This is Lucas Paqueta, West Ham’s boy from Brazil who was so nearly ‘a lost jewel’

This is Lucas Paqueta, West Ham’s boy from Brazil who was so nearly ‘a lost jewel’

Ze Ricardo still remembers the day Lucas Paqueta was close to quitting Brazilian side Flamengo.

The youngster was struggling with the physical demands because of his diminutive height, but Ricardo knew the club had a special player on their hands.

“At 15, Lucas Paqueta was short, skinny, with this mop of hair; on one occasion he cried because he couldn’t perform, couldn’t compete,” recalls Ricardo, who coached Paqueta for Flamengo’s under-20s and later their senior side. “He wanted to stop, and his family wanted him to leave the club. We said that he was in the best place; that we really liked Lucas. We had a lot of meetings at the club and Lucas was always one of the big talking points. We always thought he would come good with a bit of patience.

“We just had to make sure that he didn’t grow frustrated. In the end, his transformation was visible to everyone. Paqueta’s rise to the first team gave the whole youth department a feeling of real satisfaction.”

Ricardo and Carlos Noval, then executive director of Flamengo’s academy, were aware of Paqueta’s potential and the duo played an important role in convincing him to stay with the Rio de Janeiro club.

“He was nearly a lost jewel,” Noval says. “There were two or three moments when we really had to be strong and hold onto him so he didn’t leave. We had a few hurdles along the way: certain coaches didn’t want him, thought the club should let him go because he was so small. But we stood by him. I knew we had to wait for him, because he had so much talent.”

This is the story of Paqueta’s journey to becoming West Ham United’s club record signing.

It’s a tale of how a player who will be crucial to their chances of winning silverware in this week’s Europa Conference League final was always the smallest among his peers. Of why the turning point in his career happened when he was 17. How his mother, Cristiane, and grandfather, Mirao, have been positive influences on his football career. Of his special bond with Paris Saint-Germain forward and Brazil team-mate Neymar and why one West Ham colleague believes “he’s playing football like he’s dancing on the Copacabana”.

It has been 10 months since Paqueta joined West Ham from Lyon of France’s Ligue 1 in a deal worth €60million (£51.7m/$64.3m at today’s exchange rates). The east London side paid €43m up front, with the remainder related to bonuses. But Paqueta’s ascent to becoming a key player for manager David Moyes hasn’t been easy.

The 25-year-old grew up on Paqueta Island, which sits in Guanabara Bay, opposite Rio de Janeiro — it is so small it’s car-free and has a population of around 3,000.

He lived on the island with his mother Cristiane, cousins, his brother Matheus, and grandfather Mirao until he was 12. Cristiane landed him trials at Flamengo and she and Mirao would take him to training. Paqueta has a tattoo on his forearm of a star and the letter “M” in recognition of his now-deceased grandpa’s contribution to making him the player and person he is today.

“We’d have to leave on the boat and then we’d have to take three buses to get to the training ground, return home at the end of the day and start all over the next day,” Paqueta told West Ham’s in-house media. “That’s how things started out on the island. There are no cars on the island. People get around either by walking or by bike. So because of that, I think we really appreciate the nature on the island more than perhaps we would otherwise.”

When Paqueta was 12, his mum decided to move them to Rio so her son’s commute to training would be easier. But because of his small frame, he was doubted by some coaches, as Carlos Noval, the former executive director of Flamengo’s academy, explains.

“He arrived when he was just a small kid – eight or nine (years old),” he says. “He came to play futsal. He was a really slender kid, really slight. The club shirts were always way too big for him. He couldn’t always keep up with the pace of the game: he was tiny and the other kids were more robust.

“But I always knew that he had real quality. I could see it in there. We always used to say: ‘Leave him in the incubator. Don’t touch him, just let him be, let him develop.’ And he did start to grow.”

“Lucas had a lot of difficulties in the youth system,” recalls Ze Ricardo, who coached Paqueta in the club’s under-20 side and later the first-team setup. “He was an incredibly gifted footballer, but it took him a long time to develop physically. It meant that he suffered a lot. He always had the skills of a top player – he was a virtuoso – but it was hard for him to make a mark in matches because of his size. There were doubts over him.

“I first coached Lucas in 2012. Then we worked together in his first year with the under-20s, when he was still following an individual training plan designed to improve his physique. The fitness trainers had done a really good job with him, making him stronger. Between the ages of 16 and 17, things really clicked and he took a massive leap forward.”

That’s when Paqueta, with his family’s approval, was put on an individual fitness plan for three months. He didn’t train in a footballing sense during that time. Instead, he worked on his physique, which staff considered crucial for his development.

“The boy developed, and look where he is now,” says Noval. “I’m not surprised in the slightest by the success he is having. His family understood what was best for him. Everyone was on the same page and there was never any issue. He always played with joy, right from the start. He was a tiny kid, the smallest in his year group, but that never stopped him going at defenders.

