In 2005, a 17-year-old Brazilian by the name of Kerlon had the footballing world at his feet. He was being hailed as Brazil’s most exciting prospect since Ronaldinho, the internet was awash with clips of his ‘seal’ dribble and the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan were sniffing as he was named the ‘Best Player’ and ‘Top Scorer’ at the 2005 South American U17 Youth Championships. Turn the clock forward almost exactly a decade, and Kerlon appears to be a washed-up and injury-prone journeyman who is struggling to get a game in the fourth tier of U.S. football.
The history of football is full of players who never made their potential, but there are some who’s tales stand out even among such a plethora of other candidates; Kerlon is one of these. It is not uncommon for a player to be built up to dizzying heights before they have even left school, particularly in their native country. However, not since the days of Ronaldinho had the Brazilian press bestowed such praise for one man, and probably only Neymar since. More importantly, the praise was justified. This young man appeared to be the real deal, he played with a confidence beyond his years and had the ability to back it up.
When he scored 8 goals in 7 games and led Brazil to victory at the 2005 South American U17 Championship’s, it was difficult for those who saw him play not to flirt with hyperbole. The youngster had already began making waves with Cruzeiro, where he had made a few appearances for the first team and already tested out his never-before-seen ‘seal’ dribble. You could be forgiven for thinking the trick, which had YouTube views in the millions, was nothing more than a gimmick, but when Kerlon began humiliating the best players in the world in his age group, the rest of the world began to take note. The seal dribble may have made him an internet sensation, but it was his technique, balance, skill, vision and unerring ability from a dead ball situation which made him appear a sure-fire future footballing sensation.
As is always the case, scouts from the world’s leading clubs were present at the youth tournament. Kerlon’s teammates included the likes of Marcelo, Denilson and Anderson, but after only a couple of games, it was clear that the tournament would only have one star. Nelson Rodriguez, the Brazil coach, even told his players to get the ball to Kerlon as often as they could, such was his dominance. From attacking midfield he scored 8 goals in Brazil’s 7 games, but more than the quantity of the goals, the nature of them was what set him apart. Long-range free-kicks and incredible solo dribbles were a natural part of the fast-emerging wonderkid’s repertoire.
When the tournament came to a close, Kerlon’s name was on everybody’s lips. Cruzeiro were facing an uphill battle to rebuff the bids of Europe’s leading sides, reportedly rejecting an offer of £18 million from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. The year after announcing himself to the world, Kerlon didn’t quite have the impact Cruzeiro had hoped for. He played 26 times for the club, where he wow’ed fans but was plagued by injuries and often saw his flamboyant playing style was met with rugged challenges. The seal dribble, for example, often resulted in Kerlon being hacked down or, most notably, elbowed. In 2007, Brazilian right-back Coelho was handed a five-game ban after a vicious elbow on the teenager, who was running past him with the ball balanced upon his head.
In 2008, Kerlon got his move to Europe, but by now his stock had dropped somewhat. His reputation was still such that Inter Milan were the interested party, but he officially joined Chievo, to prevent Inter using up their non-EU registration quota. He played four times in Serie A for Chievo, but was ruled out from March onwards with a nasty knee injury. He officially joined Inter in 2009, on a three-year deal. Kerlon would never play for the Nerazzuri, as his knee injury kept recurring. Despite his lack of appearances, Ajax were still interested and took him on-loan with a view to a permanent deal later that year. He didn’t play a single game for Ajax either, who unsurprisingly made the decision not to sign him.
By the end of 2012, Kerlon had played less than 10 games in the last 4 years, missing out on the most crucial years of his development. Even a return to Brazil, first loaned to the top flight and later to the third tier couldn’t breath life into the rapidly dying career of a former wonderkid. That year, the magnitude of Kerlon’s demise became clear. When his contract at Inter was up, there was no longer a long line of potential suitors, and Kerlon headed to Japan, where he joined third division side Fujieda MYFC. It was a quite incredible fall from grace, but the Brazilian finally played some football.
In his first season, Kerlon played 8 games, scoring three times and providing seven assists. He started his second season in Japan with a bang, and had 6 goals from 14 games when his dreaded knee injury struck once more. He flew to Brazil for knee surgery, and never returned to Japan. In September 2014 Kerlon began training with NASL side the Atlanta Silverbacks, but a move never materialised. Kerlon was determined to fight for a contract in the U.S. though, claiming that he had always wanted to ply his trade there and would feel more comfortable than playing in Europe, given the closer proximity to Brazil. It took until March 2015 for Kerlon to finally get a club, as he joined APSL – generally considered to be the fourth tier of American soccer – side, Miami Dade FC.
Kerlon has nine fellow Brazilian teammates and 16 fellow South Americans, in a South American dominated Miami squad, which has only 9 Americans by comparison. Founded in May 2014 and homed at the 2,444 capacity St. Thomas University stadium, Dade are not a major force in American soccer, nor are they a club steeped in history. Now aged 27, and playing at such a level, it is difficult to see any route back to a respectable level of football for Kerlon. His career has been decimated by a horrible knee injury, but one also gets the impression that there was a certain mental component lacking in Kerlon’s game, and an inability to ever fully recover from the setback of being pushed out of Inter and finding himself in Ajax’s reserves. Few players peak at 17, but Kerlon did just that. He has played twice for Miami Dade since joining, the APSL’s currently fourth placed side.