There were echoes of Zico’s sublime finish against New Zealand in 1982 in Richarlison’s bicycle-kick goal against Serbia. If anything though, the finish from the kid who had to fight for everything was even better.
If you’re a pragmatist who shies away from any kind of romance, you’ll say that the ball had 12m to travel to beat the Serbian goalkeeper. But the journey that got Brazil’s Richarlison to his position just behind the penalty spot had taken nearly eight years and many thousands of kilometres. If numbers matter to you, then it was more than 17,500km – nearly halfway round the world if you’re following the equator.
When Richarlison left the town of Nova Venécia not long after watching his Brazilian football heroes humiliated 7-1 by Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal, he didn’t even have money to buy a return ticket. The city where he was headed? Belo Horizonte, 550km away, where the national team missing the injured Neymar had been torn apart by the pace and finishing of the Germans.
Within six months, Richarlison, the oldest of five siblings, had been promoted to the senior team at América Mineiro, the poor cousins of Clube Atlético Mineiro – who gave the legendary World Cup team of 1982 Toninho Cerezo and Eder, scorer of two of the greatest goals the tournament has ever seen.
It took him just six months to make such an impression that Fluminense, four-time champions of Brazil’s Serie A, signed him. From Belo Horizonte to the relatively swanky Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood of Laranjeiras is a journey of around 440km by road. He stayed less than two years there, scoring 19 times in 67 games before upping sticks to the outskirts of London.
From Rio to Vicarage Road, where Watford Football Club play, is a journey of 9,275km. The club, where Elton John was once chairman, has become one of the English Premier League’s yo-yo clubs in recent years. The Pozzo family from Italy, sole owners since 2014, change coaches/managers more often than some change their bedspread, and it was no surprise when Richarlison agitated to leave after a season that saw him score five times in 41 appearances.
By then, it was also obvious that he wasn’t your typical Brazilian import. From Juninho at Middlesborough to Philippe Coutinho at Aston Villa, via the likes of Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus, Brazilian attackers in English football have tended to be small and full of tricks. Richarlison is big and strapping, capable of bullying defenders and heading the ball like an old-style British centre-forward.
In his four seasons at Everton, he became something of a cult hero, not least because he scored the first goal in a victory at Anfield, home of bitter rivals Liverpool, Everton’s first there in nearly 22 years. Everton never finished higher than eighth in those four years, despite the best efforts of coaching legends like Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benitez. But the fans took Richarlison to their hearts because he gave it absolutely everything, often chasing lost causes in matches where the team were completely outclassed.
A record of 53 goals in 152 games isn’t the sign of an elite-level striker, but discerning talent scouts knew how Richarlison often had to feed off scraps in a team lacking both dynamism and invention in midfield. His numbers for the national team, where he’s surrounded by players of comparable quality, are a much more accurate reflection of his talent – 19 goals in 39 games.
The goal against Serbia will be talked about for years to come. For lovers of Brazilian football, and they count in the millions in India, the bicycle-kick finish might have brought back memories of the great Zico’s overhead kick against New Zealand at the 1982 World Cup. On that occasion, it was Leandro, one of the full-backs, crossing from the right wing, and Zico smashing the ball past the goalkeeper’s outstretched left hand.
If anything, Richarlison’s finish was even better. Vinicius Junior, cutting in from the left, doesn’t float the ball across. Instead, he toe-pokes it at pace. Richarlison flicks the ball up with his left boot, over his shoulder. Before it drops, he then swivels 180 degrees to lash the ball past Vanja Milinković-Savić’s right glove.
The spotlight prior to the game may have been on Neymar, but it’s the Vinicius Junior-Richarlison association that accounts for both Brazil goals. With the likes of Rodrygo, Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli on the bench, and Firmino not even in the squad, it’s safe to say Brazil have a problem of plenty.
With his aerial prowess, strength and pace, Richarlison is a guaranteed starter for Tite’s side, offering an option that none of the others do. There are again echoes here of 1982 and Serginho, the strong-as-a-bull centre forward, though Richarlison possesses a far defter touch and is much more clinical with the chances he gets.
What this Brazil side lacks is some midfield stardust. What Tite wouldn’t give for a Cerezo or Socrates or Falcao. Casemiro, apart from his prowess as a defensive midfielder, can pass the ball beautifully, but it would require a leap of imagination to compare him with the creative geniuses of 1982 or their 1970 counterparts like Gerson and Rivelino.
However, as long as Tite can call on a group of attackers as strong as any in the competition, Brazil will always be a threat. They conceded just five goals in 17 World Cup qualifying matches, and looked rock solid at the back against Serbia. If Richarlison and others can take some of the pressure off Neymar, and keep scoring wonder goals as against Serbia, those 20 years of hurt could well come to an end soon.
Oh, and it’s 6,700km from London, where Richarlison now plays for Tottenham Hotspur, to Doha in Qatar. But for the 25 year old who has had to scrap for everything he has, you sense the journey is far from over. This could just be the beginning of a wonderful World Cup adventure.