Globetrotter Paulinho can find his feet at Tottenham
Brazilian has been impressive since his arrival at White Hart Lane but his previous experience of Europe was appalling
As Brazilian fans celebrated a volleyed goal that spared them the embarrassment of a home defeat by Roy Hodgson's England two months ago, and Tottenham supporters purred over the smoothest of Premier League debuts at Crystal Palace and then a headed goal in Tbilisi on Thursday, they would not have wanted to dwell on how close the star of the show was to coming nowhere near such heights.
Jose Paulo Bezerra Maciel Junior could easily have been just another Paulinho – of whom Wikipedia alone lists seven – and just one more Sao Paulo boy dreaming the great Brazilian dream of making it as a professional footballer. Instead the drive and determination evident in those two matches and many others took him as an unknown 18-year-old to, of all places, Lithuania, and then Poland before returning in disillusionment to his own country, reluctantly preparing to consider an alternative career – if only he could think of one.
He had not made a single first-team appearance, even for the fourth division club Pao de Acucar, before deciding to move 7,000 miles to join FC Vilnius, whose only attraction appeared to be the club's fondness for Brazilian players. That goodwill, alas, did not extend to rival supporters. "I suffered problems in Lithuania because of racism," Paulinho recounts sadly. "In two particular games when I went out to play, the fans were making monkey noises, throwing coins at me, and I thought I don't need to tolerate this and I made the decision to move on."
As a regular first-team player, growing into a six-footer and following the trend for taller, stronger, more dynamic midfield players, he did at least have something on his CV. A season playing at right-back for LKS Lodz did not, however, prove much more successful, the Polish club already experiencing the sort of financial problems that would eventually lead to bankruptcy earlier this year.
Paulinho says: "The club had internal problems and mainly because of this, and also because my wife was pregnant, I made the decision to return. When I returned to Brazil after those problems I experienced in eastern Europe I did think about leaving football behind. I just thought, 'I don't need to put myself in these sorts of situations'. So in 2008 I went three weeks without playing football.
"I lost hope, I lost confidence. I was basically stuck for three weeks and when you are in that position that's when sadness comes, when depression might sink in. I lost confidence, which would subsequently return but at the time I could never think about my dreams of playing football."
The time passed slowly. "I mainly stayed at home without much to do. Or I was going out, seeing friends, but every time I'd return home without any ideas. I spent lots of time thinking what I would do without football. I have been playing this sport since I was five years old and it forms a very large part of my life. I also decided to return for family reasons. I felt I had responsibilities to my mum and my dad and I talked a lot about it with my wife. My mum and dad always backed me up and did everything they could for me and [felt] I should return to football to fight for what they'd given me."
There was also the small matter of what else he would do with his life: "This is exactly what my wife said: 'If you leave football, what are you going to do?' And it was true, if I left football I wouldn't be able to do anything."
Brazilian football has much to thank this family support group for. Encouraged to make something of himself, Paulinho was sufficiently humble to return to Pao de Acucar in the fourth division, where his talents this time became recognised. After one season he was able to step up to the second division with Bragantino and did well enough there to earn a loan to Corinthians, one of the big boys of Sao Paulo. "It was then I really started to believe in myself as a footballer again. That was a year and a half after returning to Brazil and starting from scratch."
He was not out of place and as well as securing a permanent transfer, he was called up in September 2011 by Mano Menezes to play for Brazil against Argentina. Menezes' successor Luiz Felipe Scolari shared his predecessor's faith and when he took over in 2012, he picked Paulinho for both the Wembley friendly against England and the return in Rio.
On each occasion he played as one of the two holding midfielders, first with Ramires of Chelsea and then with the Arsenal target Luiz Gustavo. Fernandinho of Manchester City is expected to emerge as another contender in the position, and a season climaxing with a World Cup in Brazil is clearly of paramount importance for all those players. Paulinho will only say: "I'm only going to play for Brazil if I do my best for Tottenham so first and foremost I'll be doing everything for the club."
As well as Tottenham, there was serious interest this summer from Internazionale and CSKA Moscow, but the Premier League attracted him and having a Portuguese speaker in Andre Villas-Boas as manager is a bonus. "There are moments when I don't understand everything in English and when we are speaking about tactics, to speak to Villas-Boas in Portuguese is an obvious advantage," he says.
"But I didn't come here for this, I came because the club has a great stature, the great coach that Villas-Boas is and also for the players I will be playing alongside." If he cannot expect Gareth Bale to be among their number, the club's spending splurge will hardly discourage him.
Swansea City today offer Spurs the chance to build on last weekend's opening victory, before they visit Arsenal next Sunday. At the end of September comes a game with Chelsea that will have extra spice since Mourniho looks like luring Willian, yet another challenger for those World Cup midfield places, from under their noses.
As Paulinho says: "I am very good friends with Oscar and David Luiz, and Ramires at Chelsea is another one I see. So when we get the opportunity for lunch or to socialise we do so. Off the field it is normal to be friends. On the field I will defend Tottenham with my life."
Paulinho was speaking as Tottenham announced their support of the NHS campaign 'Get to know cancer' for the 2013-14 season. The campaign will see the club, players and staff actively promoting awareness and early detection of cancer symptoms.
Tottenham Hotspur v Swansea City is at 4pm today
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