When greatly-hyped Brazilian playmaker Diego Barcelo lined up against Lionel Messi in the 2005 South American Under-20 Championships I bet the last thing he imagined would be playing for Cypriot club AEL Limassol in a UEFA Europa League qualifier nine years later.
There is a question I would love to ask – but every time the opportunity presents itself I am too scared to do it. The question, you see, could well be taken badly, as an insult, though I mean no disrespect.
The question is this; when, as a young player, you have grown up with justified dreams of global stardom, how do you cope with mediocrity?
The question is uppermost in my mind at the moment. I'm currently back in London, where I just performed the happy ritual of going along to White Hart Lane to watch Tottenham Hotspur in its Europa League tie against AEL Limassol of Cyprus.
The visiting team contained a number of Brazilians, some of the complete unknowns to me, one of them certainly not so. Wearing the number 10 shirt, operating behind the centre forward in Limassol's 4-2-3-1 formation, was Diego Barcelos. Now 29, he was just 18 when he was getting a game for his local side, Internacional of Porto Alegre. The son of one of the club's former players, there was a huge fuss about him and his twin brother Diogo, but it was Diego who received most of the attention. A quick, little, skilful striker, he was given the number 9 shirt in Brazil's team for the South American Under-20 Championships held in Colombia in 2005.
I was there, and recall watching him in the last round against Argentina. Brazil went down 2-1. The Argentine goals came from Pablo Zabaleta and a certain Lionel Messi. Nine and a half years later they were on the field for the World Cup final. Diego Barcelos, meanwhile, was nowhere near.
It is a question, I suppose, of perspective. By any normal standards, Diego Barcelos has done well for himself. AEL Limassol is not a bad side – it beat Zenit of Russia 1-0 in the Champions League qualifiers before going out 3-1 on aggregate. I imagine Cyprus to be a charming place to live, and one trusts that its number ten is being adequately rewarded for his efforts. Most people would think that he has a splendid life.
But when, as a teenager, you have walked out onto a pitch to face Lionel Messi, you are surely entitled to set your sights a little higher.
In truth, that tournament in 2005 was probably the first sign of disappointment. Diego Barcelos scored just one goal, and was left out of the squad that Brazil took to the World Under-20 Cup a few months later. He started being loaned out to other Brazilian clubs before making his career abroad, first in China, then with Nacional of Portugal, and this year with Limassol.
I would love to know how he has reacted to these developments. Is there bitterness at the course his career has taken? Does he believe that with a bit more luck or focus things could have been different – or perhaps that they still could turn out to be different? Or has he reconciled himself to his status as, in global terms, one of the game's journeymen? In which case, what does football now mean to him? Does it continue to be a source of self worth and self expression? Or has it become little more than a job, a means to the end of a pleasant lifestyle?
These questions are fascinating in themselves and also intriguing because he is far from the only one in such a situation. There are thousands of others all over the planet – but especially in Brazil, where bashing out an endless production line of 'wonderkids' is a sizeable industry. Plenty have a stake in talking up the prospects of a gifted young player; especially clubs who need the injection of a transfer fee and agents who live off the commission.
In some cases entire families cease work and build all of their hopes of economic advancement on the slender shoulders of a soccer prodigy – who maybe, psychologically and physically, is simply not strong enough to carry the weight.
Despite my club alliegances, I could not help feeling sorry for Diego Barcelos against Tottenham. I imagine – and would certainly hope – that the trip to White Hart Lane would be an important moment in his recent career, an opportunity to show that while he now plays in Cyprus he once contemplated taking on Messi on more or less equal terms.
And he did produce one flash of skill, threading through a crafty pass for Gikiewicz, AEL Limassol's Polish centre forward, who in turn drew a sharp save from Hugo Lloris in the Tottenham goal. It was the visitor's best chance on a night when it went down 3-0 (and 5-1 on aggregate), and it was the only time that Diego Barcelos exerted any influence on the match. That aside he looked hopelessly lightweight, easily nullified – and a decade ago he could justifiably have imagined himself going to bigger stadiums than this and coming home the hero.
How does he (and how do the many other similar cases) make their peace with such a state of affairs? One day I promise to pluck up courage to ask the questions.