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Ilsinho and the making of a Brazilian soccer star

Union fans have witnessed their share of Ilsinho moments, which sparks the complex question—how are he and other Brazilians so talented?

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Andrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union

September 27th. The Philadelphia Union are leading Inter Miami 1-0 on a rainy night in Chester. The score doesn’t reflect the dominant performance by the Union in a game that features two international stars on the other side, and one of them, Gonzalo Higuaín, is capable of reversing the visitors’ fortunes with one strike. But the Union have stars, too.

Ilshinho gets the ball just inside the Miami half with a crowd of defenders around him, which often times feels like he prefers. He passes to Brenden Aaronson on the sideline, who’s forced to dribble backward. They are trapped. Then Aaronson plays the ball back to Ilsinho, slips past his defender, and Ilsinho finds him again. Aaronson is free, dribbling down the side, across the penalty area, and passes to Jamiro Monteiro, who slips a ball through to Kacper Przybylko.

Meanwhile, Ilsinho’s still going. He runs behind a Miami defender, meets Przybylko’s cross, and slams the ball into the back of the net. The Union have a 2-0 lead and momentum to see out the game.

October 11. Ilsinho receives a rare start against a Montreal team fighting for the playoffs. The Union are playing down to their opponents from the north, who haven’t seen home in months due to COVID-19 restrictions. The game needs something. The Union need to strike first and watch the travel-worn Montreal players fade.

Ilsinho receives a pass from Olivier Mbaizo wide on the right. A Montreal defender seals off a return pass to Mbaizo, but Ilsinho cuts inside past the defender. Another Montreal midfielder slides over and two more defenders step up. It takes four players to stop Ilsinho. Another five Montreal players are in the vicinity, and all of them are watching Ilsinho. None are watching the other Union players.

Ilsinho spots Monteiro’s run, points to the open space, and with a flick of the outside of his foot, he beats five players with one pass. A pass so delicate and perfectly aligned that Monteiro reaches it off of the corner of the six and slots it inside the near post for the game’s opening goal.

October 28. In the 65th minute, the Union are tied 1-1 up a man against the Chicago Fire and clinging to their top spot in MLS by their fingertips. They’ve created little, at times have been outplayed, a stark contrast to the 5-0 thrashing of Toronto FC days earlier when they announced to the entire country that the Supporters’ Shield was theirs to lose.

Ilsinho, only minutes into the game, again has the ball wide on the right, dribbles by a defender inside and attacks the top of the box. When he splits two defenders with a pass to Aaronson, five defenders are surrounding them. Three more defenders are within twenty yards, watching, waiting. Aaronson dribbles away from pressure and finds Mbaizo open on the wing. Wide open. Ilsinho hits a gap in front of the goal, and when the ball is crossed, it’s over his head but he attacks anyway, and as the Chicago defender is drawn toward his feint, Cory Burke rises up and heads the ball into the goal for a 2-1 Union lead.

Ilsinho receives no credit for the goal, earns no assist, and no pat on the back. Yet his presence creates panic as the Chicago defense collapses, and his movement causes confusion, which leads to the winning goal, a goal that keeps the trophy dream alive on a night when the play on the field wasn’t clicking.

Carl Gulbish

Union fans have witnessed their share of Ilsinho moments, which sparks the complex question—how are he and other Brazilians so talented? To understand Ilsinho’s genius we must understand how he developed into the most exciting player to wear a Union jersey. And for that we need to go back to his upbringing in São Paulo where soccer has existed for over a century as more than a sport and a way of life, but as a means for fulfillment and even a form of survival.

“In Brazil, the weather’s like summer all year long,” Ilsinho said in an interview earlier this season, “so the kids go into the street and play all day long. They go to school, come home, and play soccer again. Everyone wants to play soccer 24/7. So you’re going to get better.”

