Redemption is just 12 yards away. Twelve yards. Alexandre Pato had a long time to think about that. Five Fluminense players were gathered around the referee protesting the decision to give Corinthians a penalty kick. Who could blame them? It was 0-0 with only minutes remaining. Lose and the holders, who’d relinquish their title to Cruzeiro that night, would be even further drawn into a relegation dogfight.
Pato had come off the bench. He’d sat there for over an hour listening to the crowd at the Arena Corinthians hurl abuse at him, the home crowd. The 24-year-old pulled at his shirt. He lifted the neck up over his chin to wipe the film of sweat that had materialised on his top lip and around his mouth. Taking a swig from a energy drink bottle, he grabbed the ball under his arm then paced up and down until it was time.
“Pato! Pato! Pato!” the fans shouted. Now they were on his side. How soon things change. The referee blew his whistle. Pato ran up. He went to his right. Fluminense’s goalkeeper, the former Liverpool back-up, Diego Cavalieri dived to his left. The right way. But he couldn’t get to it. The shot, too powerful, too accurate, flew into the top corner. Pato took off his shirt and put his hand to his ear as he jogged towards the Corinthians bench. He did it again. “What you got to say about that?” he seemed to be asking.
The day before Pato had posted this Michael Jordan quote on his Instagram page: “I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
About three weeks ago, he had missed a penalty in a shootout against Grêmio. Danilo and Edenilson had before him too. But the law in shootouts, a cognitive bias perhaps, states that it’s the last person to miss who gets associated with, stigmatised even, by penalty failure. And that person was Pato.
This was a perfect storm, a mass of dark clouds had been gathering for some time. It wasn’t so much that Pato missed– although of course there was an element of that–rather it was the manner of the miss itself: a Panenka straight into the arms of a grateful Dida, his 40-year-old former teammate at Milan.
It’s a double-edged sword, the Panenka. Score and you humiliate the keeper. Miss and you appear even more foolish than if you’d blasted it wide, over the bar, or made the `keeper work harder to make a save by going for either corner. Pato fell on that sword.
That notion of not making the goalkeeper work hard enough reflects on the taker as well. The nonchalance required to feather the perfect Panenka means that, should it not come off, the player can come across like he doesn’t care, like he is taking the situation too lightly and not treating it with the seriousness it deserves.
For Pato, whose commitment to the Corinthians cause was called into question in September after he dashed off to a Beyonce concert following a home defeat, it was, in hindsight, perhaps the worst choice of penalty he could have made. His favourite song of hers “Sweet Dreams,” foretold a not so “Beautiful Nightmare.”
Since the penalty miss, Pato has been vilified. Reprimanded in front of his teammates by coach Tite, his actions were labelled “childish.” President Mario Gobbi was unsparing too. “Considering the potential [Pato] has, we’d hoped for more. He still hasn’t shown anything here.”
There’s disappointment. So much so in fact that the club has hinted that they will look to try and recover the €15m they invested in Pato. “Today [the player] is angry and dejected at how things are going,” said Corinthians director of sport Roberto de Andrade. “If a few offers were to arrive, we’d make our valuations and speak to the player.” Tottenham have apparently been in touch. Just imagine for a moment the pace they’d have in forward positions with him up front and Erik Lamela left or right.
Imagine. Because Pato revealed that, at least for now, he is turning their overtures down. “I sat at the table with the club and my agent and I decided I wanted to stay.” How long will he continue to feel that way?
It’s fair to say, Pato’s homecoming has not quite worked out as planned. He was supposed to be “born again” and not in the “I belong to Jesus” sense. Returning to Brazil was meant to be restorative. Sixteen injuries in three years at Milan had left him desperate. He never played more than a month without breaking down.
Pato risked becoming Brazil’s Michael Owen. MilanLab was to blame, he argued. “The treatment was different there,” Pato told SporTV. “They do a lot of physical exercise, in the swimming pool, physiotherapy. You end up doing 20 days of work in just one week and it’s only normal that the body can’t cope.”
There was friction with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his penultimate season and coach Max Allegri throughout too. A section of Milan’s supporters turned on him as well. He could have left a year earlier. Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani wanted to bring in Carlos Tevez from Manchester City, a move that was contingent upon Pato switching to Paris Saint-Germain where he’d be reunited with Carlo Ancelotti and Leonardo. The deal was vetoed by Silvio Berlusconi. Or was it his daughter Barbara, who Pato was going out with at the time?
Anyway, Corinthians came in a year later. The deal wasn’t as good for Milan, but Pato seemed thrilled. He was joining the Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup champions. Their ability to sign him was indicative of the strength of Brazilian football. Playing back home meant Luiz Felipe Scolari, the coach of the Seleção, could follow him up close ahead of the World Cup in 2014. Things started well. Pato scored on his debut as he did for Internacional, then Milan and Brazil. In total he has got 17 in 56 matches, a return of 0.30 per game. Not as many as Corinthians had hoped, nor even up to his Milan standards where he scored on average every 153 minutes.
The misses have been more memorable than the goals. Included in Scolari’s squad for Brazil’s last set of friendlies against South Korea and Zambia, he was left out for the forthcoming ones. You worry for his chances of making the World Cup squad and have to question the wisdom of going back to Brazil in the first place – 20 of the 22 players named to face Honduras and Chile over the next week are based in Europe. Then there’s the risk and reward of leaving again – he’d only have five months to prove himself and would need to adjust to wherever he might go too.
He’s in a delicate spot. Pato remains a promise unfulfilled. Think back to the 2007 Ballon d’Or ceremony when Leonardo took Kaka to collect his award. Pato had just signed for Milan. Hopes were high. So high, Leonardo said he’d be back with Pato to pick up his Ballon d’Or one day in the future. It hasn’t happened yet. “He isn’t in crisis,” his former teammate, the Botofogo midfielder Clarence Seedorf says. “He’s a great talent. He just has to work and needs patience. There aren’t many around like him.” It’s true. There’s time for Pato to come good and realise his full potential. The duck isn’t cooked. Not just yet.