The inclusion of Robinho in Brazil’s squad for next month’s Copa America has raised a few eyebrows around the world.
Back home, though, this was not seen as controversial at all. Robinho was a leading light in the Santos team that just won the Sao Paulo State Championship, the most prestigious of Brazil’s regional competitions.
He has been consistently named in Brazil squads since the 2014 FIFA World Cup, even if all of his appearances have been as a substitute. The only time he was left out was for last November’s visit to Turkey and Austria, when no domestically-based players were called up.
It would have been incoherent to leave him out at this stage.
In hindsight, perhaps he should even have gone to the World Cup. Then-coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had successfully experimented with Robinho in the ‘false 9’ role. But, with two target men centre forwards in his 23-man squad, he could not find room for Robinho – and Brazil lost an interesting variation.
Since the World Cup the main change that coach Dunga has made to the shape of the side is the replacement of a traditional number 9 with a more mobile striker. It is hardly surprising, then, that Robinho was straight back in the squad.
Dunga is a fan. Robinho was one of the stalwarts of the coach’s 2006 to 2010 first spell in charge.
Some might point to Robinho’s age – he is 31 – as a negative factor. But Brazil’s coach, forever looking over his shoulder, is obliged to think in the short term. He needs players who are useful to him today. Chalk up enough wins now, and the long term will look after itself.
Anyway, it is clear Dunga is not only selecting Robinho on the basis of what the player produces on the field. In the press conference when he announced the Copa America squad, Dunga talked of Robinho’s importance as a member of the group, advising and passing on the benefit of his experience to the younger players.
It is here, perhaps, that the international audience has every right to be perplexed. Dunga talks endlessly about the need for commitment. The European football public would not see Robinho as a natural fit for this line of discourse.
At Real Madrid, AC Milan and especially at Manchester City, Robinho was sometimes seen as a symbol of lack of commitment. I recall doing a radio program with a former English player, now a well-established pundit, who said that in the entire history of the Premier League the two worst performance he had seen had come from Robinho, who had appeared to show complete disinterest in the events going on around him.
In Brazil, though, his behaviour seems to be very different. He is currently only at Santos on loan. Yet, in his third spell at the club, his bond with Santos seems stronger than ever. He is acknowledged, in a positive sense, as one of the leaders in the dressing room – showing precisely the type of conduct that Dunga is looking for in the national team.
And yet this is the same Robinho who seemed to sulk his way through his time with Manchester City. How can it be the same person?
If we try to sum up Robinho with a single adjective then he proves as elusive as one of his best dribbles. Human beings can be complex and contradictory creatures. As a general rule, if you can find the contradiction and make sense of its tensions, then you have the key to the man.
My reading of Robinho is that there is a relatively straightforward explanation for the difference in behaviour. He is one of those people who will be a positive presence when he feels important.
This is the case at Santos, where he is a club idol and an elder statesman to the next generation of youngsters. It is also the case with Brazil, because Neymar, undisputedly the main man in the current side, grew up admiring him.
Put Robinho in these environments and he is important.
In Europe, though, he could never quite achieve the same status – even if clubs paid big money for him. His time at Real Madrid ended when he discovered that the club was trying to use him as a makeweight in a deal to attract Cristiano Ronaldo – in hindsight a perfectly reasonable piece of business, but one that cut Robinho to the core.
In Europe he found out that he could only ever be one more talented player. He left Brazil talking continuously about his ambition to be chosen as the world’s best player. He seemed to feel this was just a question of time. The contact with harsh reality was all a bit too much for him.
It would be harsh to blame Robinho entirely for what in hindsight comes across as delusions of grandeur. He was a young man who had, to a large extent, been allowed to think that way by those around him. He was not mentally prepared for the degree of difficulty he would face in a higher standard of football on the other side of the Atlantic.
I well recall a former Brazilian international predicting that Robinho was going to be better than Diego Maradona, and second only to Pele in the all-time pantheon – hype that from this distance looks ludicrously unwise.
Of course, none of this came to pass. But he is not finished as a player and, in the right circumstances, Robinho can still be useful for club and for country.