The Maranhão region, in north-eastern Brazil, isn’t as glamorous as other major hubs of the country, neither has one of the greatest and industrious centres.
It’s a green region, which has its main (and natural) resource in its wonderful trees, covering the land overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Coelho Neto is a little town of that area, so far away from China, Shanghai and its well-known fame. However, Coelho Neto is the place where everything started for Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso, who unwillingly became a football pioneer. His short-term trip away from Brazil would soon become permanent and give him a glory that he maybe would have never earned in his homeland.
At 10 years of age, Elkeson moved to Marabá. In order not to lose this promising youngster, Vitória made him sign at 14 years, pretending Elkeson was younger than he actually was. After all, it wasn’t only Vitória to notice his talent. Some years after that beginning, Benfica became owners of 50% of the player. The Lisbon-based club wanted him to follow the same route of David Luiz, professionally raised by Vitória and then gone to Lisbon. Yet, Elkeson displayed a great ripeness:
I’m only thinking about Vitória: I’ll go to Benfica only if I’ll be able to succeed. I wanna play European football, but first I need to comply with Vitória, the club which made me known in all Brazil.
Elkeson grew rapidly with Leão da Barra, so much to join Botafogo. However, the long-waited trip to Europe would never come. The Brazilian youngster would also earn a call-up by Mano Menezes for a 2011 Superclásico de las Américas against Argentina, but – as today – Elkeson has never appeared for Brazil national team.
So Elkeson chooses the pioneering way.
In winter 2012, Chinese Super League is becoming relevant and Guangzhou Evergrande have just won the 2nd title in a row. Furthermore, the Chinese league is luring several big players, like Barrios, Kanouté and Drogba. At the same time, many players are moving from Brasileirão to CSL. Elkeson accepts the offer from Guangzhou for €5,7m: a big cheque, but there is also another news to tell. In his last months at Botafogo – given the departures of Herrera and Abreu –, Elkeson started playing as lone striker, tried in that position by manager Oswaldo de Oliveira. A position he’ll keep with Evergrande: it’ll be the turning point of his career, since Elkeson begins his experience in China with 10 goals in his first five matches. His manager in Guangzhou, Marcello Lippi, considers the former Botagofo winger crucial:
Elkeson is a young, strong, serious and professional player. He will confirm himself at this level and have a successful career, who knows, maybe even in Europe.
When Lippi left Guangzhou, Elkeson stayed with Cannavaro and decided to remain even with Scolari. The Brazilian forward has adapted well in China:
I think the language was the biggest problem, but we have a translator and I’m learning some words in Mandarin Chinese. I wanted a new challenge, I have always dreamed of a move abroad: I became a striker and I’m developing well in that position.
More than Chinese Super League titles (Guangzhou are ruling the league from 2011), the Brazilian forward impressed for his crucial role in the two continental triumphs: Elkeson has never won the MVP award, neither in 2013 nor in 2015, but he has been fundamental to lift two AFC Champions League titles. The first saw him score two of the three goals needed to overcome FC Seoul for the away-goals rule. Two years later, Elkeson took the scene, scoring another net to defeat Al-Ahli at Tianhe Stadium after 180’.
To squad’s silverwares, we have to add personal ones: 24 goals scored in AFC Champions League (4th all-time), the record of goals by a foreign player in Chinese Super League (plus two top-scorer titles), the best player award given to him by Chinese Football Association in 2014, the 100 goal-mark reached in all Chinese competitions.
An ambassador, an absolute conqueror.
Thanks to this spirit, Elkeson decided to quit Guangzhou in winter 2016: between all those huge deals, the Brazilian forward signed for emergent club Shanghai SIPG for €19m. Guangzhou will reveal that the club agreed to the move “for the national glory” of Chinese clubs in Asia, but this operation represented a statement of intent by SIPG to end Evergrande’s reign in CSL.
One and a half year later, Elkeson – together with fellow compatriots Oscar and Hulk (arrived last winter in China), apart from talented Wu Lei – has kept his promise. Shanghai SIPG are now behind Guangzhou in CSL and they composed their manifesto in the first leg of 2017 AFC Champions League quarterfinals: a 4-0 home win against Guangzhou (biggest Evergrande’s defeat in this competition), one assist by Elkeson.
In the Brazilian’s mind, there is the will of coming back to his land:
I miss Brazil, but I want to have a career abroad and only return in the future.
Winning something outside Guangzhou Evergrande – it might be Chinese Super League or AFC Champions League – may definitely rise Elkeson in the Asian football’s pantheon.
Cover photo ©Getty
Other photos ©LaPresse