Even Philippe Coutinho was surprised to be named in the Brazil squad that was called up for last November’s World Cup qualifiers against Colombia and Argentina. He did not play — he has not appeared for his country since the first two rounds of the current qualification campaign back in October 2020.
But being remembered was important. It showed that he is still in the thoughts of Brazil coach Tite, which, in World Cup year, could have some bearing on what happens to the attacking midfielder in the next few days.
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How could he possibly have said ‘no’ when Barcelona came calling in 2018? For a Brazilian creative talent, this was an offer that was impossible to refuse. It meant putting himself in a line that stretched from Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho through to Neymar. No more glamorous opportunity existed. And so Coutinho traded Liverpool, where everything had gone well and he was happy, for Barcelona, where nothing was going to go right. In the list of disastrous transfers, Coutinho must be somewhere near the top. The reported fee made him at the time the second most expensive player in history. It sent a wrecking ball through Barcelona’s finances and through Coutinho’s career. And the second part, at least, was not hard to predict, for three reasons.
The first was that Coutinho was signed with the idea that he would replace Andres Iniesta. This was a non starter. He is simply not a genuine midfielder. He is a player for the final third of the field, for the front three rather than the midfield trio. The second was that Barcelona did not need him in the front three. The other two at the time were Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, both entering into the veteran stage. The last thing Barcelona needed was another player who wanted the ball to feet. They needed a flyer, someone who could extend the pitch by running on to balls played ahead of him. Before joining Paris Saint-Germain, Neymar had performed this role wonderfully well, dovetailing deliciously with Messi and Suarez. But this was not Coutinho’s game. The whole, madly expensive signing made little sense.
Perhaps it might have worked had Coutinho strode in like a man possessed, determined and disposed to bend the world to his will. But that could never be Coutinho. As Tite notes, the player is painfully shy. Almost every step up in his career has been tough for him to negotiate. For Brazil he did not spark at Under-17 level. He helped win the Under-20 World Cup, but was a member of Oscar’s supporting cast. And it took time and a lot of love from Tite before he established himself in the senior side.
Internazionale had a long term relationship with him, signing him from Vasco da Gama long before they could take him to Italy. And in the end, Inter Milan effectively gave up on him, letting him go to Liverpool for a derisive £8.5 million. Up until this point there was only one place where his promise had really flowered — at a loan spell with Espanyol, where coach Mauricio Pochettino, in characteristic style, managed to coax the talent out of him. Liverpool learned the lesson, showered him with love and, even if they were reluctant to lose him, they made a huge profit and have been able to finance their own trips to the transfer market.
With the loss of Messi, maybe there would be one last chance for Coutinho to make the Barcelona move come good. After all, now he could play in his preferred position. But maybe there has been too much bad blood. It was an open secret that Barcelona were desperate to offload their expensive acquisition, and this has not provided an environment conducive to a Coutinho comeback. He could continue to run down his contract. He has seemed resigned to doing that for a while. But the World Cup at the end of this year changes everything. It will probably be his last — he will be 34 in 2026. And with that call up last November, Tite was sending him a message.
He may not figure in the first team at the moment. He has clearly been overtaken by Lucas Paqueta of Lyon as Brazil’s prime attacking midfielder. But he is still in with a chance. And World Cup history is full of tales of players who did not imagine that they would see any action but who ended up as heroes. So suddenly it becomes more likely that Barcelona can get him off their wage bill and that Coutinho can go and play his football somewhere else, if only on loan.
But where? Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo have been floated as an option, but it seems unlikely. New coach Paulo Sousa is apparently keener on reinforcing his defensive resources — leaving England as the most probable destination. Premier League clubs have both the money, and the memory of Coutinho at his best. Sources tell ESPN that as many as five English top-flight clubs have expressed an interest in signing him on loan.
Newly rich Newcastle United may be interested, and there would be logic behind an approach from Everton — the club are under pressure and Coutinho knows the city. Arsenal have the Edu Gaspar connection. The former midfielder is the club’s technical director — and filled a similar role with Brazil when Coutinho was showing his best form.
But perhaps the most intriguing piece of speculation is the one linking Coutinho to Aston Villa. Steven Gerrard, his former teammate at Anfield and now manager at Villa, has first hand knowledge of what Coutinho can do and how to get the best out of him. Moreover, after transferring Jack Grealish to Manchester City, the attacking midfield positions at Villa could do with an upgrade. This is a move that would seem to tick all the boxes. The Villa coach knows the player, the club need the player, the player needs to shine to get his career on track and go to the World Cup.
All eyes, then, on Birmingham — where Coutinho could find the Bull Ring (a local shopping centre) more to his liking than the one in Barcelona.