In September 2019, Ajax took out a full-page ad in the Brazilian sports daily Lance!
“Join The Future”, said the header, in English, alongside a picture of young Selecao winger David Neres staring sternly out at the readers.
It was part of a campaign to make the most of the Amsterdam club’s success in the Champions League. Similar ads were run in sports papers in Mexico and Argentina, aiming to build their international fanbase.
“Join us. Join our dream. Join David’s dream.”
Now, one young Brazilian is about to answer that call a little more literally than the writers had originally intended. From next season, 20-year-old winger Antony will be swapping the white, red and black of Sao Paulo for the white and red of Ajax, after completing a transfer worth an initial €16m plus a potential €6m in add-ons.
Neres, as well as central to the advertising campaign, was an important card in Ajax’s hand as they looked to get this deal over the line. The pair, Antony told UOL after Sao Paulo beat Oeste last Saturday, have already spoken over the phone. And it is impossible not to draw parallels between them.
Both are at their best cutting in from the right onto their stronger left foot. Both grew up at the famed Sao Paulo academy, which has produced the likes of Kaka, Casemiro and Lucas Moura. Both broke into the Tricolor first team as teenagers after strong showings at Brazil’s prestigious Copinha U20 tournament.
The significance of the Copinha is difficult to overstate. It has provided a springboard for the careers of Robinho, Neymar, Marquinhos and countless others. And as it takes place during the professional game’s summer break in January, matches draw good crowds and television audiences, with everyone trying to get a glimpse of the next generation of stars.
So, when Antony dragged his Sao Paulo team to the title last year, heads were guaranteed to turn.
In the semi-final, he stood head and shoulders above the rest, scoring Sao Paulo’s first in a 5-2 win over Guarani.
In the final against Vasco Da Gama, he drew the attention of the 30,000 in attendance prior to the first whistle. Before their round-of-16 game, he had met 7-year-old Larissa, a Sao Paulo fan suffering from brain cancer. For the final, Antony convinced all his team-mates to shave their heads in solidarity with Larissa and carried her out onto the pitch.
Late in the first period, Antony cut in on his left and provided a pinpoint cross for the opening goal, showing his vision and ability to pick the right ball. In the second, under a tropical downpour, he ran onto a through-ball like a flash of lightning, making up at 10-yard deficit on the defender before cutting back onto his left again and sliding it under the goalkeeper.
Immediately, he was drafted into the first-team squad and was not overawed. Sao Paulo battled through to the final of the Campeonato Paulista, and despite losing to Corinthians 2-1 on aggregate, it was the then-19-year-old who – you guessed it – cut inside on his left to score his side’s only goal of the tie.
Towards the middle of the season, though, his performances drastically dropped off. He was clearly tired from an overload of football in the early months of the year and was on the verge of becoming a father for the first time, still a teenager himself.
After scoring in November against Chapecoense, Antony admitted to Premiere that “Only God and my family know what I was going through, off the field I was going through hard times. Only God knows how much I needed this goal, [and] my family, who were there through the good and bad times.”
His confidence returned in the following weeks and in December he put in a spectacular goal-and-assist, match-winning performance against direct rivals Internacional to seal Sao Paulo’s place in the 2020 Copa Libertadores.
Join us. Join our dreamAjax's message to Brazilians in Lance!.
The move to the Dutch capital will be another big personal upheaval, so Antony may need time before he is able to demonstrate the full depth of his talent.
On a technical level, he also needs to reduce his dependence on his left foot. At the recent South American U23 Championship, he was asked to hug the right touchline by Brazil manager Andre Jardine and struggled to impose himself on some games as a result.
Against better defenders, particularly in European competitions, his current range of tricks may be a little predictable and consequently easy to stop.
On both fronts though, the presence of Neres should help. Having someone alongside him who has trodden the exact same path will provide off-field guidance and advice.
Neres has also made great strides as a player since moving to Ajax, a club where technical proficiency is prized above all else, and can now dribble on either side. On the training ground, Neres will be able to translate coaches’ instructions and will serve as a yardstick by which Antony can measure his own progress.
Even if he is a still little one-sided, Antony’s pace, close-quarter control and vision should already be enough to make him a useful squad player and impact sub. And with Hakim Ziyech moving to Chelsea, there will be opportunities to play, even if they initially come from the bench or in less important fixtures.
It may take time for him to mould his game to the demands of the top level of European football, but Antony is moving from one club with a strong track record in player development to another. If he can get his mind right, he has the attributes to succeed.