In 2020, no Brazilian scored more goals in Europe’s top five leagues than João Pedro. His exploits in front of goal for unfashionable Cagliari left a long list of household names – Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison to name a few – trailing in his wake.
These recent achievements mark the culmination of an undulating journey for a player who has had to fight for every bit of his success. Even now, he hovers beneath the radar, quietly going about his business in Sardinia. A Google search will initially point you towards a younger namesake plying his trade with Championship Watford, whilst the player looks on enviously at the salaries earned by Cagliari teammates such as Radja Nainggolan, Diego Godin and Giovanni Simeone.
Too much, too soon…
A prodigious talent, João Pedro went to the under-17 World Cup in 2009 alongside Alisson, Casemiro, Coutinho and Neymar for the Selecao. After just a handful of domestic appearances for Atletico Mineiro, he caught the eye of Palermo’s sporting director, Walter Sabatini. Sabatini’s previous South American scouting sojourns had unearthed talents such as Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore, and hopes were high that João Pedro could be the next on that conveyor belt.
However, the 18-year-old struggled to adapt to Italian football, seeing only fleeting moments of first-team action in his first sixth months at the club, spending the remainder of his time with the Primavera. In a bid to re-capture form and confidence, he was sent out on loan; first to Vitoria Guimaraes in Portugal (2011) and then returning to South America with Uruguayan champions, Penarol (2011).
João Pedro acquitted himself well under the intense spotlight of Uruguay’s biggest club, scoring his maiden senior goals and participating in the Copa Libertadores. It came as some surprise, therefore, that Palermo decided to cut their losses on the player in summer 2012, laying bare the ruthlessness of their business model.Embed from Getty Images
“I don’t remember his name, only that it cost me a lot of money” – Maurizio Zamperini on the signing of João Pedro, 2010
“Sometimes abroad you fish well, sometimes badly” – Walter Sabatini on the departure of João Pedro, 2012
Back In South America…
A return to Brazil with Santos represented blessed relief for the player and a chance to resume his development at one of the country’s top clubs. His stagnation over the past two seasons was brought into sharp focus by the contrasting fortunes of Neymar; a team-mate from the 2009 World Cup squad, who had blossomed into the most coveted 20-year-old in world football in the black and white of Santos. Meanwhile, João Pedro had been to Europe and returned with his tail between his legs.
João Pedro spent the year as understudy to Neymar before both players crossed the Atlantic. Neymar sealed fame and fortune with a move to Barcelona, whilst his teammate headed for the more modest surrounds of Estoril in Portugal. Aged 21, João Pedro pitched up at his sixth club, hoping to break out of the funk that had beset his fledgling career. Simultaneously, he stared down the very real possibility that he may never realise his early promise.
The second coming…
This spell in Portugal would mark a turning point in João Pedro’s career, playing regularly across Estoril’s front line, scoring goals and gaining experience in the Europa League. He helped them to an impressive 4th position behind the Porto-Benfica-Sporting oligopoly. At season’s end, his coach Marco Silva departed for Sporting, whilst João Pedro was on his way to Cagliari for €1.5 million.
It transpired to be a bittersweet first season in Sardinia. On a personal level, João Pedro emerged as a shining light in a struggling team, using his pace and clinical finishing to great effect in a counter-attacking side. Although his endeavours proved insufficient to save the club from relegation, for the first time in his senior career, João Pedro stayed put that summer. He remained loyal to Cagliari, mastering his craft in Italy’s second tier and helping them bounce back as champions the very next season.
Continuing the omnipresent theme of adversity, João Pedro’s return to Serie A was not without tribulation. A leg fracture in late 2016 was followed by a doping violation in 2017. Having fought to rebuild his career in Europe, this latter episode cast a dark shadow over his future. WADA called for a 4-year suspension, but the tribunal came to his rescue, accepting his explanation of a contaminated supplement, setting the ban at just 6 months. With half of the ban served through the close season, by September 2018 he was back and raring to go.
“I knew I had not done anything wrong. But I have had terrible months, despite having the support of many, from the club to friends. I felt the weight of the world. I was training alone, but I missed everything” – João Pedro
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João Pedro played under a succession of Cagliari coaches in Serie A, first Gianfranco Zola, then Diego Lopez and Rolando Maran. Despite this instability, he achieved a consistency and confidence that had eluded him in the early part of his career. And it was under Maran in the 2019/20 season (his sixth in Sardinia) where he exploded into form in the most unexpected circumstances.
Throughout his career, João Pedro had been deployed in a variety of roles across the front line; wide left, wide right, centre-forward, attacking midfield. Arguably, this lack of clarity regarding his strongest position had contributed to his early-career travails. But in the 19/20 season, he was deployed consistently as a second striker by Maran, juxtaposed between Radja Nainggolan as the midfield architect and Giovanni Simeone as centre-forward.
Cagliari had been hit by an early-season injury to their talismanic forward Leonardo Pavoletti. No longer able to rely on his aerial dominance for goals, Maran re-imagined Cagliari’s approach and, in doing so, caught their opponents off-guard. A 14-game unbeaten streak saw Cagliari residing in the Champions League berths in December. João Pedro was a regular feature on the scoresheet, his well-timed runs into the box and clinical finishing contributing to an 11-goal tally by Christmas.
As Cagliari’s form tapered off in the second part of the season, Maran was relieved of his duties – but João Pedro kept going. By the end of the campaign, he had chalked up 18 league goals. What’s more, he has continued that rich form into the current season, averaging a goal every other game and remaining broadly on course to equal last season’s total. With Cagliari fighting an intensifying battle against relegation, João Pedro is proving once again to be a prized asset.Embed from Getty Images
A career cross-roads…
After a nomadic early career, few would have predicted that he would stay so long in Sardinia. Yet 7 years and 70 goals later, he is still there. The mutual affection between player and club is clear for all to see. Next summer, he faces perhaps the toughest decision of his career. Age 29, and with his stock never having been higher, he has the opportunity for one last payday in Europe, or perhaps the Far East.
Amidst this cloud of uncertainty, one thing is abundantly clear. Whether Cagliari survive or not, whether he stays or goes, João Pedro has already written his name into the hearts of Cagliari supporters.
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