Paulinho had grudgingly accepted his Brazil career was over. He was not, however, at peace with how it had ended.
A few years earlier, he’d heard a recent Corinthians team-mate wax lyrical about his Seleção swan song. Ronaldo’s last dance compromised grown men in tears, heart-melting speeches, and Fred celebrating the only goal against Romania with O Fenômeno’s patented finger-wagging celebration. Paulinho never expected the red-carpet treatment, but he did dream of bowing out on a high. His last few days of national service had, by harrowing contrast, culminated in obliteration by German and Dutch troops.
Things continued to spiral downhill upon Paulinho’s return to club duty from the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Hitherto one of the first names on Tottenham Hotspur’s team-sheet, he made just three starts under new manager Mauricio Pochettino, who preferred Nabil Bentaleb, Eric Dier and Ryan Mason. Hitherto courted by Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Roma, he was suddenly undesirable. So when Guangzhou Evergrande fluttered their eyelashes at Paulinho in mid-2015, he went running.
“Everybody said that would end any hope of returning, but I’d stopped even dreaming about the Seleção,” said Paulinho, who didn’t earn a single call-up during Dunga’s second spell at the reins. “My last six months at Tottenham was lost time, and I was just happy to have the opportunity to play football again.”
And that he did. Within six months of moving, Paulinho had propelled Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side to the Chinese Super League and AFC Champions League crowns, and dazzled at the FIFA Club World Cup – only Barcelona’s Luis Suarez scored more goals than him in Japan. Excelling in that competition, and in that country, wasn’t alien to Paulinho. The last time the Club World Cup had been held in the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, the multifunctional midfielder had shone like a Sirius star, inspiring Corinthians’ vanquishing of Chelsea in the 2012 final.
His coach back then was Tite. So, when Tite was handed the Brazil reins nine months ago, Paulinho was dreaming of the Seleção again. And, to the shock of the masses, the 28-year-old was named in Tite’s maiden squad. Then his maiden team.
Paulinho hasn’t looked back, negating James Rodriguez in a 2-1 reverse of Colombia, scoring in a 3-0 defeat of Argentina, and helping Brazil leap on to the cusp of winning seven successive World Cup qualifiers for the first time in their history – something they’d strive to achieve in Montevideo.
There, Paulinho equalised with an early contender for the FIFA Puskas Award on Thursday evening, and headlined a 4-1 victory by becoming the first visiting player to score a hat-trick in Uruguay in the World Cup preliminaries. It also made him only the third Brazilian to bag a treble against La Celeste and the first since his namesake, Paulinho Valentim, in a 3-1 victory in Buenos Aires in the Copa America 1959, and the Seleção’s all-time highest-scoring holding midfielder (nine goals) – a distinction previously shared by Falcao, Alemao, Cesar Sampaio, Dunga and Emerson (six apiece).
“It never even came into my head,” Paulinho said, amazed, at the possibility of hitting a hat-trick at the Centenario, “It’s like we always say, we’ve been working hard every day and [this result] was not by chance. I want to thank God for this phase I’m having and the help for my team-mates.
“We played a great game and achieved a great victory. We knew the difficulty we’d face here today. We went after [the win], but maintained our concentration, had cool heads to go after this result. We have to maintain this form with great performances. I’m sure the Seleção still has a lot more to offer.”
Tite added: “Life and age help you mature. I would have liked to have [Paulinho’s] maturity at 28 years of age, when I was still playing. He’s in great shape physically. His performance and goals speak for themselves.”
Perhaps Paulinho will get that cheery farewell after all…