One only needs to watch Ilsinho on the field once to see his technical ability, which he credits to the amount of time he played growing up. “You had a team from the street, the neighborhood, and school. When I was 12-14, I played on four different teams. I played five games a weekend. That’s the way I learned to move as a player, to play faster.”

Free play is one of the most undervalued concepts in many cultures, at least in the United States where recess is cut from schools at alarming rates and Fortnite and Minecraft dominate kids’ free time, sometimes even school time. But while American kids spend an average of four to six hours on computers, phones, or playing FIFA on their Playstation or Xbox, Brazilian youth spend that time playing soccer. There’s a cultural acceptance of free play in Brazil that accelerates a player’s technical skills in a way that is fun, self-expressive, and over time has translated into a national identity.

Streets, parks, beaches, and makeshift fields are the dreaming grounds of Brazil’s future soccer players, who thrive from the freedom to explore and develop skills in a stress-free environment. This creative expression provides players more enjoyment, something that gets lost when winning takes precedent at the early developmental stages and coaches and parents bark complex instructions from the sideline as if their kids are playing in the Maracanã. Soccer in Brazil is treated as an artform, and allowing young players time and space to create instills the confidence to push boundaries and try the unimaginable. It also leads to mistakes, which is not a bad thing because it teaches players to make their own decisions and find solutions to problems.

In American soccer, the demand for structure and restrictive attitude toward free play inhibits the development of young players and leads to boring, predictable soccer down the road with little room for improvisation. Luiz Uhera and his colleagues recently published a study in the Journal of Expertise about the effects of pelada, or pick-up soccer, on the development of Brazilian players. His study includes interviews of former professional players and current youth coaches from São Paulo and highlights the positive influence of pelada on the acquisition of skill expertise. Played frequently by Brazilians of all ages, amateur and professional, pelada games are different than deliberate games (training games) or deliberate practice (structured, formalized, challenged training) because they are played without coaching, use minimal rules, and are played on variable surfaces and conditions with players of different skills. Often times, these games are competitive, so the levels of challenge are self-regulated by peers who can modify teams at any time.

Brazilian players are not fazed when they take the field in less than ideal conditions because they have played in far worse: concrete, dirt, sand, mud, hot, cold, rain, sometimes even with a homemade ball. Their adaptability also arises out of the variations of soccer being played, whether it’s beach soccer, footvolley, or Teqball, but no variation has had a bigger impact on the world’s game than Futsal. Although its origins came from a YMCA in Uruguay, the game’s popularity grew in Brazil. Futsal is played with a smaller, heavier ball on basketball/sport courts and has been a foundation in Brazil for decades and only recently caught on in the U.S. It provides more quality touches on the ball, requires faster thinking, and brings some of the street-styled improvisation inside.

“I played Futsal until I was 19 years old,” Ilsinho said. “I had to decide if I wanted to stay in soccer or stay in Futsal. I had better offers for Futsal.”

Ilsinho’s a master in confined spaces, and his heaviest traffic can be found inside a rectangle the size of a Futsal court. How often have we seen him receive the ball wide with multiple defenders closing in, only to see him wiggle his way through with quick touches, a nutmeg, or a combination? Then in a flash, he’s finding open teammates with precise passes, envisioning the field and his teammates’ movements in a way the rest of us could not with a higher, wider vantage point and slow motion replay.

“I practiced every day, had games mid-week and on weekends. But I had to choose. I chose soccer, well, my dad made me choose soccer, but I love Futsal. Most of my movements come from Futsal.”

Perhaps no game has seen a greater touch of Ilsinho magic than last June’s win over the New York Red Bulls, nicknamed the “Ilsinho Game.” With the Union down 2-0, minutes after stepping onto the field Ilsinho beat two defenders down the right side and cut the ball back to Monteiro, who trimmed the lead with one touch. Eight minutes later, Ilsinho dribbled through two defenders then nutmegged a third with a toe poke that found the far bottom corner to tie the game. Shortly after, he tapped home the rebound off Monteiro’s saved penalty kick to give the Union a 3-2 lead. Two goals and one assist in nineteen minutes, a demoralizing comeback that foreshadowed the Union’s dramatic playoff win four months later.

