“I told him I didn’t want to play any more. He was phoning and phoning but I said: ‘I’m not going to play.’” The calls came, the president on the line, but José Paulo Bezerra Maciel Júnior – better known as Paulinho, hardly known at all then – had made up his mind. He had headed home to São Paulo, yet rather than returning to his boyhood club he was giving up on the game. He had had enough, aged 19. “In Lithuania they had racially abused me, in Poland they hadn’t paid me, and I thought: ‘I don’t need this,’” he says. “I said to my family: ‘I’m not playing football again.’”
Which was when his then-wife intervened, telling him to think about his parents – a council worker and a supermarket manager who had supported him since he started playing at the age of five. Ditching it all would, she said, show a lack of respect to them. Paulinho and his wife had just had a baby daughter too and, besides, she asked: ‘What else can you do?’ It is a good question. What would he have done? Paulinho smiles. “I really don’t know,” he says. “She said: ‘The only thing you know how to do is play football.’” And so that is what he did.
About a month later, Paulinho rejoined Pão de Açúcar in the fourth division, effectively an amateur. Almost a decade on, he is preparing for the world’s biggest club game, a starter for Barcelona in Saturday’s clásico. The highest-scoring midfielder in Spain, his team are six points clear at the top and 11 ahead of their rivals, and this summer he will be in the heart of the Brazil team who are favourites in Russia. “If someone had said then that I would be preparing to play in the World Cup and at Barcelona, I would have said: ‘Never!’” he grins. “Never, ever.”
However the “then” Paulinho is talking about is not 2008, it is 2015. It is not that he gave up once a long time ago; it is that others routinely gave up on him. He tells his story steadily, dating every decision. “It’s been a rollercoaster,” he says. He has played in six countries in three continents, been a Copa Libertadores champion and relegated too, suffered the greatest humiliation in Brazil’s history and been abused, unpaid, written off. And now look.
Paulinho’s professional career began when, aged 16, he left home for Lithuania; it ended aged 26 when he left London for China. Or at least it was supposed to, Guangzhou his particular graveyard. “When I went, everyone said that was it: my career was over,” Paulinho says. The question is simple: why go? The answer is simple, stark too: there was a prospect worse – staying at Tottenham.
After a year at Vilnius, Paulinho left for Lodz, returning to Brazil in the summer of 2008. He won promotion with Pão de Açúcar before joining Bragantino in the second division. From there he headed to Corinthians, where he won the Brazilian title, the Libertadores and the Club World Cup. Having turned down Internazionale, he joined Tottenham the following year for a club-record £17m. The Premier League should have suited him, he admits, but within two years he was desperate to go. “I wouldn’t say it was a relief to leave Spurs but it was clear I had to,” he says. “It was a difficult time.
“[André] Villas-Boas bought me in July 2013 and in December Villas-Boas goes. He’d wanted me, we’d spoken a lot, and then six months later Tim Sherwood was in charge. There was no problem with him – he was very young, a good coach – but the team wasn’t doing well and he came under pressure to change things. He did things a little differently but I still played the last eight or nine games that season. Then came the change from Sherwood to Mauricio Pochettino.”
Something else came too. As Paulinho sets the scene, Belo Horizonte comes into view. He was brought on at half-time in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup with the hosts 5-0 down to Germany and, as he discusses his return to Spurs afterwards, it is clear how much of an impact Brazil’s 7-1 defeat had. “The problem was that this came after the World Cup, with me trying to get back to some normality. I was the last back and to have gone out of the World Cup that way with Brazil at home …” he says pausing, his train of thought lost a little.
“I’ve never talked much about that game: maybe once or twice, that’s it. There’s no point. You can lose a game by two or three and say: ‘Oh we made this mistake, we made that mistake, we lost.’ But if you lose 7-1 what can you say? It is something that can’t happen. But it happened. And after that, I had to go back to my club. You have a full season ahead of you when [you hope] you can recover from losing a World Cup semi-final 7-1 at home.”
It did not work out that way. Paulinho had started 28 league games in his first season in north London; in his second it was three. “My first game [under Pochettino] is in my position but after that I played in every position apart from my own,” Paulinho says, marking out roles with his fingers. “If we play in a three, I’m here. If we play in a two, I’m here. “He had a different system, and if you’re not in your position in a football as competitive as England it’s difficult.
“I was playing on the left wing: the míster put me there and I had to play there, because I wanted to play. I had no problem with Pochettino. I told him: ‘This position is not mine but if you want I can play there.’ But in the long term you’re not going to be at your best and over the last six months I wasn’t playing regularly.
“I thought the moment had come to leave. Where? I didn’t know. But I wanted to leave. The coach wasn’t trusting in me so there’s no reason to stay. It was April, May 2015, a month left. I’d spoken to the president [chairman Daniel Levy] and asked him if he could help. He was a buenísimo person and he said: ‘Let’s wait and see if you have anything.’”
What he had was China. And that was pretty much that. “There were two more offers in Europe but they were loans and I didn’t want that,” Paulinho says. Luiz Felipe Scolari wanted him at Guangzhou so he left London behind, not returning until the international friendly at Wembley last month. He says he went without bitterness. “I’m not going to say bad things about England just because I had a bad time; it was a pleasure to play the Spurs players recently. I speak to Kyle Walker sometimes and it was nice to see Danny Rose and Eric Dier.”
