I should remember the 2002 World Cup with a lot more clarity than I do. I remember it in snapshots. I remember rising at ridiculously early times to watch games that I didn’t even really care about, like Argentina vs. Nigeria, and sitting there bleary-eyed in my dressing gown, faintly aware of the absurdity of watching football over breakfast.
I remember it now as the last World Cup to feature a good few players of whom I was entirely unware. These days with so much live football on my TV, so many websites and blogs and Twitter feeds to read it seems unthinkable for a World Cup to contain any truly unknown quantities. The closest would probably be North Korea in the last tournament but even then I could name Jong Tae-Se, the secretive state’s shining star.
In Japan and Korea in 2002 though even the eventual winners Brazil contained what were to me unfamiliar exotic names, new gems waiting to be mined. Granted, most of the team were familiar: the AC Milan ‘keeper Dida and his erratic club compatriot Roque Junior, the Bayer Leverkusen man-mountain Lucio, skilful Lyon defender Edmilson, the famous flying full-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos and of course, the three Rs: Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. The early games contained a familiar face in central midfield, the boyish Juninho (formerly of Middlesborough) alongside Gilberto Silva, an unknown quantity sitting in front of the back four. Soon Juninho was replaced by another unfamiliar name: Kleberson.
The central midfielder was 22 when the tournament began and had won only 5 caps. He was one of the most inexperienced members of the squad alongside defender Anderson Polga and a 20 year old by the name of Kaka. While Kaka would see only 25 minutes of action during the tournament, young Kleberson stole the show. His was a late call up as a replacement for Emerson, injured in pre-tournament training. However it was Gilberto Silva, rather than Kleberson, who started the tournament as Emerson’s direct replacement in the anchorman position with Juninho shuttling between him and the forward players (a role performed for Brazil these days by Chelsea’s Ramires). It wasn’t until after the second round that Kleberson got a look in, with manager Luiz Felipe Scolari dropping Juninho and inserting Kleberson, a more defensive-minded player than the ex-Boro man.
Kleberson flourished alongside Gilberto Silva and following Brazil’s win over Germany in the final he was hailed by the manager as “the driving force” behind the World Cup win. His compatriot Gilberto Silva made a big move after the tournament, joining Arsenal from Atletico Mineiro, and Kleberson was linked with a host of clubs including Leeds United, Newcastle and Celtic. He was in fact close to signing for Leeds before opting to stay in his homeland with his girlfriend, who he could not marry until she turned 16. It would have been no surprise had his chance of a big move never materialised again, but a year on from that World Cup win, in August 2003, he signed for Manchester United for a fee of around £6m from Atletico Paranaense.
Kleberson’s Old Trafford career got off to an inauspicious start with an injury in just his second game for the club and it didn’t get much better from there. In his two seasons with the club he managed just twenty appearances, scoring twice. He was shipped off to Turkish side Besiktas in 2005 for a cut-price fee and has since found his way back to Brazil, turning out for Flamengo and Atletico Paranaense (again). He even made it back into the reckoning for Brazil, picked by Dunga for their 2010 World Cup squad. These days he is remembered with little fondess by United fans – if he is remembered at all – perhaps his only legacy is found in a song about the side’s current Brazilian midfielder Anderson: “Anderson-son-son, he’s better than Kleberson…”.
So what went wrong for Kleberson? The man is a World Cup winner, has over 30 caps for his country and has been named in two World Cup squads some eight years apart, so I don’t believe it’s the case that he was simply not good enough. He’s no Liam Miller or Eric Djemba-Djemba. Watch that 2002 World Cup final again. Kleberson ran that midfield and played a vital part in the second goal. Clearly, the man had quality. Of course, we can cite the usual reasons why a young foreign import may fail on these shores: it was always going to be difficult for a young man of 23 to come into an unknown country and play in an unknown league, even more difficult if he gets a long-term injury in just his second game. As a result of the injury Kleberson had lost his place in the team before he even had the chance to cement it and from there breaking into a United midfield when competing against the likes of Keane, Scholes, Butt, Giggs, Fortune and the emerging duo Fletcher and Cristiano Ronaldo was never going to be easy.
It’s fair to say as well that perhaps Alex Ferguson failed to get the best out of his new signing. The role where Kleberson so impressed for Brazil was similar to Gilberto Silva’s volante (defensive midfield) role. While Silva was the deepest of the two Kleberson had licence to get forward provided he also got back to do the hard work, allowing Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo to have all the fun. We would probably call it a “box-to-box” role in this country, but Manchester United already had Roy Keane doing that, so as a result Kleberson, in the few games he played, was shunted out of position. He frequently appeared on the right wing as a replacement for the departed Beckham but a winger he was not; lacking the pace of a Giggs or the crossing accuracy of the man he was bizarrely being told to replace. When not on the right wing Kleberson would find himself “in the hole” behind the front man. Quite why Ferguson felt a defensive minded midfielder would be best as his team’s creative fulcrum is unknown, but it seems harsh to blame the Brazilian for failing to succeed in two positions he was unfamiliar with when he never got a regular role in his natural position.
Ultimately it seems that Kleberson suffered the same fate as Juan Veron – a long-term target that, once acquired, Ferguson didn’t actually know what to do with, like a spur of the moment eBay purchase that makes perfect sense at the time but is soon gathering dust in the corner of the room. Veron is still unfairly maligned despite some good performances when struggling to adapt to a system he was unsuited to (but that’s an article for another day) and Kleberson, too, gets something of a raw deal when his failure at Old Trafford cannot be laid solely at his door. It is a shame that an undoubtedly talented player is destined to be remembered in this country not as a World Cup winner but a punchline, an infamous name on a list of Fergie’s worst signings. A good player deserves much better.
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