Cast your mind back to 2011. The kings of Europe, Barcelona, took on the champions of Italy, Milan, in a Champions League game at Camp Nou. While Barcelona boasted the likes of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Alexis Sanchez, and of course Lionel Messi, it was Milan striker Alexandre Pato who captured the stage that night.
While the game finished 2-2 thanks to a late Thiago Silva equalizer, all the buzz and headlines centred around Pato, after his spectacular goal in the first minute. He sliced through the best team in the world like they weren’t even there, and calmly slid the ball under Victor Valdez to put his team in front after just 24 seconds.
“Not even Usain Bolt would have been able to stop him,” said Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
At this point, Pato seemed to have the world at his feet. It was hard to see a future in which he wasn’t a world-class striker.
Until it wasn’t so hard.
From winning the Golden Boy award, being the darling of the San Siro, to playing in China and America and now being unemployed at 34. This is the life and times of Alexandre Pato, how such a promising career turned into a great big disappointment.
The Internacional Days
Before becoming a footballer, Pato had already overcome great adversity in his life. When he was just 10, a tumour had developed in his arm. Despite almost having to have it amputated, Pato was successfully operated upon, and was able to go back to having a normal childhood.
Well, as normal a childhood a football prodigy likened to Pele and Ronaldo can have.
From a young age, Pato was earmarked to achieve great things. In 2006, aged just 16, he was brought into the Internacional under-20 squad for their Copa do Brasil campaign.
Pato wasn’t meant to be a key player for the team, he was brought into the squad to gain experience for the next year’s competition.
However, Pato showed that he was good enough, and broke into the starting team. He starred throughout the tournament, being Internacional’s main man as they won the whole thing.
This also fast-tracked his progression to the national team. After his club-level success, Pato was called up to the Brazil under-19 squad shortly afterward.
Eager to showcase their young prodigy’s ability, Internacional threw Pato into the first-team at 16, and again his jaw-dropping ability was glaringly obvious.
He started both games in the team’s Club World Cup campaign, which finished with a shock win against Barcelona in the final.
At this point, Pato had garnered interest from some of Europe’s elite, with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Ajax all vying for the Brazilian’s signature.
However, Pato opted to join the Rossoneri, who were champions of Europe at the time, in a €24 million deal.
“Why Milan? They were unreal! Kaka, Seedorf, Pirlo, Maldini, Nesta, Gattuso, Shevchenko, they had just won the Champions League, Milan were the team back then. I was like, when’s the next flight?” Pato said in a 2022 interview.
The Move to Milan
Pato entered a star-studded dressing room at San Siro, including the names just listed, as well as Ronaldo, one of the stars Pato was likened to in his youth.
Pato, at just 17, had the world at his feet. What could possibly go wrong? He was destined for the top, and nothing could stop him.
Due to Italian football regulations about playing under -18 non-EU players, Pato had to wait until January to make his debut for the team.
There was huge pressure on the Brazilian. He was living away from home, a child in a new city halfway across the world with massive expectations on his shoulders. Compared to Marco Van Basten by club president Silvio Berlusconi, Pato had to hit the ground running.
When he did make his debut, he burst onto the scene, scoring against Napoli at San Siro in a 5-2 win. He went on to make a further 17 appearances before the end of the season, notching eight more goals.
It was a very promising start for him.
Despite his beautiful beginning in Milan, Pato later admitted that he rushed into the move, and should have been patient and stayed in Brazil for longer, and his early success in Serie A went to his head.
“The first thing you have to understand is that I left home very early, maybe too early,” he said. “In my head, I was already holding the Ballon d’Or.”
His first full season in Milan was where his injury woes began. He sustained a thigh injury, one that would plague him for his entire career. Despite missing matches, however, Pato scored 15 goals in the league that year, excellent numbers considering his age and injury record.
These injuries would become a recurring theme in the story of Alexandre Pato.
Trouble for the Golden Boy
The following season, 2009/10, his teammate Kaka departed for Real Madrid, and Pato took up a more central role for the Italians. He was awarded the Golden Boy award for the best youngster in the world. It seemed that nothing would stop him.
Despite the award, Pato’s second full season in Milan was injury-riddled as he missed three months of the campaign due to the same thigh injury that had troubled him before.
This injury caused him to miss out on the Brazil squad for the 2010 World Cup, however, he still performed on the pitch when healthy.
After Carlo Ancelotti parted ways with Milan, Massimiliano Allegri was appointed club manager, and the team won the Scudetto in his first season as coach in 2010/11.
Pato managed only 25 appearances, again due to his patchy injury record.
This was also the season that Pato began to gain attention for his off-field antics. He started dating Barbara Berlusconi, daughter of Milan owner and Italian Prime Minister Silvio, and his constant partying with compatriot Ronaldinho was quickly becoming an issue.
He was attracting negative news off the field, and not performing so well on it, not necessarily a good mix for a young footballer trying to reach the top.
Pato, however, insists that his partying wasn’t an issue, and it was a narrative pushed by the media.
When asked about it, he said “There were so many rumours, especially in Milan. I partied too much, I had no desire, I was living in a fantasy world…. Really, I was just a kid.”
Despite the flash of brilliance in Catalonia on that evening in 2011, Pato’s Milan career started to go downhill that same season.
He managed just 11 appearances in the league, scoring a single goal. The following season was worse again, as he played just four times without registering a goal.
At the end of his final season in Italy, 2012/13, Pato was given the Bidone d’Oro, a satirical award given in Italy to the league’s worst player. Those four games would be the last the Brazilian would play in the red and black of Milan.
Pato moved home to Brazil where he signed for Corinthians in a €15 million deal. From there, he became a journeyman, jumping around clubs such as Sao Paolo, Chelsea, and Villarreal, before joining TJ Quanjian in the Chinese Super League.
To go from a boy with all of Europe’s top clubs chasing him at 17, to being in China ten years later, it was a rapid downfall for Pato.
He never returned to Europe, rocking up at Orlando City in 2023 before returning to Sao Paulo. He was released by the club when his contract ended on January 1st, 2024.
After such a scintillating start, Pato’s career petered out in spectacular fashion. He never lived up to his unlimited potential.
He will always be remembered for that magical goal in Barcelona, and it serves as a brief glimpse of the world-class player he could have been.