka, the Morumbi has been home to some of the very best. And even as early as the 90s, the Tricolour produced the world’s most expensive player when Denilson transferred to Real Betis for a whopping £21.5m in 1998.

Fortunately for football fans, the fertile soil of Sao Paulo hasn’t dried up just yet. In fact, the club’s fruitful conveyor belt has been working overdrive to churn out superstar after superstar, and some of Europe’s biggest clubs have reaped the rewards in recent years.

Antony is the latest to sprout, terrorise the Brazilian Serie A and then spread his wings to Europe, crossing the Atlantic to link up with Ajax this summer, where he will hope to blossom in the home city of Johan Cruyff — a playmaker grandmaster who had the feet of a Brazilian, and the brain of a Dutchman.

It is no wonder, then, that Sao Paulo haven’t been crowned Brazilian champions since 2008. Every time a starlet emerges, the big boys of Europe come knocking. But, there is no question, if they could instantly recall every active one-time Paulistano, that 12-year drought would end in a heartbeat…

GK: Ederson

  • Age: 27
  • Current club: Man City
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 0

A boyhood Sao Paulo fan, Ederson grew up idolising legendary shot-stopper Rogerio Ceni, a former Brazil international who is currently the all-time top-scoring goalkeeper, having netted 131 goals (mostly free-kicks and penalties) for the Tricolours across a 25-year career — Ceni retired in 2015 after appearing in over 1,200 matches for Sao Paulo. His No. 1 shirt has since been retired.

“He is my only idol and will always be my main inspiration,” Ederson said of Ceni. “I still watch many of his videos making amazing saves and showing his quality to start his team’s play from the back. His quality was extraordinary.”

Despite Ederson’s boyhood admiration for Ceni, he actually started out as a left-back and excelled at futsal, which may go a long way to explaining his superiority with the ball at his feet. Having eventually transitioned to a goalkeeper, Ederson was snapped up as a teenager by Sao Paulo, but he was released after only one season and subsequently joined Benfica at 16 — 11 years on and he is now one of the game’s best. Ceni would be proud.

RB: Eder Militao 

  • Age: 22
  • Current club: Real Madrid
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 57

Already the squad is starting to resemble a who’s who of future Ballon d’Or contenders, and we haven’t even reached the midfielders yet. Having hailed from the esteemed Sao Paulo academy, Militao made an immediate impression in the first team, combining a scheming versatility with physicality and athleticism that betrayed his young age. Naturally, Porto moved quickly to acquire his signature, becoming the latest Brazilian to relocate to Lisbon.

It is a well-trodden path, South America to the Estadio do Dragao, and one that has proven a fine stepping stone to the truly elite level for some players. Militao is one such player, joining the Dragons in the summer of 2018 and going on to shine at the back, where he earned a place in the Primeira Liga Team of the Year.

That prompted Real Madrid to come knocking and they picked up the Brazil international last summer, the same in which he clinched the Copa America with his nation, and he has now added a La Liga title to his growing trophy cabinet, having scooped the Spanish top-flight under Zinedine Zidane in July.

CB: Rafael Toloi

  • Age: 29
  • Current club: Atalanta
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 103

Quite how Toloi has not been capped by Brazil yet is anyone’s guess. A late bloomer, the skilful centre-back has taken the continent by storm in Gian Piero Gasperini’s fluid back-three system. His imperious showings helped Atalanta finish third in Serie A and reach the Champions League quarter-finals.

The Goddess looked destined for the semis until Thomas Tuchel turned to Kylian Mbappe and… Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Either way, Toloi was nigh-on impregnable against PSG until the death, and fits Atalanta’s ball-playing tactics like a hand to a glove.

The 29-year-old initially began his career at Goias in the Center-West region of Brazil, before Sao Paulo sought his services in 2012. After three years at the Morumbi, and a brief loan move to Roma, he joined Atalanta in 2015 and hasn’t looked back since.

CB: Miranda

  • Age: 35
  • Current club: Jiangsu Suning
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 178

Still going strong in the Far East with Jiangsu Suning, Miranda was the second half of Diego Simeone’s bulwark double-act at the Vicente Calderon, as Atletico Madrid won the Europa League in 2012, the Copa del Rey in 2013 and La Liga in 2014. His partnership with Diego Godin also culminated in a Champions League final appearance in 2014, while he moved across to Inter Milan shortly after, and bossed the backline there.

But, before the glitz and glamour of continental nights, Miranda was earning his stripes at Sao Paulo after an initial failure in Europe. Having emerged from the Coritiba academy, Miranda joined French side Sochaux in 2005, but failed to settle and ultimately returned home in the guise of Sao Paulo.

Back in the comforts of his homeland, the Brazilian began to blossom and was part of Sao Paulo’s latest success story. Winning a three-peat of Serie A titles between 2006 and 2008 (their last Brazilian title to date), Miranda was simply too good not to be playing on the grand stage, and Simeone came calling in 2011.

LB: David Luiz

  • Age: 33
  • Current club: Arsenal
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 0

An odd choice at left-back, but then again, this is David Luiz we’re talking about. If anyone is going to go rogue and off script, particularly back in his native Brazil, it’s Luiz. But, there is, in fact, method behind the madness. Luiz has previously taken to the field at left-back, notably for Benfica, such is his versatility.

In one memorable game, he was given the role of marking Dirk Kuyt at Anfield in a Europa League quarter-final match in 2010. Liverpool won 4-1 and Kuyt opened the scoring. Look, we didn’t say he was good at left-back, just that he can play there, though Kuyt would certainly have something to say about that.