At the core of Brazilian youth development is the large network of professional clubs devoted to finding and developing talent. David Goldblatt, author of Futebol Nation, writes about how the development of Brazil’s professionalism in the 1950s had been shaped by the community environment at the club level:

The clubs thrived because professional football was just one element of club life in the Fifties and Sixties. The social and recreational activities that centered on the clubs was at its strongest in this era – clubs really were clubs, providing facilities and parties, and a tangible sense of community and identity, with fees that were within the reach of the lower-middle classes, if not the poor.

The communal investment in a club’s success ensures strength and stability, both financially and for the well-being of the players. But it’s not just the young middle-class players who are given opportunities. Due to the clubs’ extensive scouting network, many poor and impoverished youths are discovered and brought into the system. The clubs develop players to supply their senior-level teams but also to earn financial gains on their investment, which keeps the process going. Not every player makes it to the elite levels, but producing a star certainly improves the club’s financial standing.

Brazilian clubs also earn additional money through solidarity payments on a player’s future transfer. The standard fee established by FIFA is based on the player’s age and the years they spent at the training club up until the age of 23, and the bigger the deal, the larger the amount that goes back to the club. Neymar had the largest transfer in Brazilian history when he left Santos for Barcelona in 2013 for €86.2 million. When he moved from the Catalan club to Paris Saint-Germain for a record €222 million in 2017, a move that produced a seismic shift on all player values, Santos received €9 million.

After nearly a decade in the Palmeiras youth system, Ilsinho was promoted to the first team in 2006, but after a promising start while playing on an expiring contract, he was faced with a difficult business decision that altered his career. During negotiations, his father and his agent presented an offer from Villareal, which the club not only refused to match but responded in an insulting manner, eventually telling them all to leave. So Ilsinho did, and the next morning he received a call from the president of Paulista rival São Paulo, who that day matched the offer from Spain, including 40% of his player rights. Ilsinho played with São Paulo as a wing back, won the Brasileirao, and was named a Bola de Prata winner.

Ilsinho Pereira Dias of the Sao Paulo so...
Ilsinho Pereira Dias of the Sao Paulo soccer team talks to the media during training 20 March 2007
Photo credit should read JUAN MANUEL ROBLEDO/AFP via Getty Images

Many talented young Brazilian players reach a point in their careers when they must weigh the value of staying in Brazil versus joining the tens of thousands of players competing in professional leagues around the world. In 2007, Ilsinho reached that crossroad.

“It was really hard. It was a good time in my career. I was with the Brazilian national team. I talked to other teams, but the only real offer came from Shakhtar. They offered a good salary, bonuses. They said they’d be one of the younger teams in Europe, I’d have a chance to play in the Champions League, opportunities to win trophies. The first 2 or 3 meetings I said no. They came back with more numbers, better offers, and I finally said yes.”

Prior to Ilsinho’s arrival, Shakhtar Donetsk had become a transitional haven for young Brazilians. When owner Rinat Akhmetov hired Romanian Mircea Lucescu as coach in 2004, he had visions of playing attractive competitive football and challenging rival Dynamo Kiev in the Ukranian Premier League. Instead of developing talent, Shakhtar’s strategy was to acquire experienced prodigies. And over the past sixteen years, they’ve added young stars from Brazil who developed into even bigger stars. Beginning in 2004 with Joao Batista and Matuzalem, Shakhtar continued to move for young Brazilians with experience at the youth club and international levels. Jadson, Fernandinho, and Elano followed a year later and Luiz Adriano and Ilsinho the year after that.

