The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Alexandre Pato

I read in a newspaper that his first touch is phenomenal for an eighteen-year-old. I saw on a message board that his pace defies description. I heard on television that watching him practice free kicks would almost move you to tears.

I went to a blog that said he was better than Messi. I heard a man say he’d score thirty goals his first year. I read an essay that said the mind contemplating the vastness of his talent would contract to a tiny white point, and be connected to every other point in the universe, like a mystic contemplating God. It bent reason, the man said. It was like standing under the stars on a rock being pounded by the sea.

All this time I was reading about him, and hearing about him, and looking into the eyes of the people who were talking about him—wide and taken aback, like they’d seen something unlikely and hopeful and frightening, something that couldn’t be boasted about, but only talked about plainly, in quiet voices—I wasn’t watching him. Not watching him was really a stirring experience. The player in my head, who had his face, moved like a dancer, struck like a Valkyrie, tore through the goal like lightning.

I knew it wasn’t Pato I saw; it was the future of Pato, which, at the same time, was Pato, since Pato had yet to play a top-flight game. Pato was all in the future, and the Pato of the future was marvelous and merciless and great.

I saw him play in his first match, against Napoli in the San Siro. He was wonderful to watch. He played jubilantly. He raced around on the pitch, swerved on the ball, waved his arms, fired near miss after near miss at the goal. He had the face of a boy—of a child. When he finally scored his goal, the stadium split in two, and he burst into tears.

But when he was present, when he was real, he was inevitably something less than I had imagined. His first touch was erratic. He lingered too long on the ball. For every time he was brilliant, there was another time when he made himself easy prey. I kept thinking about the future, but thinking about the future was a way of not watching him even while I looked at the game.

So what was better, watching him or not watching him? What, between achievement and potential, do we love more? Seeing a player accomplish something has the thrill of reality in it; but our imaginations are always larger than reality, and seeing a player accomplish something also means he can’t accomplish more than what we see. In Pato’s first match, I saw Ronaldo, one of the best players in the recent history of the game, return from injury and score two goals. But where Ronaldo was only what he was, Pato was infinitely more than he was, and it was Pato who made the game electric.

This is a portrait of us, of course, and not a portrait of Pato. There’s no way to write a portrait of Pato, because Pato is too young, too unformed, too much in the world of our dreams. Maybe, after all, we’d prefer the sight of the boy with tears in his eyes as the stadium surges around him to the impossible player we dream of, but then, the drama of that scene existed in large part because of its place in a story we’ve imagined: because of what we’ve imagined will be. Even watching him, at the moment, is not watching him. He’s done nothing, which means he’s done everything, and until he actually accomplishes something he’ll be the greatest player in the world.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Alexandre Pato

by Brian Phillips · January 15, 2008

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