It is September 2011 and Barcelona have just kicked off their Champions League Group Stage home tie against fellow heavyweights AC Milan. The Catalan club were looking for a strong start, but within 24 seconds had fallen behind to a scintillating goal from Rossoneri starlet Alexandre Pato.
An uncharacteristically wayward header from Eric Abidal was collected by Antonio Nocerino, who slotted through for Pato to swivel and burst past the entire Barcelona backline and sprint almost the length of the hosts’ half. The youngster made no mistake in coolly slotting past Victor Valdes to net the fifth-fastest goal in Champions League history.
Few would have guessed it at the time, but it would arguably be the peak of the then-22-year-old’s career. Fast-forward to today, and the Brazilian striker tipped to lead the line for Milan for years to come finds himself in China with Tianjin Quanjian, after a torrid half-decade.
Wonderkid and record breaker
To understand the fall from grace the 27-year-old has endured over the past five or six years, it is helpful to go back to where it all began. The Pato Branco native, who took his nickname of “Duck” in tribute to his hometown, came through the ranks at Internacional of Porto Alegre.
However, this does the striker a disservice; Pato flew through the ranks and was amongst the most highly rated teenagers of his generation. Top scorer of the Brasileirao U-20 competition at the tender age of 16, against opponents up to four years older than him, saw Pato fast-tracked to Inter’s first team.
This was only the beginning though. Within a minute of his first team debut, the skinny adolescent had registered his first goal by racing through Palmeiras’ defence and calmly slotting home. It was only going to get better for the youngster however, who was included in Inter’s squad for the Club World Cup in 2006.
Featuring in Japan, Pato broke Pelé’s 48-year-old record as the youngest goalscorer in a FIFA competition with a strike against Al-Ahly at only 17 years and 102 days. His countryman and global icon Pelé was 17 years and 239 days old when he scored against Wales at the 1958 World Cup.
Taking Serie A by storm
His scintillating start to his career didn’t go unnoticed further afield, and it was Milan who won the race to sign him, with the Brazilian available to play in January 2008. Another debut, another goal, this time against Napoli as the Rossoneri tore their rivals apart in a 5-2 win.
Finishing his maiden season with nine goals in 20 appearances, expectations rocketed for the youngster who had inherited the famous No.7 shirt donned by the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni and Andriy Shevchenko.
Perhaps herein lies part of the problem. Pato had been hailed as the brightest centre-forward in Brazil since he was barely old enough to drive, and the plaudits didn’t stop in Italy either. Once his form dried up though, Pato had no experience of things not going his way, and did not handle the situation well.
After three prolific years at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, the injuries mounted whilst the goals dried up. Although the famed MilanLab toiled away, it could not prevent a number of hamstring and thigh strains.
But many players have fought back from injury, whilst others have adapted their game if a knock has taken its toll. Pato did neither of these, despite being relatively injury-free since departing Italy.
Meanwhile, his reputation as something of a playboy suggested that football was not his primary concern. His much-publicised marriage, and subsequent divorce, from Brazilian soap opera star Sthefany Brito, followed by a relationship with the daughter of Milan patron Silvio Berlusconi, Barbara, coincided with his first dip in form.
A mixed return to Brazil
Pato’s playing time became even more limited at the Rossoneri and he eventually cut ties with the Serie A giants in January 2013, returning to his homeland with Corinthians.
Another debut goal suggested a promising homecoming, but Pato soon fell out of favour at Timão after a series of poor performances upfront. This included two open goal misses in a clash against Goais, as well as a shocking penalty in a shootout against Grêmio, which saw his side eliminated from the Copa do Brasil.
A loan move to city rivals São Paulo beckoned, and perhaps has been the only environment since the early days in Milan in which the two-time Olympic medallist has come anywhere close to the form that put him on the map.
He seemed to relish the more tranquil environment, and was boosted by the arrival of former teammate Kaka, who joined on loan, as well as the presence of São Paulo icon Rogerio Ceni. Undoubtedly these wise heads helped to keep Pato in check, much to the benefit of the forward’s career.
However, upon the expiration of his loan in December 2015, Pato was back at a Corinthians side that were desperate to get him, and more importantly, his huge wages off their books. It was at this point that Tianjin first showed an interest, only to be rebuffed by a player who was keen to continue the rebuilding of his career. Clearly, it was Europe or nothing.
Warming the bench at Chelsea
In stepped Chelsea, who took on the Brazil international in a six-month loan deal. However, Pato was doomed from the start; Diego Costa was the main man in a lone striker formation, and Pato himself was brought in seemingly against the wishes of caretaker manager Guus Hiddink.
Indeed, he had to settle for a place on the bench alongside fellow misfit Radamel Falcao for much of his time at Stamford Bridge, with his West London adventure yielding only two Premier League appearances.
After another six months wasted, Pato was back to square one. Which brings us back to the current season. In the summer, the speedster remained in Europe with a permanent transfer to Spanish club Villarreal, in what appeared to be the last chance saloon.
Villarreal: Pato’s last chance
The Yellow Submarines went into the campaign with a new coach and a rejuvenated squad, and Pato was expected to lead the line in an attempt to consolidate Europe football. Whilst Villarreal have performed admirably and are well-placed for a top six finish, it has been largely thanks to the goals of Nicola Sansone and Roberto Soriano.
As for Pato, although 14 La Liga appearances yielded just two goals, he appeared to be in the perfect environment to settle down and find his calling in European football. A slow start could be forgiven if the Brazilian stuck at it and allowed himself to acclimatise to Spanish football, before pushing on in the second half of the campaign.
For all his faults, Pato is a well-travelled player who has experience at the top level of football. Few others in the squad can boast of this, and it would surely have been advantageous to Villarreal to keep him in the camp.
However, it wasn’t to be and it soon became clear Pato was on his way out. Despite being linked with Rio de Janeiro outfit Flamengo, the 27-year-old finally made his long-awaited move to China.
He is far from the only high-profile player to have been lured East, but this latest transfer arguably puts the final nail in the coffin of any hopes of becoming the star he seemed destined to be.
In what ought to be the prime of his career, the player who was tipped for greatness has found himself a footballing nomad. For Alexandre Pato, that special night in Barcelona could not seem further away.