A week to deadline day. Leandro Damião sits in a dimly lit corner of his modest apartment, eyeing the full moon that shines brightly through the French doors leading to his sixth floor balcony. Adele's "Don't You Remember" plays in the background. Asked if the song has special significance, Leandro snorts and lights up a Pall Mall from his girlfriend's half smoked pack. Leandro, to my knowledge, is not a smoker. His girlfriend, Nadia, proceeds to explain that he began learning English by listening to the North London born singer's "19" album many years ago. Along the way he became a fan. There was, in fact, no symbolism.
"I have no use for the moon, you know," Leandro interrupts. "The maker of tides: high and low." He turns now to face me, exhaling a pungent cloud. "I do not believe in such things anymore." He offers me a cigarette; I take it.
There was a time not so long ago when a night like this could very well have been the start of an international adventure for the former Internacional forward. Tall, athletic, handsome, and Brasilero: he was the total package. A breakout star in Copa Libertadores matches, a 2012 Olympian, it was only a matter of time before European clubs came knocking.
And knocking they came.
The most aggressive suitor was the north London based club, Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham had recently broke into the upper levels of the game again and supporters believed that the next step towards dominance could only be taken by securing a top level striker. The Lilywhite fans gnashed their teeth every time Emmanuel Adebayor was offside, Jermain Defoe took a snap shot from a bad angle, or Roman Pavlyuchenko sent the ball, lovingly, to Row Z. They became restless with deadline deals involving the likes of Louis Saha. They grew weary of hearing managers lust over such targets as Giusseppe Rossi, Sergio Aguero, and Hulk. They pleaded with their chairman, Daniel Levy. Give us a striker. Give us the striker. So Levy ponied up a bid. And yet Damião stayed. The next window the same thing. Tottenham waited, like the famous song, in vain.
If this was the end of the line for this narrative, it would be common. What happened after though is the basis for scorn and angst on both sides of the Atlantic. Inter and Damiao became enamored with their own value and started making it known that they would listen to all suitors. Tottenham Hotspur became nothing more than a bargaining chip in a sickening game of "come and get me". A quick google search of "Leandro Damião to..." reveals the depths of this transfer depravity. For a few more windows they danced that transfer window dance, interest and inquiry never reaching consumation.
The story seems, if not annoying, benign enough. This is to forget that after the window, lives must go on. This is where we find Leandro now: going on. His unsuccessful start to life at Brasilian giant Santos has been given a life line, a loan to Cruzeiro. 2014 saw the 25 year old scored six goals in 26 appearances, far from inept, yet far from the goal scoring menace he was poised to become. It is not only he who hopes that his form returns.
His girlfriend Nadia, a woman whose beauty belies an exhaustion apparent upon first meeting her explains, "It was about April of last year when his mood changed. He seemed to lose hope. He stared at the horizon endlessly. He continued to live, only he was not there? The body remained, but the soul had fled." She had no answers.
When asked what caused this monumental shift in focus, temperament, and philosophy, Leandro simply quipped "Life is to be lived like one eats bread. You ingest and you excrete. If you are lucky, you eat again."
But how about football?
"The same now. Always the same."
As Leandro packed and left for training that morning, I pressed Nadia again on the subject of her companion's shift in mood. We went to a local cafe where she seemed to relax.
"We used to come here when we first started dating," she revealed. "He was so different then, full of joy. Even now when I ask him if he scored in training, he only answers in strange aphorisms. I just want my Leandro back, the one I fell for so many summers ago."
We sipped coffee for the rest of the morning, and I maintain that I saw her crack a smile for a fleeting moment or two. She even stopped to smell a flower on our return to the sixth floor flat.
Later that night, when Leandro returned, I offered to go with him on his nightly walk around his neighborhood. He nodded politely, as he began peeling an orange. We left at a leisurely pace that belied the tension in the air. Our time together was growing short so I felt the need to take a chance. I asked him plainly what had changed, where had it all gone astray?
He paused where he stood, looked skyward, and answered.
"For me, scoring was a great joy. It was the creation of beauty, symmetry, love. Since I was a young, poor boy, I knew that scoring goals was the creation of happiness--for me, and for the crowd; but you are correct, something has changed."
"Now it is not the creation of joy; it is the filling of a void."
As I pressed him further, he began to walk again, waving off any further line of reasoning. "A void is a void, Vince; let us not overcomplicate such things." For the first time all week I saw him smile.
We had our final meal together that night, accompanied by bottle after bottle of Chilean wine. Laughter filled the air, and Nadia was at her hosting best. At some point he broke out the cachaça, and things became muddled. I do know that we even broke out FIFA for an hour or two, though, playing primarily Italy versus Brasil. He celebrated his goals like a man possessed, certainly not consistent with the persona I had become familiar with over our week together.
When I passed out, only Nadia and Leandro know, but when I woke at three in the morning, mouth dry from wine and booze, the only light in the room came from an open laptop, Leandro sitting in the corner, now sipping a brandy. Washed in ambient light, he was watching highlight clip after highlight clip of Harry Kane.
After fifteen minutes in seance, and without turning his head, Leandro spoke.
"Why don't they want me anymore, man?"