When talking to a young player who for so long has been seen by his football-mad countrymen as the heir apparent to a long line of iconic goalscorers it is easy to bring preconceived stereotypes to the room. Think Romario, think Ronaldo and your minds-eye evokes images of young players honing their skills on the beaches of Rio or in the favelas of Sao Paulo.
However, Alexandre Rodrigues da Silva (Alexandre Pato to his friends) isn’t one for stereotypes. His main concern is goals. “I didn’t live in the favelas, I didn’t even go to the beach,” he says sternly. “I only know that my parents worked very hard to make sure we had a good lifestyle and to send my brothers and I to school. But I did everything that all children do – I played football in the street and I really liked playing in the fields near my home.”
So the romanticism of a Brazilian beach has been eroded quickly, and soon so has the idea that a young footballer will play and play for the moment with no care for his future. “Football was my future,” he says. “When I played with the other children, I always thought ahead, about what I could be, about what could happen. I can say that it’s gone well and it will also go well in the future. I’ve been really happy because I’ve been able to help my family because of the work that I do.”
What Brasil have here is a single-minded, focused pro who has always believed in himself and his skills. Now his club, his country and his family are reaping the awards. Having secured his move to Italy in 2007, Pato paid for his father to build a football pitch in his garden. His playing duties meant he couldn’t get back to sample the work so his dad and his brother waited, refusing to play on it until he came home. Soon he returned and the three of them spent the day scoring goals until the sun went down.
Born in September 1989 in Pato Branco (hence the nickname that in English literally means Duck), Pato rose to fame when, aged 16, he shone in the local under-20 side, out gunning players four years his senior. Other clubs became aware of a new Brazilian talent, clubs from all over the world. It was only a minute into his professional debut in Brazil when he scored his first senior goal and that global awareness became a global frenzy.
The plan that had formed in Pato’s head as a youngster was taking shape and dreams were close to being realised. “When a child is born he almost always dreams of being a footballer, so seeing the national shirt and thinking that one day he could wear it, is a dream and great aim for everyone.” The famous yellow jersey would have to wait a little bit but his progress continued rapidly.
“I thought, I’m young,” recalls Pato. “All I wanted was to get into the first team and I still hadn’t really thought about the calibre of player I was playing alongside. I‘ve always tried to do my best and work hard. Goal scoring is 80% luck but, in actual fact, you have to work very hard to reach your goals and even today I have kept that work ethic. In Brazil that hard work paid off and it has in Italy too.”
Back in August 2007, the city of Milan became his new home after a 24m Euros transfer to the then champions of Europe. . It was a lot of money and a meteoric rise to prominence for a player still not 18. “I tried to take it in my stride”, he says. “I just wanted to play. I wasn’t thinking about Europe when I broke into the professional football because I was 16. I hadn’t been playing for long and suddenly here I am in Europe. Once I was here though, I quickly realised that this is the real centre of football and I was really happy.”
As ever Pato didn’t hang around. His debut came in January 2008 (it was delayed due to an EU regulation regarding work permits for minors). He scored. His international debut came two months later at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. He scored. Goals for club and country have flowed since. Serie A was won in 2011 and it is injuries – not defenders – that have prevented more from the youngster. “My first footballing memory is of kicking the ground as I struck a ball and my foot bleeding”, recalls Pato, laughing off football’s setbacks and approaching the future with confidence.
For a long time now people have expected a lot from Pato and he has delivered, thriving on what it takes to play for at the top. “I’ll always feel the pressure,” he admits. “Whether I play for my club or my country. The national team is my country – there’s pressure but I must do my best because I don’t ever want people to cry because I haven’t done well. I realised what the national shirt means from my time growing up watching TV, but when the team loses and you see people disheartened you know that you always want to be at the top so you can try and do the right things to win.”
Pato is well aware that when his home nation hosts the competition for the biggest prize of them all in 2014 that pressure will reach fever pitch. When the nation last hosted the tournament in 1950, they lost at the final hurdle due to a late goal, and legend has it that at that moment some distraught citizens took their own lives. “Ah yes my Grandpa has told me about this moment,” says Pato. “That goal has become famous in Brazil but now there’s a new chance. Who knows, history could be repeated or Brazil could win.”
Could win? His countrymen and women will need more than that. “We will all work hard to do our best. I’ll work hard now and hopefully that will pay off then. I know how excited the country is getting. You travel around Brazil today and you can the see new stadia, new roads, new trains. It is all for the tournament and that gets you excited. I was so happy aged 4 when we won it back in 1994. I don’t know what it would be like to do it as a man and a player.”