It was Brazil’s second game of the 2019 U17 World Cup. The Selecao were 1-0 up against New Zealand with half-time approaching and, playing in front of a home crowd, nobody doubted they would go on to win the game.
Then right-back Yan Couto lost his head, just for a moment. After skipping over a challenge from Matthew Garbett, Couto very deliberately came down with his studs on Garbett’s thigh. The VAR called the on-pitch official to the screen and he had no choice but to brandish a red card.
In the end, it did not matter. New Zealand pressed for a while at the beginning of the second half, boosted by their man advantage, but Brazil’s quality told and they eventually scored a second and a third. Yet Couto’s act was reckless, immature. Against better opposition it might have cost the Selecao.
He watched the next two games from the stands, wishing, you would imagine, that he had not been so hot-headed.
But as soon as he was available again, for the quarter-final against Italy, he was back in the team. There were two reasons for his swift return. Firstly, gaining experience and maturity is exactly the point of youth tournaments. He had made a mistake, but with lesson learned he didn’t need to be punished any more. Second, he was far too good to be sitting on the bench.
In the semi-final and final, he redeemed himself in full.
In the semi against a good France side, Brazil were 2-0 down within 13 minutes, with the second coming from Couto’s side of the pitch.
But he was determined not to go down without a fight. He gave impetus to the team’s attacks, putting in crosses, breaking forwards at speed and setting up Gabriel Veron’s equaliser with fourteen minutes left. 13 minutes later, Brazil found a winner.
In the final, it was a similar story. Mexico went ahead after an hour, but, following Couto’s lead, Brazil fought back. He provided the pass which directly led to Joao Peglow being fouled in the area and Brazil levelling from the penalty spot. And he placed the cross on Lazaro Vinicius Marques’ toe for the decisive goal in injury time.
In both games, coach Guilherme Dalla Déa moved Couto to play as a right midfielder in the closing stages, which tells you a lot about his abilities to cause havoc from the wing.
He has inevitably been compared with a young Dani Alves in Brazil, and though he is nowhere near the level Alves reached yet, the attacking tools are certainly there for him to develop in that direction.
His crossing and passing are excellent, he positions himself to play quick one-twos with his winger and he has the endurance and burst of pace that can repeatedly take him all the way to the byline.
The cabal of scouts present at the U17 World Cup would have been scribbling furiously in their notebooks. Arsenal and Bayer Leverkusen were reportedly interested, and Barcelona were in serious negotiations with Coritiba, the club where he was brought up. But it was Manchester City who made the decisive move.
In February, the reigning English champions offered €6m up front with another €6m in potential add-ons and secured the signature of one of the world’s most promising full-backs. The youngster will join in June, as soon as he is 18.
Couto has become Coritiba’s record sale as a result, overtaking two Champions League-winning full-backs, Rafinha, once of Bayern Munich, and Adriano, who lifted the trophy twice with Barcelona. Their academy also recently produced Dodo, the Shakhtar Donetsk right-back who started for Brazil’s U20 team at the 2017 South American championships.
As Couto himself told Coritiba’s official site, he is following a well-trodden path; “Other players [from here] have had great success, like Rafinha, [ex-Inter Milan centre-half] Miranda and Dodo. Coritiba invest a lot in the youth teams and develop great players.”
As of this moment, he has only started two first-team games, both in the Brazilian second tier, so he will likely play in the City academy and reserve teams for quite some time before he is ready. He will need to improve his defensive positioning and combativeness. But in the long-term much is expected.
With the current dearth of options at right-back for Brazil – Dani Alves, at almost 37, is still first choice – his compatriots are hoping that he will develop into the man capable of filling the boots of some truly magnificent positional predecessors.
Interestingly, Couto was born June 3, 2002, the day that Brazil kicked off their World Cup campaign against Turkey in Korea. On that afternoon, the Selecao had to come from behind to get the win in the dying seconds, just like Couto’s young team did in the semi and final in 2019. Perhaps a little of the magic rubbed off.
If Couto can become even half as good as the man who was filling in Brazil’s right-back spot in 2002, the great Cafu, then Manchester City will be relying on a very fine player for years to come.
Adequate support will be provided by his new club and the talent is there. Now he will have to work hard to fulfil it.