The South American Youth Championship—that scouts’ paradise—didn’t go exactly as planned for Brazil last month. Having finished in the top four in each of the biennial tournaments since 1977 they wound up bottom of their group at the 2013 instalment, with just one win and four goals scored in four matches.

It was a performance that fell well short of recent standards, in particular the 2011 side that lost just once en route to the title and hammered Uruguay 6-0 in the final. That side, which also graduated a handful of players to the squad that would win the FIFA U-20 World Cup six months later, was stacked with players who would become stars at club level, and others who already were.

Up front there was Neymar, Lucas Moura and Willian José; in defense Juan Jesus and Danilo. Alan Patrick and Oscar made things happen in the centre of the park, and holding it all together was an 18-year-old named Casemiro—an elegant, box-to-box midfielder with a penchant for playmaking who the previous season had broken into the first team at São Paulo.

At the time Casemiro was among the best central midfielders in his age category in Brazil, if not the best—a reputation that made him destined for a big-money move to big European club, should São Paulo have been unable to resist the offers tabled.

They did resist, as it turned out, even as interest in the player from the likes of Arsenal, Juventus, Roma and Tottenham took his value from an estimated £5 million to more than £10 million. Brazilian clubs, boosted by a growing economy, improved television contracts and lucrative sponsorship deals, were suddenly able to retain their prized assets a lot longer than even a few years before, and São Paulo spurned whatever bids for Casemiro were put forward.

In 2010 Lazio had paid São Paulo €11 million for a mature, 24-year-old Hernanes, and given the way things were going they were confident they could make considerably more off Casemiro if they held on to him a few more years.

Struggling for first-team football

Fast-forward to January 31, 2013: transfer deadline day in much of Europe.

Casemiro, struggling for first-team football in Brazil, joins Real Madrid’s B side, Real Madrid Castilla, on loan for the rest of the season. His agent tries to spin the move as an opportunity to break into Madrid manager José Mourinho’s first team, but in reality the now 20-year-old will spend the next few months battling for playing time in the Segunda.

His decline as a footballer, it seems, has been swift; his maturation arrested. But this is more than merely stalled development.

In 2012 Casemiro turned out only 22 times in the league, and often from the bench. Despite having the reputation as a goal-scoring threat from the centre of the park, he failed to find the back of the net even once. When Denilson and Wellington won the favour of new manager Ney Franco, who joined the club in July, his status at the club diminished even further.

São Paulo president Juvenal Juvencio summed up the situation best when he said Casemiro had become “dazzled by fame.” An article reporting the move to Spain in Brazilian outlet Globo claimed the São Paulo board had become increasingly “agitated” with the player.

Not that the club have done either Casemiro or some of their other young players many favours by so frequently changing the coaching regime. Casemiro has worked with five different managers since he starred at the South American Youth Championship, and his clashes with Emerson Leão were especially detrimental to his reputation.

In one instance, at the end of the 2011 season, he complained publicly about a benching, to which Emerson Leão responded by saying his performances had left much to be desired.

It seems Ney Franco was of a similar opinion, and with the current manager expected to achieve the rarest of things—two full seasons, uninterrupted, in charge of a top-flight Brazilian side—Casemiro was allowed to go out on loan. Real Madrid also have the option to buy him outright in the summer, and the price will be largely determined by the quality of his play between now and then.

Change of scenery

Perhaps the change of scenery will do him good. Rarely does so young a player have such apparent physical gifts as Casemiro, and if he and São Paulo cannot bring those gifts to maturity together it’s likely best for both that they go their separate ways.

It could turn out nicely for Real Madrid as well.

Xabi Alonso recently turned 31, which means the Spanish giants will be looking to bolster their depth at central midfield during the next few transfer periods. Casemiro is by no means first in line to succeed the Spain international, but by bringing him into their setup at little cost Madrid have added a low-risk option to the mix. And, who knows? The dangled carrot of a first-team place at one of the biggest clubs in the world might be just the motivation Casemiro needs.

But that’s looking too far ahead. For now Casemiro’s main target should be regular minutes for Real Madrid Castilla. He needs to play in order to piece back together the elements of size, grace and football sense that made him such an irresistible prospect only two years ago. If he does that, he just might prove to be the bargain signing of deadline day.