When Ilsinho transferred from São Paulo to Shakhar Donetsk for €11 million, the decision was not an easy one for him. “Brazilian players dream to be a soccer player, but we also have to provide for our family. My dad said, ‘it’s up to you, if you want to go, we’ll go,’ and I had to make the best decision for my family. My decision came down to I could help my family. I traveled to Ukraine. They had a nice stadium, and it was a nice city, a nice life. In the beginning I had my mom and dad with me and then my girlfriend, who’s now my wife. So I had a lot of support.”

Mircea Luchescu (C), head coach of the f
Mircea Luchescu (C), head coach of the football club Shakhtar Donetsk is pictured 09 August 2007 with Mexican soccer player Nery Castillo (L) and Brazil defender Ilson Pereira Dias Junior (R) who holds a shirt of his new club during his presentation in eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
Photo credit should read Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP via Getty Images

Shakhtar won the Ukranian Premier League in Ilsinho’s first season, and he was named to the league’s Best XI. That summer, he played in the 2008 Olympics, winning the Bronze medal alongside a star-studded Brazilian squad captained by Ronaldinho that lost in the semifinals to an equally prolific team from Argentina led by Juan Roman Riquelme. That fall, Shakhtar advanced to the group stage in the Champions League where they finished third in Group D behind eventual Champions Barcelona and Sporting Lisbon. Ilsinho scored the lone Shakhtar goal against Barcelona in a 2-1 loss at home.

“The first year there were four or five Brazilians, then Willian came. In 2010-11, more came, up to 14. It was good to be around other Brazilians. They are funny, we like to talk shit and joke around. Plus I played with some nice players. Fernandinho, Willian, Adriano, and Jadson, who was one of the best.” One of the difficulties for Shakhtar initially was how well the Brazilian and Ukranian players would blend together. “There were different dynamics between the Brazilians and Ukranians. They used to say, ‘You guys are skillful, but if you can run, fight, do the things they like to do, you’ll get better.’ The success came earlier than they expected.”

In the spring of 2009, Shakhtar rolled through the UEFA Cup knockout rounds, including a semifinal victory over its rivals from Kiev and won the first European trophy in club history with five Brazilians in the starting lineup in a 2-1 extra time victory over Werder Bremen. Luiz Adriano scored the opener and Jadson scored the winner in the 97th minute. Ilsinho played 100 minutes as an outside right midfielder. Since 2005, Shakhtar has won 12 Ukranian Premier League titles and in October, Shakhtar beat Real Madrid in the Champions League opener with 11 Brazilians on its roster.

Porto’s Brazilian forward Kelvin Oliveira (R) vies with Shakhtar Donetsk’s Brazilian midfielder Ilsinho Ilson Pereira Dias during the UEFA Champions League Group H football match FC Porto vs FC Shakhtar Donetsk at the Dragao stadium in Porto on December 10, 2014.
Photo credit should read MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images

Now 35, Ilsinho has seen his minutes reduced over the past two seasons, but he’s embraced the role of super sub where he’s still influencing a game’s final thirty minutes. His two-assist game against Montreal made him only the second player in club history with 20 goals and 20 assists, and the Union have scored 45% of their goals after sixty minutes, which typically follows Ilsinho’s introduction. And although he may not control a game the way he once did, his leadership and experience have proven invaluable as the Union develops its own young players. Last week, Brenden Aaronson finished second in the Young Player of the Year voting, Mark McKenzie finished second for the Defender of the Year, and both earned spots on the MLS Best XI. Anthony Fontana, Matt Real, and Matt Freese have also stepped up throughout the season, and all cannot find a better role model than Ilsinho.

“They are very good,” Ilsinho said about his younger teammates. “If they work hard and keep going, they will be successful. Even though they were born in a different country, if they wait for their chance, they’ll make it. They can play.”

When asked about his role as a mentor, he said, “I came from the old school. At Shakhtar, we had a lot of pressure. I’m 16 years older than Nate (Harriel). I don’t have to say things. I want to be their friend. Sometimes I try to help. They can hear me. I don’t want to put more pressure. I’d rather be their friend than the old grandpa who puts more pressure.”

