(FILES) This file photo taken on March 4, 2017, shows Alexandre Pato (C) of Tianjin Quanjian fighting for the ball during the Chinese Super League match against Guangzhou R&F in Guangzhou, in southern China’s Guangdong province. AFP PHOTO / STR / China OUT
Alexandre Pato is rediscovering his love for football in China after a turbulent few years saw his career nosedive before he had even reached his prime.
The 27-year-old forward hit a cracker from long distance in Tianjin Quanjian’s 3-0 weekend win over Shanghai Shenhua, for whom Carlos Tevez now has just two league goals during an injury-disrupted season.
In contrast, Brazilian Pato has hit nine goals in 16 Chinese Super League (CSL) matches in his debut campaign — eight in his last 10 — and appears to be flourishing under Italian World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro.
“Believe in yourself,” Pato tweeted following a win which moved Tianjin up to third, summing up his rejuvenation after an unsettled five years that included a disastrous loan spell at Chelsea.
Nobody would claim the CSL is on a par with the English Premier League, but Pato is scoring goals again, providing assists and earning plaudits.
“I am not surprised by Pato’s performance — we were aware of his ability before we bought him,” Cannavaro told reporters. “He has swiftly blended into the Chinese community.”
Pato was touted as Brazil’s next superstar when, as a twinkle-toed 17-year-old, he shone as part of the Internacional side that beat Barcelona in the 2006 Club World Cup, breaking Pele’s record as the youngest scorer in a FIFA competition.
In 2007 he made a big-money move to AC Milan, where 18 goals in 42 matches saw the striker win the Serie A young player of the year award.
He earned his first cap for Brazil in 2008 and had the world at his feet.
Out of shape
But after Milan won Serie A in 2010-11, injuries took their toll and Pato’s form tailed off alarmingly.
He moved back to Brazil in 2013 for an unsuccessful spell at Corinthians, during which he was farmed out on loan to Sao Paulo and then last year to Chelsea, where he barely featured and looked horribly out of shape.
“We are praying day and night, hoping to sell Pato,” Corinthians president Roberto De Andrade was quoted as saying at the time, with Pato’s career in freefall and mounting doubts about his attitude and application.
La Liga side Villarreal picked him up for three million euros last summer but by January this year they too had seen enough of the former teen prodigy and cashed in for 18 million euros when Tianjin came calling.
He last played for Brazil in 2013.
But Pato has found his mojo at Tianjin, where he has been joined by French striker Anthony Modeste, who signed last week on a two-year loan from Cologne to form one of the most potent attacks in Asian football.
Following Sunday’s home win — during which Pato also rattled the bar — he celebrated enthusiastically, holding a drum atop a television gantry as delirious fans chanted.
“There aren’t any players who don’t make mistakes, and he is not an exception,” Cannavaro said. “But he was able to create many opportunities and he has sacrificed himself for the team.
“I’m not just happy,” he added. “I’m also very proud of him.”