“Lucas is a golden kid. He always liked to dribble: he would try a nutmeg or some other trick. But always in the direction of the goal, where he could hurt the opposition. He was a good kid – a bit of a joker sometimes, but calm and very responsible.”

“We had a very good generation of kids born in 1995, and he was born in 1997, so he didn’t play a lot during his first six months with the under-20s,” says Ricardo. “But halfway through the year, Flamengo gave a lot of the players a month off — they had played so many tournaments and hadn’t had a rest for two years. So the younger members of the squad knew they were going to get an opportunity.

“Lucas went into the team, and when the 1995 kids came back, he kept his place. There was no way we could take him out of the side. He was brilliant in the second half of 2014, and carried that form into 2015.

“In 2016, everything culminated in success at the Copinha (a prestigious youth tournament in Sao Paulo that Flamengo Under-17s won). There was Matheus Savio, Felipe Vizeu, Leo Duarte, Ronaldo (da Silva Souza)… lots of talented players, but Lucas was the cherry on top of the cake.

“When we returned to Rio, Muricy Ramalho (Flamengo’s first-team coach at the time) called me into his office and told me he wanted to call up an attacking midfielder from the under-20s.

“He asked me who I thought should get the nod. I told him that the player who had been around for the longest, and who had previously played some senior football, was Matheus Savio, but that the player in the best form was Lucas Paqueta. I told Muricy that he was playing brilliantly and deserved it. Muricy said: ‘Yes, that was my intuition, but I wanted to hear it from you.’

“Two or three months later, Muricy had some health issues and had to step down. I took over and met up with Lucas again. I think he scored his first goal with me as his manager, against Portuguesa-RJ.”

Check out Paqueta’s first professional goal in the Rio State championship below. That gave a glimpse of his special talent and he was a state title winner at age 19. He quickly became a firm favourite with the Flamengo fans, particularly after his goals in the 2017 Copa do Brasil and Copa Sudamericana finals shortly after he turned 20.

He became involved with the international set-up too, first with the under-20s and then the senior side.

He scored on his Brazil Under-20s debut versus their England counterparts in September 2016, coming up against the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ademola Lookman and Fikayo Tomori in the unlikely venue of non-League side Kidderminster Harriers’ Aggborough Stadium.

After being on the long list for the 2018 World Cup squad, Paqueta won his first full cap in September of that year, replacing Philippe Coutinho for the final 20 minutes of an away friendly against the United States. He went one better for the next World Cup last year, making coach Tite’s squad and starting four of Brazil’s five games as they lost in the quarter-finals on penalties against Croatia.

One of Paqueta’s football idols is the Flamengo and Brazil legend Zico, who is widely considered one of the country’s greatest-ever players. When he was younger, Paqueta would watch videos of Zico and try to copy some of his moves — which goes some way to explaining his carefree style in midfield.

“He always had the talent,” says Ricardo. “The thing I always liked was that he was extremely versatile. He can play in a number of positions. With me, he played as a No 10, on both flanks. When we faced defensive opponents, I sometimes played him deeper in midfield. He even played up front on occasion after stepping up to the first team. He has this big capacity to adapt. He has so many different tools, which allow him to find a way out of any difficult situation on the pitch.

“I think he is a fantastic player, who has so much to give – not just to West Ham but to Brazilian football. I hope he goes to the next World Cup. He will have more experience and he can be one of Brazil’s key players.”

Paqueta celebrates a goal for Flamengo in 2017 (Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Paqueta left Flamengo in January 2019, joining AC Milan for €35million. The Italians saw off competition from Paris Saint-Germain to sign him, but Paqueta lasted only 18 months at San Siro. The early promise demonstrated by a rainbow flick on his debut soon faded and he had little impact, though he was not helped by the Serie A club going through three coaches during his time there. One of them, Marco Giampaolo, told Paqueta to be “less Brazilian and more concrete, less showy”.

“He has what Italians call ‘fantasia’ (fantasy),” says Ricardo. “He can change everything with one magic touch. A few years ago, I was in Italy to visit a few colleagues. I had the chance to meet up with him again. Everyone at Milan was full of praise for him, so I was surprised that they eventually let him go.”

When Stefano Pioli took over as coach early in the 2019-20 season, Paqueta drifted out of the team as Hakan Calhanoglu came to the fore. Pioli thought the Brazilian needed to be “more incisive”.

He joined Lyon late in the summer 2020 transfer window, and in an interview with French TV show Canal Football Club six months later, he was candid about his struggles in Italy.

“My experience at Milan made me a better player but here (Lyon) I made friends that I didn’t have at Milan,” Paqueta said. “This makes a difference, because this is the Brazilian way of being. This is Paqueta (the spirit of his home island). I’m happy to be in France and to do a good job. I hope to continue like this for many years.