Now that Ilsinho has been in the United States for five years, he’s observed some of the differences in the way Americans view development. “In the U.S., you prefer the athletic player who can run, jump, fight. In Brazil, we need some of them in our team. My style, the things I want to learn, I’m looking for the baller who can make a pass, the dribbler.” Ilsinho also hears these viewpoints when watching his own son play. “If they are fast, I hear people everywhere. If the kid is good they say, ‘but this kid’s not fast, not strong.’ My son came home and said, ‘Daddy, I’m not as fast as these guys,’ and I said, ‘but you can control the ball with your feet with one touch and it takes the others ten.’ ”

Football is played in the stadium?
Football is played on the beach,
Football is played in the street,
Football is played in the soul.
The ball is the same: a religious order
for aces and stilt-walkers.

The above poem was written by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who published more than thirty poetry collections, over a dozen works of prose, and wrote about the World Cups from 1958 until 1986. His bronze statue has sat on the Rio beach since 2002, blocks away from where he lived. Drummond spent most of his life analyzing the emotions associated with soccer and saw firsthand how the game affected the people and the passion they have for the game.

“When you go to a game here,” Ilsinho said, “you know it’s going to be fun. In Brazil, sometimes too much passion is bad, there are fights, but it’s all passion.”

Passion can also be found in the Brazilian national team’s failures. Their 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal, called the Agony of Mineirão, revived pains from seventy years prior when the country first stood on the brink of international glory. The emotional devastation captured by Wright Thompson echoed the sentiments of the 1950 loss in which Nelson Rodrigues, a famous playwright, journalist, and novelist wrote, “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”

In 1974, Drummond wrote “Sermon on the Plains” as way to cope with the despair that seized the nation again when Brazil lost a crucial match in the second round group stage to the Netherlands and Johan Cruyff. The first three verses of Drummond’s poem will resonate with Union fans, who’ve endured their own losses leading up to the 2020 title season:

Blessed are those who do not understand—nor wish to understand—football, for theirs is the kingdom of the peace of mind.

Blessed are those who, understanding football, do not expose themselves to the risk of watching the matches, for they do not return home disappointed or in cardiac arrest.

Blessed are those who do not support a team, for they do not suffer from January to January with only little doses of joy and a title as their only balm, or not even that.

Many factors influence a Brazilian soccer player’s passion, but the root, according to Ilsinho, comes from the struggle for survival.

“What makes them special is that it comes from your dream. In Brazil, sometimes the only option is to be a soccer player or you have to work. The question the dads ask is ‘Are you going to be a soccer player or work?’ In the U.S., some players retire if they don’t make it the first two years. They can go back to college. In Brazil, there is no college, there’s nothing. Some players are playing for their life.”

Ilsinho recalled this past winter when the U-12 and U-17 Union Academy teams traveled to Brazil to compete against top-level competition. “The 15-16 year old kids are dads, have ex-wives. Kids have to grow up faster. There’s no more than two options. Here, kids have other options, have a family to support you.”

Ilsinho signed a one-year extension in January, and with multiple Union players rumored to be receiving offers from abroad, his future with the Union is still up in the air. For five seasons, we’ve been blessed with his magic, watched in awe as he’s done the unthinkable, a Ronaldinho nutmeg against the Fire in 2018, beating three New York City FC defenders with ease the same year. It’d be hard to keep him forever as more young Union players move up to compete for time and places, but it’d also be difficult to imagine a new season without his guidance. His impact may exist more on the training ground and in the locker room, but as a player, a mentor, his experience is unlike any American kid has ever seen or will see. Maybe we’ll see him join the academy down the line, so he can continue to grow the game here, one player at a time. But for now, we enjoy his presence in our lives, for one more game at least, hopefully four.