30 June 2009, Rio de Janeiro. I'm sat watching Vasco da Gama vs Bragantino, at the former's rustic (read: mildly dilapidated) São Januário stadium. A sign on the far side of the pitch reads: "For a club the size of Vasco, [winning] Série B is an obligation", but that kind of fighting spirit is in scant supply on the pitch. The score, after an hour or so, is 0-0, the quality startlingly low. I'm busy discussing something (not the football match in front of me) with my friend Bruno. I consider having a nap.
Then, some movement down on the Vasco bench. Bruno perks up. I ask him why. "Philippe Coutinho's coming on," he replies with a glint in his eye; "this kid is a bit special."
He was special, as well. Not special enough to drag a sleepy Vasco side to victory that day, but certainly enough to get the crowd excited. He looked like a kid. He was a kid. He'd already been snapped up by Internazionale, but had been allowed to remain at Vasco to continue his development.
Vasco's latest jóia (literally 'jewel') was, by common consensus, a superstar in waiting, blessed with supernatural dribbling ability, an eye for a pass, and the kind of wide-eyed chutzpah with which Brazilian football is so often associated. Coutinho stayed in Brazil for another year after I first saw him, joining Inter only after turning 18. If he never truly established himself among the best footballers in the country, that was entirly excusable given his age and inexperience. But intermittent moments of brilliance endeared him to many.
Coutinho found opportunities hard to come by at Inter, where more experienced creative players (Sneijder, Stankovic, Pandev) ushered him to the sidelines, both figuratively and literally – Coutinho was often used on the flank by manager Leonardo. Nonetheless he managed 15 appearances, earning him a place in Brazil's Under 20 World Cup squad in 2011. The tournament breathed confidence into Coutinho. Wearing the number ten jersey in a team full of Europe-bound youngsters (Oscar, Danilo, Juan, Alex Sandro), the midfielder was influential, scoring three goals as the seleção lifted the title.
But the start of the 2011/12 season was tough on the Brazilian, who found his game time further restricted in Italy. A loan to La Liga put him back on track, however; Coutinho was a revelation at Espanyol, bagging six goals (some of them sublime) and reminding everyone why he was seen as such a prospect in the first place. This was the most fruitful spell of his European adventure so far, and drew the attentions of a number of big clubs. Six months after he returned to Italy - and again found himself warming the bench - he has emerged as a transfer target for Liverpool.
On the face of it, it looks a good fit. Coutinho is a technically accomplished player, who would likely feel comfortable in Brendan Rodgers' system. His ball skills and penchant for the unexpected could help to provide some creativity close to goal - something Liverpool have occasionally lacked when Steven Gerrard plays deep and Luis Suarez leads the line alone. Coutinho could operate from either flank, but his inclination is to drift centrally and get involved with play; he would be an interesting foil for Suarez, with both men capable of running at their men in wide areas and dropping off to help build attacks. One potential stumbling block, though, is physique: Coutinho is nippy but rather slight, meaning adjusting to the Premier League could take time.
Liverpool must act quickly if they wish to get their man, however; Southampton have also expressed an interest in Coutinho and other clubs are likely to join them. The south coast may be a particularly interesting proposition for the Brazilian, who played under new Saints boss Mauricio Pochettino at Espanyol. The possibility of Coutinho teaming up with Pochettino, with whom he is believed to have a strong relationship, is a worrying one for the Anfield club.
But if Coutinho still harbours hopes of reaching Brazil's senior World Cup squad (and he should, given how many other attacking options are going through career troughs far more serious than his), the visibility that playing for Liverpool would afford him could be key. With new seleção coach Luiz Felipe Scolari already having dropped Kaká in his first squad, the door may just be ajar for the diminutuve schemer. He'd need to nail down a first team spot, of course, but the sight of him in the upper reaches of the Premier League would surely catch Scolari's attention.
The next 18 months could define Coutinho's career. If he is to become the world star he has always threatened to be, Liverpool fans could be in for a pleasant surprise.