Before Ronaldinho became Ronaldinho and all other nicknames became superfluous, Brazil’s legend was Ronaldinho Gaucho. The second part of the name refers to his home state of Rio Grande do Sul, a region of rolling pastures geographically alike to Argentina and Uruguay and the realm of tough, single-minded farmers who are more likely to barbecue a side of beef than drink out of a coconut.
That independence was a hallmark of the brilliant ex-Barcelona, Milan and Gremio star, who did things his way from start to finish. And while Luan, his heir in Porto Alegre, may not have been born in Gaucho territory, he shares with his predecessor the same bloody-minded determination – and more importantly, no little percentage of the great’s incomparable skills on the pitch itself.
At 24, Luan could have followed his contemporaries into European football long ago. A team-mate of Lucas Silva and Lucas Piazon among others at the 2014 Toulon Tournament won at a canter by the Selecao’s young promises, he stayed put in Gremio when Europe’s clubs came snooping for the next big thing. Silva has struggled to make his home at Real Madrid and spent most of his time out on loan, while Piazon has similarly been farmed out to five different sides across Europe since joining Chelsea.
Gremio’s lynchpin, meanwhile, has showed undeniably that good things come to those who wait. He has been tailed by clubs of the calibre of Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid in the past, but this summer when formal offers emerged only from Spartak Moscow and Sampdoria he was not tempted. Luan preferred to stay in Brazil and hone his trade rather than settle for a second-tier transfer, and his reward has been immediate. Two goals last week to take down Barcelona of Ecuador in the Copa Libertadores semi-final first leg put Gremio on the brink of the final, and Brazil coach Tite is following his footsteps closely as a possible wildcard for next year’s World Cup finals.
“First I dreamed of making it as a player. When that dream comes true, you want to play in Europe,” Luan said back in August as he reaffirmed his commitment to his first club, at least for the time being.
“But I only want to be here at Gremio, with another dream to make happen, receiving a call-up for the national team. I want to make the most of my time here.” With a place in the Libertadores decider against Argentine side Lanus all but assured, a possible Club World Cup showdown with Real Madrid at the end of the year and a call-up from Tite for Brazil’s September World Cup qualifiers, he is certainly doing that.
Luan has more in common with his illustrious predecessor than just Gremio. Naturally proficient off both feet, the 24-year-old is fantastic on the ball and has a fine eye for goal. And just like Ronaldinho he excels from set-pieces, with plenty of stunning free-kicks sending the Tricolor’s notoriously demanding fans into ecstasy.
He also brings admirable versatility to the table, being able to drop back into the centre of midfield, roam out wide on either flank or push up just behind the centre-forward. That kind of flexibility only increases his value for European observers, who will have to wait until January for another chance at tempting him away from Porto Alegre.
While his name still may be relatively unknown in Europe he became a folk hero back home with a starring role in Brazil’s 2016 Olympic Games gold, forming part of an irresistible forward quartet alongside Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Gabigol and hitting three goals on the way to glory.
“He had a great Olympics, he has always been on our radar and has been consistent in the Brasileiro in the team that has scored the most goals in Brazil,” Tite said of Luan upon calling him up for the seniors.
“He is their primary linkman and, as we understand it, well merits this call-up.”
Wednesday’s Libertadores return clash against Barcelona, then, marks the start of the most important period to date for Luan’s fledgling career. The immediate objective will be Copa glory and a date in Abu Dhabi for the end of 2017, while with seven games remaining in Serie A Gremio still have an outside chance of the title as they lie eight points behind leaders Corinthians. His every move will be diligently noted by Tite, and by no few European clubs to boot.
It remains to be seen whether the youngster will enjoy a career even a fraction as thrilling as that of Ronaldinho. But one thing is certain: Luan’s stock is on the rise, and the next 12 months promise great things for one of the finest talents currently active in Brazil.