This week, mega-rich Manchester City will come face to face with the player boasting the highest price tag in Portugal. Givanildo Vieira de Souza – Hulk, to the football world – is the envy of many clubs but, for now, unattainable.
“His release clause is €100m (£84m),”
Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa archly commented earlier this year.
“So if someone bids €99m, we’ll say no.”
You sense he is only half-joking. Pinto da Costa and Porto are notorious for driving a hard bargain, but it’s more than that. Hulk is not only Porto’s best player, but also the soul of the team.
It’s a scenario that nobody dared imagine when he arrived from Japanese side Tokyo Verdy in the summer of 2008. Hulk was an exciting but raw 22-year-old, a blur of pace and strength and armed with a powerful left foot. That shooting power was evident on his Porto debut against Belenenses in August of that year.
He hit shots from all angles, scoring with one and injuring a team-mate with another. Mariano Gonzalez was struck on the thigh by a free-kick, was carried off and spent a month on the sidelines.
Hulk had a promising first season, helping Porto win a fourth successive league title and reach the Champions League quarter-finals, where they fell to eventual finalists Manchester United.
After the big-money departures of team cornerstones Lisandro Lopez and Lucho Gonzalez in 2009, Hulk was expected to become a central figure. Instead, he hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. Along with colleague Cristian Sapunaru, Hulk was caught up in a tunnel brawl after a December defeat at bitter rivals Benfica. Both players were accused of assaulting Benfica stewards and were suspended indefinitely.
The league’s disciplinary board banned Hulk for four months. An appeal in March 2010 saw this reduced to four games, but Hulk had missed 18 matches by that point. While Porto cried foul, the man himself gathered new focus.
He returned from the enforced lay-off a new man.
Whether he was driven by injustice or simply newly awakened to his responsibilities, the player of promise has become the force of nature that his moniker always suggested he should be.
Hulk’s return inspired Porto to an extraordinary run of 20 successive wins in all competitions, allowing Andre Villas-Boas to settle into the top job at the Dragao perfectly.
Radamel Falcao caught the eye with his Europa League goals, but Hulk’s sheer will helped power Porto to glory last season.
He no longer tumbles for cheap free-kicks and, improbably, is even stronger than when he arrived in Portugal. Last season’s statistics – 36 goals and 21 assists – are even more remarkable when one considers he usually operates from the right wing, rather than as a centre-forward.
It is little wonder that the likes of City, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Anzhi Makhachkala have considered shelling out for Hulk. To maximise the potential profit, Porto bought a further 40% of Hulk’s registration in March 2011 for €13.5m (£11.3m). It brought their total interest to 90%. They know they are sitting on a gold mine, and they feel in control of the situation.
It is highly unlikely that Hulk will force a move. A committed family man, he values the fact that his wife and children are settled in the city. A transfer will happen at some point, but it is likely to be amicably negotiated between all parties.
Hulk is now looked up to at Porto in the way that Lisandro and the recently returned Lucho once were. Now a Brazil squad regular, he was recently made club captain.
“It’s an honour and a big responsibility,”
he wrote on his Twitter account.
Porto now have a player worth every inch of his showbiz nickname. City could be about to discover that Hulk justifies the hype.
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