<
>

Flamengo striker Pedro could be Brazil's World Cup bolter

play
Is the pressure of the Brazilian national team too much for Neymar? (1:03)

Julien Laurens and Nedum Onuoha discuss Neymar's comments about the 2022 World Cup potentially being his last. (1:03)

Fiorentina may have seen no further use for him after just four games in their colours, and he has spent much of the last two years on the bench. Even so, Flamengo striker Pedro is a good outside bet to make Brazil's World Cup squad.

How can this be so? It's because Pedro offers something that Brazil have been lacking: An out and out centre-forward, a tall striker with penalty area presence and a rich technical repertoire, able to finish off both feet or in the air, aware of what is going on around him and able to bring others into the game with adept flicks and clever passes.

How come, then, is Pedro not a household name all over the world? If he has all these virtues, then why has his career taken such a strange path?

- Vickery: The motivation behind Gabriel Jesus' Arsenal move
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

The main explanation is that Pedro lacks one of the qualities which is usually seen as necessary for success in the modern game: he is not quick. His movements are long and loping, sometimes making it look as if he is moving in slow motion. This is not a striker who can frequently be slipped to run in behind the defensive line. And this was clearly a problem almost three years ago when he moved across the Atlantic to join Fiorentina.

Pedro is one of the many successful recent products of the youth academy of the Fluminense club in his native Rio de Janeiro. Domestic Brazilian football, with its deep defensive lines, proved to his liking. In the more compact Italian game it was harder to make an impression. He was kept further from goal, away from the zone of the field where he does his best work. It may also be the case that he had yet to make a full recovery from a knee ligament operation suffered the previous year. When he suffered the injury, Pedro had just been called up in coach Tite's first squad after the 2018 World Cup. He had to drop out. New Tottenham Hotspur signing Richarlison, who had just joined Everton at the time, came in to replace Pedro, and has not looked back.

Pedro could only lament, but at least he knew that Brazil's coach was an admirer. After just half a season in Italy he was loaned back to Rio to join Flamengo at the start of 2020. By the end of the year the club shelled out €14 million to make the deal permanent. He had proved his worth with a flurry of goals. One Brazilian commentator, a little carried away, described him as the best centre-forward in the world. Why, then, has he found it so difficult to get a place in the Flamengo starting line up?

The answer here lies in the club's financial strength and the way that the global market in players has developed. Pedro was joining a club on a high, which had just won the Copa Libertadores and the Brazilian league with a swaggering style that makes 2019 a magical memory for the fans. Key to the conquests -- and the style -- was the famous front four, striker Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa and Bruno Henrique, backed up by the creative talents of Everton Ribeiro and the Uruguayan Giorgian De Arrascaeta. And three years down the line, all four are still at the club.

This is a symptom of a new age of stability. A few years earlier they would have been sold. Now, Europe is not keen. Bruno Henrique and Everton Ribeiro have past 30, De Arrascaeta is 28, and even Gabigol, approaching 26, is considered old by the major European powers. They are no longer looking for the best South American players. They want the best prospects, 22 and under. Flamengo, then, still have the famous front four.

It begs a question; did they really need to make such an investment in Pedro? They have found it hard to use him. Coach after coach -- they are currently on the fifth since the resignation of Jorge Jesus, the boss in 2019 -- has gone back to the tried and trusted front four, leaving Tite watching in frustration.

The Brazil coach is well aware that Pedro is unlikely to be first-choice in the Brazil attack. But he wants him as an option off the bench, seeing him as tailor made for those matches where Brazil are chasing the game, when the opponent resorts to deep defence and the action is taking place in and around their penalty area.

One such was the World Cup qualifier at home to Venezuela towards the end of 2020. Pedro came on for the last 15 minutes. It is his only full international appearance to date, but Tite has never forgotten him. Brazil's coach celebrated when it was confirmed that World Cup squads in Qatar had been increased from 23 to 26. It gives him the chance to take more attacking options, and Pedro is certainly in his thoughts.

But there have been frustrations. Flamengo would not release their player to take part in last year's Olympics -- such an important stepping stone on the road to Qatar. And Brazil's coach has been heard lamenting the striker's lack of first team opportunities.

That, however, is surely changing. An injury to Bruno Henrique has left an opening, and last Wednesday night, Pedro crashed through it in style. Against Tolima of Colombia in the Copa Libertadores, Pedro scored four and set up others in a 7-1 massacre. It was the kind of individual performance that sends out a message; however Flamengo set up their side from now, it is hard to see Pedro as a reserve. And easier, with a run of games behind him, to imagine him getting himself on the plane to the World Cup.