x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Perseverance of the late developing Grafite pays off

A career as a door-to-door salesman preluded the Al Ahli striker's footballing success

Grafite has had to work hard to make it as a professional footballer.
Grafite has had to work hard to make it as a professional footballer.

Up and up they trekked, panting and sweating. It was mid-July and a warm sun was beating down on the footballers of Wolfsburg. With every stride, they had an aching reminder that after a short holiday they were back at work in earnest.

The players knew well enough the reputation of their head coach. Felix Magath, formerly of Stuttgart and Bayern Munich, who he had led to Bundesliga titles, was a notoriously hard taskmaster and felt determined his team would be the fittest in the German top flight for the season ahead.

Part of the preparation Magath had scheduled for his Wolfsburg "Wolves" was conquering the Swiss Alps.

Their task on this particular day was the ascent of Mount Niesen. Its peak is nearly 2,500 metres high. The air thins, breathing becomes harder as you approach the summit. At barely 200 metres from the top, some squad members became aware that the big, strong Brazilian striker, their popular colleague Grafite, was straining alarmingly at the climb. All of a sudden he lost consciousness. Grafite had to make his descent on a stretcher.

It was not the most auspicious start to the 2008/09 campaign. Nor was it any guide to the relationship between the demanding Magath and Edinaldo Batista Libanio, aka Grafite, who now leads the line for Al Ahli in the Pro League.

Grafite recovered quickly enough from his dizzy spell, as Magath shrugged off questions about whether his training methods were excessively tough. Within a few months, the manager would be telling German reporters that Grafite "is an absolute example of professionalism and hard work. He's the ideal player for a coach'.'

By then, Wolfsburg were on their way to one of the more surprising Bundesliga triumphs of recent years, the first such title in the club's history. Grafite, who turned 30 just before the championship was sealed, would be voted Germany's Footballer of the Year by sportswriters.

His 26 goals in 28 matches made him the league's highest scorer. With his pace and power, he seemed unstoppable at times. He was also a generous partner to Edin Dzeko as the two of them formed the most potent pairing - 54 goals between them - in the history of the German top tier.

And, although he likes to describe himself as "as much a German-style striker as a Brazilian", he was not just speed and strength. The Bundesliga's Goal of the Season in 2008/09 showed that: a wonderful run past three opponents and a finish with the heel of his boot, one of two Grafite goals in a famous 5-1 thrashing of Bayern Munich.

The season that began just short of the top of Mount Niesen and finished at the very peak of the Bundesliga was undoubtedly Grafite's finest as a professional. It had been a determined climb to get there, too.

He was a late developer in many ways, barely noticed, let alone keenly scouted as he grew up, one among hundreds of thousands of aspiring young strikers in Brazil.

He played semi-professionally into his early 20s in the lower, regional leagues and at one stage supplemented his income as a door-to-door salesman offering bin liners to households, persuading customers that his refuse sacks were of better quality than the ones retailed at supermarkets. It is easy to imagine he was a convincing salesman.

When this reporter interviewed Grafite last season while he was at Wolfsburg, he came across as a sincere and big-hearted individual, cheerful and likeable.

Sportsmen often gain clarity and perspective if they have worked outside their sport, and struggled as adults to gain their envied status in the elite theatres of world football.

Grafite travelled widely to pursue his preferred metier, all the way to the Korean league at one stage, where his spell with Anyang Cheetahs as a 23 year old was not a success. By 25, however, he had broken into the Sao Paulo first team, and would win with them the Club World Cup in 2005. But he was still better known beyond Brazil, not for his goals but for being the victim of racist abuse in a landmark case in which his abuser, the Argentine player Leandro Desabato, was arrested as a result.

He was 26 when he moved to Europe, signing a contract with Le Mans in France. After a year and a half with them, Wolfsburg offered €5.5 million (Dh27m) for him. He made a good impression in his first season there, under Magath, and, in the next, he simply soared.

Nor was it a one-season wonder. Though Grafite would not again be as prolific as he had been in 2008/09, and Wolfsburg declined noticeably after Magath left with the title freshly won, his form was good enough that he was in Brazil's World Cup squad in 2010. He remained, as Steve McClaren, a later coach at Wolfsburg, put it "the striker most able to make a difference when he's fully fit".

His big, 88kg frame does put strain on his joints and he struggled with knee injuries from time to time in Germany.

Even at Al Ahli, whom he joined in the summer, there has been a sense Grafite has been striving for full fitness. At 32, the late developer should still have enough of his considerable craft and zip to lift his new team.

sports@thenational.ae