Some forgot that when Paris Saint-Germain bought Lucas Moura from São Paulo in the summer and agreed to allow the player to stay in Brazil for a further six months before moving to France in the winter, it was not without precedent in the team’s history.
Two decades ago, a similar deal was struck between the same two clubs for a different player: Raí. Except, of course, he instead agreed his transfer in the winter of 1992 only to then join the following summer once he’d fulfilled his promise to win the Copa Libertadores with São Paulo for a second consecutive season, win the Intercontinental Cup, and to qualify Brazil for the next World Cup in the United States.
Raí, at that time the South American Player of the Year, would prove to be worth the wait. The question is: will Lucas? Perhaps that’s an unfair standard by which to judge him. At least for now.
For it’s not as though Lucas isn’t burdened enough already by the pressure and expectation that comes with justifying the €40m initially spent by Paris Saint-Germain to gazump Manchester United and secure his signature, a fee for a “19-year-old boy” that led Sir Alex Ferguson to argue that “the game’s gone mad.”
Because, irrespective of the money involved, emulating Raí—who ranks alongside Safet Sušić as the club’s greatest ever player—is a tall order even if, considering the wealth available to Paris Saint-Germain, they are capable of putting Lucas in a position to eclipse the palmares that he achieved at the club; namely a league title in his first season, the Coupe de France on two occasions, the League Cup and, most famously of all, the only European honor in the trophy cabinet at the Parc des Princes, the Cup Winners’ Cup.
And yet with Raí it wasn’t so much what he won—though obviously that counted—than what he came to stand for. He was the definition of elegance and class on and off the pitch, becoming for Paris Saint-Germain—a club that was and still is in relative terms quite young—the embodiment of the club’s ideal player. For an example of the esteem in which he was held, it’s enough to remember the send-off he got before returning to São Paulo in 1998.
The Parc des Princes put on a choreography of the Brazilian flag especially for Raí. After the game, a 2-1 defeat to Monaco, he went behind the goal and, as the crowd sang songs about him, balled his eyes out, crying wildly into his shirt before kneeling and bowing down before them.
Lucas, although still only 20, already has his own experience of an emotional goodbye.
After scoring a goal and setting up Osvaldo for another in a 2-0 win against Tigres in the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana final, a game that was controversially abandoned at half-time in December, Lucas, who’d seen a Hollywood-style “Obrigado Lucas” sign and a “it’s not goodbye, see you soon” banner held up in the crowd at Morumbi stadium, was then handed the captain’s armband by the legendary free-kick and penalty-taking goalkeeper Rogério Ceni and given the honor of lifting São Paulo’s first trophy in four years.
Going out on a high as few get the chance to do, the kid who had been at the club since leaving rivals Corinthians aged 13 and-a-half broke down in tears. His teammates were sad to see him go too. “I’m not ashamed to say it, Lucas is forty percent of our team,” Rogério Ceni admitted. “When he is on the pitch we’re all his assistants.”
Many have wondered whether he’ll have the same impact at Paris Saint-Germain. Maybe not to the same extent. Not when Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is responsible for 50% of the team’s goals and assists this season, is calling for the ball. Lucas will only be too happy to serve him. “Absolutely,” he told France Football. “[It will be] like Luis Fabiano and me here at São Paulo, no?” Except there’s so much more to Lucas than his role as a simple support player. Just ask Neymar, the foremost Brazilian talent of his generation.
“Everyone knows that Lucas is a crack, a fantastic player,” he said. “And although our styles are different he is also very comfortable with the ball at his feet. In one moment, he can decide the outcome of a match.”
The Neymar-Lucas comparison is an interesting one. While there’s so much chatter about the former, who gets most if not all of the limelight, the latter quietly gets on with becoming a better player and by all accounts has improved on the pitch in the time between signing with and moving to Paris Saint-Germain. Off it, Neymar and Lucas cut different figures too. Lucas is apparently timid and reserved, and even has a normal haircut.
In that regard, maybe he has something in common with Lionel Messi, if only in terms of attitude. Bruno Petri, Lucas’ coach at youth level, relayed the following anecdote. “When he would get hacked down by an opponent, he wouldn’t say anything about it. Lucas would get up and start over again. It makes me think of Messi.”