Going back to his formative years Luiz, like Ederson, failed to make the grade at Sao Paulo, and he soon moved to Vitoria as a successful defensive midfielder. Impressive showings in Bahia alerted Lisbon once more and Luiz hopped on the bandwagon to the Portuguese capital in 2007. 

CDM: Casemiro

  • Age: 28
  • Current club: Real Madrid
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 111

Fortunately, we have Casemiro in the side to sweep up and protect the backline when Luiz goes awol down the touchline. “Carlao” was highly successful in the Sao Paulo youth set-up, captaining the side from the age of 11 upwards, and going on to make over 100 appearances for the Tricolour at senior level.

His development as a defensive midfielder, a position which he has made his own, was actually one of pure luck, and more than a healthy dose of pragmatism. When he turned up at the Sao Paulo trials as a promising forward, aged 12/13, he realised competition in the final third was fierce, and so registered as a No. 6.

“When I turned up, I was about 12 or 13 years old, there were about 300 players there and they were only going to choose 50,” he recalled.

“I remember very well that when the coach asked who were goalkeepers, three people put up their hands. Then he asked how many were forwards and 40 or so kids put their hands up and I said to myself, ‘there’s a lot of competition so I won’t be a striker.’

“The same thing happened when they asked for midfielders and so I did the same. Then the coach said: ‘Are there any defensive midfielders?’ Seven or eight hands went up so I said to myself: ‘Ok, I’m a defensive midfielder.'”

Zidane has the aspiring Sao Paulo youngsters who all want to emulate Pele to thank for his current midfield general.

CDM: Thiago Mendes

  • Age: 28
  • Current club: Lyon
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 142

Look, we have Luiz at left-back, we need two defensive midfielders! Thiago Mendes recently featured in Lyon’s Champions League run to the semi-finals, playing in all three knockout matches against Juventus, Man City and Bayern Munich.   

Like Toloi, Mendes progressed through the Goias academy and also like Toloi, he signed for Sao Paulo shortly after. Having showcased his combative attributes and defensive midfield exploits, Mendes moved to Europe a little later than most, at the age of 26, with then Lille manager Marcelo Bielsa liking what he saw.

Mendes took little time to acclimatise to a new league, language and culture, and he immediately flourished at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, earning a lucrative move to Lyon last summer, where he is now preparing himself for the start of the 2020/21 Ligue 1 season.

CM: Oscar

  • Age: 28
  • Current club: Shanghai SIPG
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 14

Remember him? The elegant playmaker has been knocking about in the Far East since 2017 and is still only 28. The 47-time Brazil international first rose to prominence at Sao Paulo but a contractual dispute cut short his time there, and he went on to alert the European vultures while playing for Internacional instead.

Chelsea came to the auction with the biggest bidding paddle and Oscar joined the Stamford Bridge platoon for around £20m. He went on to lift two Premier League titles in west London, plus a Europa League trophy, but departed for Shanghai SIPG in 2017, and he’s unlikely to return to Europe anytime soon.

RW: David Neres

  • Age: 23
  • Current club: Ajax
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 11

Neres looked destined to leave Ajax when the fire sale kicked in following the club’s jaw-dropping run to the Champions League semi-final in 2018/19. The Johan Cruyff Arena was effectively plundered as heavyweights Barcelona and Juventus gobbled up their precocious superstars.

Neres stuck around, but the season just gone has been one of frustration for the 23-year-old as a long-term injury restricted him to 12 Eredivisie appearances. But, there can be no denying that on his day, Neres is a highly skilful winger, a true Brazilian thoroughbred.

Such is Ajax’s far-reaching and fruitful scouting network that Neres was acquired before he had even made 10 league appearances for Sao Paulo, but what a shrewd acquisition he has proven to be in Amsterdam, and it surely won’t be long before he is donning the colours of a super-rich club.

LW: Antony

  • Age: 20
  • Current club: Ajax
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 52

From one Ajax winger to another, Erik ten Hag also boasts 20-year-old Antony as a creative weapon in his armoury. The diminutive winger racked up a few more appearances than Neres for Sao Paulo (52 to be exact) and he has already been touted as Hakim Ziyech 2.0.

The Brazilian has big shoes to fill following the Moroccan’s eye-watering move to Chelsea, but he is highly-regarded and comes with pedigree having scored six goals in 14 games for Brazil’s U-23s. He also has three goals in five games this pre-season. A sign of things to come?

ST: Lucas Moura

  • Age: 28
  • Current club: Tottenham Hotspur
  • Games for Sao Paulo: 128

Traditional striker, false nine, or deep-lying forward, whichever iteration we go with Lucas has proven adept through the middle and will do so for this XI. Lucas was emerging on the scene as one of the brightest players on the planet during his embryonic years at Sao Paulo. He was hot property, but his status was somewhat dwarfed by another emerging talent in Brazil at that point: Neymar.

Collectively, the duo had every big European club worth their salt lining up for them, even West Ham had a crack at landing Neymar, but it would be newly-rich PSG who reached deepest into their pockets and landed the burgeoning Lucas. He started brightly at the Parc des Princes, but eventually fell down the pecking order and Tottenham moved for him in 2018.

He helped guide the club to the Champions League final in 2019 with a second-half hat-trick against Ajax in the semis and that last-minute goal, which earned him a spot in the Squad of the Season, and he continues to play an important role under Jose Mourinho to this day.

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