Who is Caio? The Brazilian football reject who could pile on misery for Real Madrid

Turned away from Brazil’s biggest clubs, Caio dragged himself up and starred in Japan before making himself a hero in Abu Dhabi against River

No other nation can match Brazil for the sheer volume of football players exported across the world. A Football Observatory report in May 2017 stated that the South American giant boasted no less than 1,202 players outside of its borders, almost double the number provided by nearest competitors France and Argentina.

Many, of course, are household names, among the very elite in Europe’s top five leagues. But the vast majority can only dream of the success enjoyed by the likes of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and other stars.

From Hong Kong and Indonesia in the Far East to the lower leagues of the United States football pyramid, Brazilian talents are truly a global phenomenon. And one of that unsung legion now has the chance to announce himself on the biggest stage after masterminding a truly shocking Club World Cup upset.

Al Ain’s 24-year-old trickster Caio took a tired, distracted River Plate defence to pieces on Tuesday, scoring his side’s second in a 2-2 draw with a brilliant strike, and converting his penalty for good measure as the United Arab Emirates side downed the Argentines in a shoot-out to prevail in their Club World Cup semi-final.

The feat is even more impressive considering it was Al Ain’s third game in just six days, having disposed of Wellington and Esperance de Tunis in order to make the last four.

Now a daunting final against none other than Real Madrid, winner of the last two Club World Cups, looms on Saturday. But Caio, who has taken a long and winding path to stardom, will surely enjoy every minute, no matter the result.

A skillful winger who knows the way to goal, Caio shared the dream of millions of his compatriots: to make it big in the beautiful game. He began life in Sao Paulo’s youth system, but was cruelly cut at the tender age of 15.

“They said from the start that I was not big enough to be a player. They made up a reason to get rid of me. I know deep inside that it was a great experience and I learned a lot there,” Caio told ESPN of that early setback. When fellow Paulista sides Santos and Palmeiras also declined his services, the teenager was ready to give up altogether.

His fortunes changed, however, when he heard of a trial held alongside a touring Japanese high school. “I touched the ball twice and they picked me up,” he recalled, and a new chapter of his life beckoned. Caio moved to Kimitsu’s Chiba Kokusai High School, taking on an unfamiliar language and culture at the tender age of 17 before J.League heavyweights Kashima Antlers swooped for his signature when he graduated.

Only the unique Japanese cuisine seemed to pose a problem.

“You’ve seen those raw fish sitting there or those other things that look like they are going to start moving,” he laughed to ESPN . “I only used to eat rice with ketchup or mayonnaise. That came to the rescue when I didn’t have food I liked, then I learned to eat it.”

Caio quickly became a favourite in Kashima, making 100 appearances over his two and a half seasons and scoring a respectable 27 goals for the Japanese club. His talents saw him named the J.League’s Rookie of the Year in 2014, while the following year he netted in the final as Kashima lifted the J.League Cup.

Al Ain were also paying close attention, and paid out €3 million to bring him to Abu Dhabi midway through 2016 with Kashima on the way to the league title.

He has since engorged his own medal case with two more trophy wins in the Middle East and has improved his goalscoring ability, netting at a rate of nearly a goal every two games despite generally playing wide on the left to supply the bullets for Sweden and ex-Hamburg striker Marcus Berg. Once more, he has also proved that the prospect of fitting in to a new culture does not faze him in the slightest.

“I have dressed up as a sheikh for photos because I am trying to enjoy the culture and interact with fans,” he explained. “But it is a different kind of sheikh because since I am married and I came with my wife – there will not be any harems here!”

A strong showing in Saturday’s final, however, may well see the suitors lining up at Caio’s door. At just 24 and with a wealth of talent behind his back, the kid who was too small for Sao Paulo has grown up a lot on the other side of the world, and he might just give Real Madrid food for thought in the Club World Cup decider.

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