Of course, finding “the new Messi”—a young player capable of becoming world class and defining a generation, rather than buying the real one—has been the aim of Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaïfi from the outset. That Lucas and Messi both play (or in Messi’s case started out) on the right-wing is coincidence. While Lucas still plays there now, he was actually a No.10 and is comfortable across the three-quarter line and beyond.
In Brazil, a nation conscious that he’s their patrimony, comparisons have been made rather more with Jairzinho, the winger, forward and member of the great 1970 World Cup winning side, nicknamed Furacão—the Hurricane—he had a season with Paris Saint-Germain’s rivals Marseille in the mid-70s. He sees himself in Lucas too. “He’s explosive, powerful and quick,” Jairzinho said.
That pace and robustness allied to the player’s creativity and trickery is one of the reasons why Paris Saint-Germain are confident Lucas will be a success in the rough and tumble of Ligue 1. Even so, there are hard knocks to be had. Even Ibrahimovic claimed to have aged ten years in the last six months on account of the kicks and elbows he’s taken, something that, as Leonardo alluded to in L’Équipe this morning, happens because French teams tend to mark to man-to-man rather than in zones.
Lucas is under no illusion over what awaits him, anticipating “quite physical matches, tough defenders and great tactical discipline contrary to in Brazil where there’s a lot more improvisation” and “tactically [things] are a little more confused.”
Yet Lucas can not only take tackles as Petri indicated earlier, but also responsibility, handling a difficult final six months in Brazil when he might have stood accused of already having his head in France. Lucas, however, didn’t allow that to happen, refusing, for the most part, to talk about Paris Saint-Germain in interviews and giving São Paulo his complete undivided attention, so much so that he surprised his teammates with a team-talk in the dressing room before the Copa Sudamericana semi-final against Chile’s Universidad Católica.
Out of respect for the hierarchy and his still fledgling career, Lucas will presumably listen and learn during his first season at Paris Saint-Germain, but tales of such strength of character, even if rather flimsily used to support a case made by the club that he’ll be a great signing, are still encouraging as he begins a far-from-easy adaptation.
For even though Raí scored in his first match for Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes [against Montpellier on September 11, 1993], for example, it still took the great man a season or so to step out of the shadow of fellow Brazilian Valdo and realise his potential.
While all eyes will be on Lucas, the pressure he will face, notwithstanding his status as the protagonist of the biggest transfer ever between a European and a South American club, should be different to that which Javier Pastore, the first so-called Galactique, has experienced over the last 18 months.
Not least because within the context of Paris Saint-Germain’s spending, the fee, although still colossal in size, is only the third highest in the club’s history (excluding the €5m in potential add-ons) after those of Thiago Silva and the aforementioned Pastore, who when he moved to France was the only ‘name’ then at the club. Now, though, there’s Ibrahimovic, a lightning rod for the media’s attention, capable of carrying the expectations surrounding the team on his shoulders, leaving others like Lucas to make their debut under slightly less scrutiny and with more patience than Pastore received.
Where exactly he’ll fit now that Paris Saint-Germain have moved away from a 4-3-3 and 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-2, which has brought six consecutive wins in all competitions (one of the assumptions is that, for now, if he does play, he’ll either be alongside Ibra up front or on the right-wing) is of course a pleasant selection headache for Carlo Ancelotti, a coach who has other playmakers, wide men [Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jeremy Menez] and forwards to accommodate.
But back to Lucas. In a joint interview with L’Équipe last month, Raí advised him on what to expect, focusing, to the joy of those who revel in Brazilian stereotypes, on the cold weather and how he “tried everything” to stop his feet from freezing, losing on average “four toenails a winter” despite stuffing “newspaper into your boots” and using “the [embrocation] creams.” It was all to no avail. “When your feet are frozen and you get into a hot bath after a match… it’s horrible,” Raí grimaced.
Still Lucas appears undaunted. “I love challenges,” he says, and wants to test himself outside of Brazil, which is more than can perhaps be said for Neymar. “I will try to show why Paris Saint-Germain have bet on me,” Lucas promised L’Équipe. Only time will tell of course whether it pays off for the high rollers of European football. One thing’s for sure, however: should Lucas show signs of becoming a world-beater at the Parc des Princes like Ronaldinho did between 2001 and 2003, this time they won’t be obliged to sell.
Because as Leonardo claimed this morning: “PSG have turned into a club where everything is possible.” That indeed they have.