Going to China is where the story is supposed to end. Although Paulinho insists he has not got a bad word for Guangzhou, a city of more than 13 million people that he describes as “perfect”, he knew there was a risk, as if his career no longer counted. Was the football there too easy? Did the players actually care? It is tempting to see players as complicit in their own demise but his case contradicts that. China turned out to be a restart.
“It’s not the same,” he concedes. “The level didn’t compare with Spain, Italy, England, Germany; it’s totally different. But in 2016 more players arrived: Gervinho, [Ezequiel] Lavezzi, Jackson Martínez – then Oscar and Hulk arrived and the league grew. There are new laws making it more difficult to buy players and another one obliging teams to have three under-23s, so I imagine it will drop again a little, but the standard rose after 2015.
“It’s not top, top, top but there are games that are very physical and teams like Guangzhou and Shanghai who have very good Chinese players and foreign signings. We had eight or nine Chinese national team players. And as a player, the motivation is the same because it comes from [within] you, whether you’re in front of 4,000, 5,000 or 100,000. I also had the national team to play for.”
Six titles followed, including the Asian Champions League. Tite, the national coach, managed him at Corinthians and believed in him but still: he was in China. And yet Brazil did call – and so, unexpectedly, did Barcelona. Paulinho was preparing to take a free-kick when Brazil were facing Argentina and Lionel Messi sidled up. “Are you coming to Barcelona?” he asked. “If you’re taking me, I’m going,” Paulinho replied before telling Willian to take the free kick: his head had gone.
“My representative called. My attitude was: ‘When you have something concrete, let’s sit down and decide, [but] I don’t need anything crazy in my career right now.’ I had three or four years’ contract left. I was clear: either I go to Barcelona, or I stay, nothing else. We were in the knockout phase of the Asian Champions League and Scolari wanted to keep me but he knew it was a unique opportunity. I’m 29, it’s Barcelona. I kept saying that to him: ‘This is Barcelona. We’re not talking about any club here: this one, that one, the other. No, we’re talking about Barcelona.’”
Guangzhou resisted and Barcelona had to pay his full buyout clause on the final day of the Chinese market. Supporters were furious – not so much in Guangzhou as in Catalonia. In the wake of Neymar’s departure, Barcelona were in the midst of a crisis, the catalogue of mistakes and problems growing, and some saw Paulinho’s signing as the culmination – definitive ‘proof’ the club was adrift and the board incompetent.
Few came to his presentation and much was made of a miscontrol as he performed the obligatory kick-ups. It was as if he symbolised everything that was wrong. €40m. For a 29-year-old. From China. Who failed at Spurs. And who did not fit the Barcelona model.
That, though, was part of the point, while he also admits that he has talked often with team-mates about the way Barcelona play – especially with Messi, Sergio Busquets and Luis Suárez. “We didn’t have a player of his profile,” the coach, Ernesto Valverde, said. “He has important technical and physical qualities. He arrives in the area from deep; we needed someone who breaks through lines.” Paulinho says: “I’ve always been this kind of player: since youth level I’ve been a midfielder who can arrive and finish. I’ve almost never played in Busquets’ position. My way of playing is similar to Lampard.”
Under Valverde, Barcelona remain unbeaten in 24 matches across all competitions and Paulinho has played his part. After his first start, in which he scored one and provided an assist, the Brazilian Football Federation joked: “Is he bad?”; Dani Alves suggested Paulinho would end up proving “cheap”. He has six goals and two assists in the league. His name has been chanted at the Camp Nou. “I’m happy I’m playing well and helping,” he says. “I didn’t expect things to go so well.
“I’ve heard it said that I’m silencing the critics so many times but it’s not that: I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. I don’t play for the critics, I play for my team-mates. For three, four years I haven’t listened to anything,” he says, sounding rather like he might have done. “People always talk and always will. ‘He’s good now because he’s at Barça’, ‘He was only good then because he was in China’, blah, blah, blah. When I was at Bragantino and I went to Corinthians it was the same; it was the same at Tottenham and in China. I’ve had that since the beginning.”
Paulinho once again reflects on the beginning of his career. “It was hard leaving everything behind at only 17 but I went. And then after the problems with racism, having to fight to be paid, I didn’t want to carry on. I was fighting for things that should have been my right. I wasn’t asking for a lot, for something I wanted – just to be respected and paid.
“My family didn’t have a lot but we were OK, we could live, so I thought: ‘I don’t need this.’ It wasn’t that I didn’t like football but I didn’t want to play any more. After a while they persuaded me. We laugh about it now: ‘You see! Imagine if you’d stopped back then.’ I’ve had a lot of experiences and I wouldn’t change a thing. I went from there to Spurs and from Spurs to China, because I wanted to play. 2014 was a very difficult year; 2015 was hard too, with everyone talking: ‘Bah, Paulinho’s career is over.’ Everyone said that was it; they said the level was no good, but I won six trophies and within a year I was back in the Brazil team. Now this. That’s football. It was a rollercoaster; no one gave me a chance, but here I am.”
The Guardian Sport