Number 9: Robinho
Club Team: Santos, Brazil Serie A, on loan from Manchester City FC, EPL
American-based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Manny Ramirez, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The World Cup produces all manner of fascinating plot lines. A recurring one, yet one that always compels, is the tale of the player who rebounds from disappointing club form to find a measure of vindication wearing the shirt for the flag. Often times, you simply isolate a set of players and without doing the guesswork, simply suggest that one from that group will fill the role of superhero, if only in their country’s shirt. In South Africa, I believe the task is far less speculative. Our number nine player to watch, Robinho, will star for the Selecao in this summer’s Group-of-Death because that’s what Robinho does. For him, the Gold and Blue is a Superman costume, one that to date has produced 20 goals in 72 appearances, and six goals and two assists in the last eighteen caps. Robinho is simply a different player for country than for club, and he will be again this summer. The answer to the “Why?” question that TYAC writer Puck and other fans whose allegiances fall on the blue side of Manchester will be asking all June, is far more interesting.
Robinho’s detractors—our very own Puck is shockingly (I jest) among the most vocal—will tell you that his form at Eastlands (well, technically, in matches away from Eastlands) was borderline horrendous. Robinho often appears to be playing as if he is still drunk from the night before. He very well may be, too—this is half of what makes him so compelling. In the EPL, as Puck reminds me, we’ve seen him give up and walk away while a long ball that just missed was still in play. He’ll pout and frown and throw his hands up at the referee, when he probably could have gotten to the ball. No matter. That’s just Robinho being Robinho.
The kid who as an 18 year old helped end an 18 year title drought for Brazil’s Santos, and topped that off with a dominating performance in a finalist run at the Copa Libertadores, has never seemed fully at ease off his home soil. At Real Madrid, Robinho was the team’s third leading scorer and won La Liga, but outside of flashes of his breathtaking pace and the occasional awe-inspiring pedalo, Robinho was too often prone to lapses in concentration. All the while, Robinho was breathtaking in the Selecao shirt—leading Brazil in goals at the 2007 Copa America and helping Brazil hoist the trophy. A move to the EPL seemed imminent in 2008, and after a Chelsea transfer fell through, Robinho found himself moving to Manchester City in September of that year as part of Manchester’s determined effort to find a Champions League spot, cease being the New York Mets of English club football, and spend eleventy-billion dollars.
In his first year at Eastlands, he rewarded the club by being the EPL’s fourth-leading scorer (netting 14), and seemed at ease with his surroundings, noting that he was particularly content to be playing with childhood friend Elano. That’s when things got interesting. He was injured for three months, returned, scored only once in 12 games (an FA Cup goal against English pub-side Scunthorpe), and became a malcontent as he fell increasingly out-of-favor, particularly with new coach Roberto Mancini, whose fine Italian scarves and no-nonsense attitude didn’t sit well with the fun-loving, diminutive, thumb-sucking Brazilian who no longer had friends Elano and Jo (loaned to Everton) at his side. By January, Robinho was demanding an exit, and Manchester obliged, sending him back to Brazil’s Santos on loan. What’s happened since is even more fascinating.
Robinho has experienced nothing short of a revival, whether it is for club or country. He had followed his sterling first EPL season with a marvelous Confederations Cup, where he scored and has an assist in leading Brazil to the title—his goal being perhaps the single- most embarrassingly easy goal against the United States in a generation when he intercepted DaMarcus Beasley’s tepid post-corner effort and took it coast-to-coast, besting a helpless Howard and perhaps ending DaMarcus’ international tournament football career in the process. That said, by the time he reached Santos, it appeared the only times he was useful was wearing the Brazilian shirt, and the criticisms about his lack-of-effort had reached fever pitch.
He’s responded with five goals in nine games, two assists, and a goal in the Selecao shirt for good measure. On the flanks of a potent Brazilian attack, which features more counterattacking pressure under Dunga, Robinho is relied upon to press forward with the fundamentally-brilliant Kaka and feed the fleet and clinical Luis Fabiano near the net. Robinho thrives in this attack-minded role, trusting that his central mids will do the tracking back—and Dunga loves him for it—which means a great deal to Robinho. He’s the soccer equivalent to one of Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls”, a player who doesn’t so much want to be revered as much as he wants to be loved and noticed, and if he isn’t—he can be petulant and lazy. In club football, this is a dangerous brew because club football demands a business-like approach from one-week to the next. Passion isn’t created for the Saturday trip to Stoke—the player has to generate it himself. Robinho can’t seem to grasp this. Or perhaps he’s just hammered drunk. But at home in Brazil, where he is revered and loved, or playing for country, which he reveres and loves—he’s simply a different footballer. And when on your best day you’re already one of the best attacking footballers in the world—that’s a scary proposition.
As such, you take the good with bad with Robinho. You understand, to borrow a phrase used when talking about his American soulmate, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez—that sometimes Robinho’s just being Robinho. Ramirez is often lamented for the same reasons Robinho is—lack of effort, moody, a malcontent, a guy who only plays hard when he feels like it, a guy you think is probably drunk half-the-time.
Like Robinho, who had a love/hate relationship with the fans at Eastlands, Manny has been either loathed or loved wherever he goes, and you’re never sure if he cares about loving the fans back, but you are sure he wants the fans, whether they be in Cleveland, Boston, or Los Angeles, to love him.
Their “form” is copycat as well. Most of the time, Manny is simply too spectacular a baseball player to hate. He’s one of the best hitters of his generation. He hits for power and for great average. He rarely strikes out, remarkable for a guy with 548 career round trippers. As good as he is in the regular season, he’s almost better in the playoffs (.285, 29 homers, 78 RBI’s, 2004 World Series Most Valuable Player), professional baseball’s equivalent to playing for the flag. And yet there are the question marks. There are the days where Manny doesn’t feel like playing. There are the days at Fenway when he was hiding in the scoreboard instead of shifting for a pull hitter or giving up on chasing a gapper to the wall because he just assumed the centerfielder would get there quicker. In Los Angeles, where Manny-Wood is its own cult, and he seems to have found an ironical soulmate in skipper Joe Torre, a man who understands the former Red Sox star who once caught a ball at the warning track, where he waited to hit a relay throw because he wanted to “high-five” a kid in the stands instead. A great deal of this we laugh off. It’s just Manny Being Manny, we say. And to some extent—that’s right. Because when October comes, when there are two outs and we need a hit—we can’t think of anyone better than Manny to be at the plate. To quote Colonel Jessup, “we want him on that wall; we need him on that wall.” We don’t care if he once said before a Red Sox ALCS elimination game that losing “wouldn’t be the end of the world.” After all, all Manny did after he said that was finish the series hitting .409 with a .563 on-base percentage. That’s other-worldly. So just let Manny be Manny.
Oh and just let ‘Binho be ‘Binho. Because even though he is seemingly destined to leave Eastlands forever after the World Cup this summer, perhaps even remaining in Brazil permanently, I don’t think there’s a guy in the world I’d rather have on my flank when the moment is biggest, and the passion is greatest, than our number nine player to watch.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com or @nwb_USMNT.