Why Paulinho could be the signing of the season


Sometimes the path to the top is long and circuitous. Just ask Paulinho. The 24-year-old midfielder, who today sealed a £17million move to Tottenham Hotspur, has taken his fair share of missteps.

At the age of 17 and with precious little first-team experience, he left his native Brazil to play for FC Vilnius in Lithuania, hoping to use the move as a stepping-stone to a career in one of Europe's bigger leagues. But things didn't work out as expected, with Paulinho the target of abuse both on and off the pitch. "We'd be going to the town centre and people would just come over and make racist comments," he told Globo earlier this year. "Then they'd start making monkey noises. It was so sad."

In 2007 he made the modest step up to Polish side LKS Lodz but was similarly unimpressed: "The club just didn't have any structure. We weren't earning a great deal and I wasn't playing; I sat on the bench for half a year." Around this time, Paulinho admitted recently, he considered giving up the game altogether.

He must be glad he didn't. Six years later he ranks among the world's best up-and-coming midfielders, fresh from a series of commanding displays for Brazil in the Confederations Cup.

His secret? Starting all over again. Paulinho returned to Brazil and signed for Audax São Paulo, a club in the fourth division of the local state championship. From there he moved to Bragantino, where he caught the eye of Corinthians with his performances in Série B.

Paulinho and Corinthians were a match made in heaven. The club had lost more or less its entire midfield (Elias, Jucilei, Cristian, Douglas) by the start of the 2011 season, bowing to the kind of market pressures Brazilian clubs are only now becoming able to resist. They needed leadership and stability, two qualities provided in spades by Paulinho and his right-hand man, defensive guard-dog Ralf. The pair quickly established themselves as the Timão's first-choice partnership in the centre of the park and were influential as the club won the 2011 Brasileirão, the 2012 Copa Libertadores and the Club World Cup.

But while Ralf has won fans for his doggedness and defensive play, Paulinho was always the star turn in their double act. A player of rare power and poise, the latter is very much the complete midfielder: strong in the tackle, tactically aware and comfortable on the ball. What really marks him out, however, is his knack for making late runs into the box. He gets into goalscoring positions with amazing regularity, often sauntering forward unchecked from deep when the play is on the wing. He is also an adept finisher, not just with his feet but also with his head, as he demonstrated time and time again in Corinthians colours.

For Spurs fans, the prospect of him lining up alongside Sandro and Mousa Dembele in a midfield three should be mouth-watering. With Sandro taking care of defensive duties and Dembele linking play, Paulinho will have the freedom to surge forward and support the front three. Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon may feel more inclined to whip crosses in, knowing that a man of Paulinho's aerial ability – rather than Lewis Holtby, say – is looking to get on the end of them.

There is a feeling in Brazil that he could have done a little better than Tottenham; after all, a player of his quality should be aiming for Champions League football at this stage of his career. But the midfielder has ruled out the notion that the club is just a stepping-stone, expressing his delight at arriving at "a club as big as Tottenham." After the false starts of the first part of his career, once senses Paulinho is just happy to be moving steadily up the ladder.

Only time will tell whether his stay in north London lasts as long as Spurs hope, but fans can at least take solace in the fact that an impressive season or two would see his price soar way beyond what the club has paid. As an investment and as a player, Paulinho looks like the signing of the season before a ball has even been kicked.

Read more articles by Jack Lang.