The 24-year-old’s long road to the top almost ended before for it had even began and now he’s ready for the big time – if anyone will notice
Luan Guilherme de Jesus Vieira doesn’t have YouTube highlight reels packed full of rabonas, back-heels and chapeus.
He doesn’t lead Brazil’s scoring charts and nor is he the multimillion-dollar face of national or international marketing campaigns.
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And at 24-years-old, while all around him teenagers are being shipped off to Europe for eight-figure sums, he’s still in Brazil.
But Luan had a late start, not even making his professional debut until he was 21. He has grown accustomed to being overlooked.
“At 15-years-old, I took him to the Rio Preto Esporte Clube,” his former mentor, Alex Sandro Rocha Pinheiro told UOL. “For a whole year, he never played. So, after 12 months of training sessions, he went back to Futsal. From the age of 16 to 18, Luan played only futsal.”
The frustrated youngster had lost interest in the more formal version of the sport – and futsal had proved rewarding.
Having lost his father when he was just five-years-old, the Sao Paulo native was earning around £12 per game to help support a single-parent family struggling to makes ends meet on his mother’s humble salary as a maid to the more affluent.
But Pinheiro saw something. He had stopped and taken a proper look, noticing what Ronaldinho would later say made Luan “different”.
“He’s very skilful, creative and he thinks differently,” he said.
Having championed the wiry, lightweight forward since his ninth birthday, Pinheiro refused to give up.
In 2013, he convinced local club America to include the youngster in their squad for the prestigious Copa Sao Paulo youth tournament in 2013. Though it was Luan who would need convincing.
“Two days before registration closed, he told me he didn’t want anything from them and would rather go back to futsal,” revealed Pinheiro, who eventually persuaded his prodigy to give it one last shot, agreeing just hours before registration for the competition closed.
It would be the turning point. Luan lit up the competition and attracted the attention of a couple of scouts from down south, eventually rebuffing Internacional to agree a six-month deal with Gremio in Porto Alegre.
“It was like a switch had been flicked in my head. From that moment, I just went for it,” Luan recalled. “It was the chance of a lifetime.”
Finally, in an environment where onlookers took more a fleeting glance, Luan was finally given an opportunity with the first-team during the local state championships.
His emergence on the national scene arrived a year later, after former coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s exit coincided with a dramatic change in fortunes for Gremio. Luan flourished in a more ambitious setup under Roger Machado.
Moved central from a wide attacking role, his best showings came in a false 9 position that illustrated his intelligence and supreme ability to create and exploit space.
He exploded on the national stage and in 2015 and hit 10 goals to ensure Copa Libertadores qualification. A year later, he arrived to rescue Brazil’s Olympic gold medal dream at Rio 2016.
Luan wasn’t supposed to be a star in Rio. Gabriel Barbosa, Gabriel Jesus and Neymar had formed a ‘golden trio’ in attack. But, after two hapless stalemates against South Africa and Iraq, they’d appeared as common as aluminium.
Luan arrived for the third group game, transforming Brazil’s misfiring attack as the Selecao romped to a 4-0 victory over Denmark to book their place in the quarter-finals and win back the increasingly hostile locals.
Prior to the tournament, erudite and progressive coach Rogerio Micale had worked extensively on a 4-2-4 formation which evoked memories of Brazil’s first World Cup triumph in 1958. Luan was the key.
Designed to break down defensive sides who set out only to spoil, he was introduced to float around the front three, offering better angles for the quick passing exchanges and join a previously fragmented midfield to the front line. “He is like a bridge, connecting two pieces together,” said the great Tostao.
Luan started every match from then on, playing starring roles in the quarter- and semi-finals as the Selecao claimed the one title that had always eluded them.
A star had been born, though few seemed really to notice. Neymar got the glory, and in Gabriel Jesus Brazil had found a new posterboy.
There were some rumours of interest from Barcelona but, one year on, Luan has neither started a full international at senior level nor left his native Brazil.
But last week, on a big night in the Libertadores, he finally hit global headlines, with all eyes on him as a prospective move to Spartak Moscow was put on hold amidst reported interest from Liverpool and Sampdoria.
His moment came in the second half, when he galloped forward on the counter-attack, committed the Godoy Cruz defence, paused, and played a simple, intelligent through-ball for Pedro Rocha to steer in the winner.
Scolari labelled Luan a “game-changer” – and that’s exactly what he is. Luan doesn’t win games, he changes them, enabling others to do so. He has that rare ability to make everyone else better. It took a while, but Brazil has caught on. Luan is now widely regarded as arguably the league’s best player.
Tostao went on to insist: “Luan is among the top five Brazilian players today.” And Tite is now on board, too, last week adding Luan to his Brazil squad for World Cup qualifying.
So if your club doesn’t try to sign Luan this transfer window, it’s likely because they just weren’t looking hard enough. They wouldn’t be the first.