“When I struggled, I put myself under pressure. Sometimes (in Milan) I looked at whoever was talking about me outside the locker room. I ended up taking everything personally. I felt that I had to score more and be more decisive. In the end, this confused me a bit. However, it was a learning experience and now I feel freer. What is said about me does not affect me.”

Feeling the frustration at Milan (Photo: Giuseppe Cottini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As well as the change of scenery, a conversation with his close friend and Brazil team-mate Neymar also helped.

“With Neymar, we get along well on and off the pitch, he helps me to give my best football to help the team as well as possible,” said Paqueta. “We have in common the pleasure of playing for Brazil and the desire to win big things. Neymar is my idol and playing alongside him is already very special for me.

“When I went through difficult times, especially here in the national team (there was a backlash when Tite gave him the No 10 shirt for a loss to arch-rivals Argentina in November 2019 when Neymar was out injured), he spoke to me, he calmed me down, he told me that I will be important for this team and that I should not change the way I play. It was important, it helped me.

“We are friends, it happens naturally – like dancing celebrations after goals.”

Paqueta, left, Neymar and their Brazil team-mates celebrate during last year’s World Cup (Photo: Hector Vivas – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Those close to Paqueta helped him at a key juncture of his career. That move to Lyon helped him rediscover the promising form he had shown at Flamengo – midway through his debut year, leading French newspaper L’Equipe picked him in its team of the season so far.

But it wasn’t all positive. Lyon were in the Champions League semi-finals the season before he joined them, thanks to a shock win over Manchester City, but have not been back since. In his second and final year, they finished only eighth in Ligue 1.

They also reached the Europa League quarter-finals the following year, losing 4-1 on aggregate to an English team Paqueta would soon be very familiar with.

“After we played West Ham, we all said as players what a fantastic stadium it was (the London Stadium, the venue that hosted the athletics events at the 2012 Olympic Games) and how great the fans were and what great energy there was in the place,” said Paqueta. “That’s definitely something that influenced my decision as well. Without a doubt, it’s an incredible club and something that I wanted to experience.”

He left for London having scored 21 goals and provided 13 assists in 80 appearances for Lyon across all competitions. West Ham made their move for him last August after missing out on Sporting Lisbon’s Matheus Nunes (who joined Wolves) and Amadou Onana of fellow Ligue 1 side Lille (signed by Everton), and he made his debut just two days later in a 1-1 draw with London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

Paqueta has been taking English lessons three times a week and, of late, has shown signs he is finally settled at West Ham. Earlier in the season, manager David Moyes experimented with playing him as a No 10 and also in a deeper role, alongside captain Declan Rice, but the Brazilian struggled to impact games. He was still adjusting to the intensity and speed of the Premier League.



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He was noticeably frustrated during the 1-1 draw at home to Aston Villa in March. Moyes made a tactical substitution by replacing him with Pablo Fornals on 76 minutes, moments after Paqueta had been cautioned. Instead of acknowledging Moyes and his backroom team, Paqueta walked straight down the tunnel. It surprised onlookers, and a member of West Ham’s bench staff chased after him.

The matter was dealt with swiftly and it may have been the turning point in Paqueta’s season.

Over 15 appearances since, he has been more consistent with his performances, scoring a terrific goal in a 2-1 loss to Liverpool in late April and showing great skill for an assist for Manuel Lanzini in the 3-1 win over Leeds United a month later.

Lucas Paqueta, West Ham

Paqueta after his fine goal against Liverpool (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

“To be honest, I don’t have words for this guy,” says West Ham team-mate Vladimir Coufal. “I’m really happy I can be with him on the pitch and enjoy those moments. He’s playing football like he’s dancing on the Copacabana. He’s amazing and he feels no pressure when he plays. He just always enjoys himself. It’s a pleasure to see him on the pitch and when he provided the assist to Manu for the third goal against Leeds, it was like ‘Wow’.”

West Ham captain Rice agrees.

“He’s incredible, honestly, absolutely incredible,” says the England midfielder. “It’s obviously taken him a while to settle into the Premier League and into the training ground, (plus) moving his family over. But I think now you’re seeing the real Lucas. Some of the stuff he does, even in training, it’s just mind-boggling how good he is.



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“It’s just the confidence he’s got and the time he creates for himself on the ball. The confidence he has in his ability to beat players and do mad skills. If we (his team-mates) tried that, we’d have no chance. You’re starting to see the best of him now, so long may it continue.”

A picture on Twitter has gone viral of a West Ham fan’s banner that repurposes the lyrics to the “Just sold my car, to We Buy Any Car” jingle from the car-sale company’s commercial currently running on UK TV. It is another small reminder of how quickly the supporters have warmed to him.

Paqueta will hope to play a key role for Moyes’ team in the Europa Conference League final in Prague on Wednesday, against Serie A side Fiorentina.

He has grown in confidence in east London. And, should the game end with silverware for his team, true to form, he will be dancing the night away.



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(Additional contributor: Jack Lang)

(Photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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