KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - If there is one Lionel Messi assist over the last year that Brazilian football fans should be grateful for, it is the one that helped take Paulinho from the elephants’ graveyard of modern football to the Nou Camp.
Twelve months ago, Paulinho was at Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese Super League and resigned to playing out the prime of his career against the likes of Chongqing Lifan and Changchun Yatai.
The midfielder had made the move to China after a difficult spell in England with Tottenham Hotspur and was enjoying his life and football, until Messi made him a stunning offer during a friendly between Brazil and Argentina in Melbourne.
“All of a sudden, Messi walks straight up to me, looks me in the eye, and says, ‘So... are we going to Barcelona or not?’,” 29-year-old recalled this week on http://www.theplayerstribune.com.
“I thought maybe he was joking, like he was trying to mess with my head or something. But we were just playing a friendly... so maybe not?”
A few months later, Paulinho was indeed on his way to Barcelona to join a team that would win the Spanish title, sharpening his skills to ensure he would be one of the first names on Tite’s squad list for the World Cup.
Hard running and aggressive, Paulinho has played every game for the Selecao in Russia as Brazil have established themselves as favourites for a sixth world title heading into Friday’s quarter-final against Belgium in Kazan.
An artisan box-to-box operator among the artists of the Brazil team, Paulinho has a knack of being in the right place at the right time, as he showed when he latched onto Philippe Coutinho’s through ball to score against Serbia.
If Messi played a part in securing his move to Barcelona, the resurrection of Paulinho’s international career was down to the appointment of his former boss at Corinthians as Brazil coach.
“One person who always believed in me was Tite,” Paulinho added.
“I get emotional when I speak about Tite, because we are connected in a way that is about more than football.”
There have been other dark days in Paulinho’s career - he almost quit the game as a teenager after being racially abused while playing in Lithuania and he suffered from depression when he was dropped at Spurs.
The premature birth of his twin son and daughter at the end of last year has helped to put his footballing woes in perspective, however.
“Football is full of ups and downs. It’s unpredictable. Going from China to Barcelona is incredible, but it’s not a miracle,” he said.
“A miracle is when you come home from football, and no matter what the result was that day, your children look up at you, and their eyes say, ‘Ola, Papai’.”
Editing by Christian Radnedge