Neymar, Paris Saint-Germain
Opinion

Ligue 1's all-time top 5 Brazilians

Publish on 28/03/2020 at 11h13 - I. HOLYMAN

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Paris Saint-Germain's Neymar Jr is the most high profile and expensive of the Brazilian mega-talents to have graced French football — ligue1.com took on a labour of love in trying to pick the top five men from the football-mad South American nation who have left their mark on Ligue 1 history.

Neymar Jr (Paris Saint-Germain 2017-)

Honours: 2 Ligue 1 titles, 1 Coupe de France, 1 Coupe de la Ligue, 1 Trophée des Champions

 

Your Ligue 1 Conforama quiz starts now: When was a French club involved in a world record-breaking transfer? Kudos for those who got Jean-Pierre Papin's 1992 move from Olympique de Marseille to AC Milan. But when did a French club set the record by splashing unprecdented amounts of cash? Not once, until Neymar Jr arrived at PSG for €222 million in 2017.

 

In addition to being a UEFA Champions League winner, two-time Spanish champion and three-time Copa del Rey victor, the Brazil international was a bona fide global superstar after his time alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez — remember MSN? — at the Camp Nou. 

 

Sonny Anderson's arrival at Olympique Lyonnais in 1999 — also from Barcelona — turned some heads towards Ligue 1 and was the catalyst for OL's dominance of the first decade of the millenium. Neymar coming to the Parc des Princes ensured the planet was looking at French football.

 

WATCH: Neymar, the Superstar


 

"With him, our project becomes stronger, and Ligue 1 becomes more interesting for the whole world," said PSG CEO and Chairman Nasser Al Khelaifi. "I wanted a bigger challenge," added Neymar after penning a five-year deal at the Parc des Princes. "I want something bigger."

 

Out of the shadow of Messi, Neymar has excelled…when he has been on the pitch. His first two seasons in France started fabulously, but ended on the treatment table. He scored 46 times in his opening 50 top-flight appearances — the first man to do so since OM's Gunnar Andersson in the early 1950s. 

 

His third season could yet be the best yet, and — as suggested by his tie-turning contribution in the UEFA Champions League Last 16 tie with Borussia Dortmund — may be the campaign when he brings to PSG what he was brought to PSG to do: the biggest European trophy of all. 

 

Juninho Pernambucano (Olympique Lyonnais 2001-09)

Honours: 7 Ligue 1 titles, 1 Coupe de France, 6 Trophées des champions

 

Sonny Anderson was the first big Brazilian name to arrive at Lyon; Juninho Pernambucano was undoubtedly the most influential. When he signed for OL, they had no Ligue 1 titles. By the time, he left in 2009, they'd managed to stuff an incredible seven into their trophy cabinet with an outrageous, unprecedented run of success.

 

Their Brazil international midfielder had much to do with that. While the supporting cast was excellent, featuring the likes of Eric Abidal, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda and Karim Benzema, 'Juni' was a leader on and off the pitch for OL. And then, of course, there were his free-kicks.

 

"When I saw Lyon's games, I said to myself, 'If he scores from there, it's just a joke!' And he scored," said Thierry Henry, France's all-time leading goalscorer. "I've never seen anyone take a free-kick like him. He's the best of all-time, by far."

 

Juninho, Lyon, tifo

 

Forty-four of the 100 competitive goals he struck for OL were free-kicks, many scored from improbable angles or distances. Sometimes both. The despair-soaked emotion when he left the club in 2009 and the delight-laden emotion when he returned a decade later as sporting director show just how much of a legend a man born on Brazil's north-east coast had become in France's second city.

 

Vitorino Hilton (Bastia 2004, Lens 2004-08, Marseille 2008-11, Montpellier 2011-)

Honours: 2 Ligue 1 titles, 1 Trophée des Champions

 

From the impassable Carlos Mozer at Olympique de Marseille to the grace and class of Thiago Silva at PSG, Ligue 1 has always had a thing for Brazilian centre-backs. One of them has had more than a thing for Ligue 1: Vitorino Hilton.

 

When he made his top-flight debut in France for Bastia in February 2004, the Brasilia-born defender was on loan from Swiss side Servette. He only nipped back across the border in the summer to be immediately sold to Lens, and so the story started…when Kylian Mbappé was aged five. Fast forward 16 years, and Hilton is trying to stop the PSG prodigy at the age of 42, hurtling headlong to 500 Ligue 1 appearances. 

 

It is a milestone he will reach if he extends his contract yet again and turns out for Montpellier in the 2020-21 campaign. If? "It's a question I've been asked since 2013," he explained. "For me, there's never a year too many."

 

Vitorino Hilton, Montpellier

 

After four years at Lens and three at Marseille — where he won the 2009-10 French title under Didier Deschamps — Hilton has spent the last nine seasons at Montpellier, swelling his medal haul with another title triumph in his first year at the club.

 

And even if he doesn't play on when this season finally comes to an end, French football won't be getting rid of him that easily. 

 

"Since I arrived, from my first year, they were already talking about working with me after my career,"  said the French top-flight's all-time leading appearance maker, who had played 483 L1 matches up until the season was halted by the coronavirus pandemic.  "I would like to stay on the pitch, but I don't know how yet. We'll talk about that later. When I've retired…"

 

Rai (PSG 1993-98)

Honours: 1 Ligue 1 title, 2 Coupes de France, 2 Coupes de la Ligue, 1 Trophée des Champions, 1 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup

 

As the younger brother of the legendary Socretes, Rai had a lot to live up to. For PSG fans, he did that, and more. The French capital's premier club has had a love affair with Brazilian players ever since this suave man and damn fine footballer arrived at the Parc des Princes in 1993, linking up with compatriot Valdo, who had come to PSG two years earlier.

 

"Brazilians dream of Paris, and Brazilian football makes the French dream. The Brazilians who have marked the club's history have reinforced that link," explained the former Brazil captain, part of the Seleçao's 1994 FIFA World Cup-winning squad. "My image is joined to that of PSG. As soon as anything happens in Paris, everyone wants to know my opinion. That shows that Rai is synonymous with Paris, and vice versa."

 

There is good reason for that. While he wowed the Parc with his talents as a number 10, the PSG faithful also loved his commitment to the cause and his elegance on and off the pitch. That respect extended to the dressing room and he often captained the side in his five years in Paris before he returned to Brazil to rejoin Sao Paulo.

 

He wasn't wearing the armband on the night in Brussels that PSG lifted their first — and so far only — piece of European silverware, beating Rapid Vienna to claim the European Cup Winners' Cup. In fact, he lasted just 11 minutes on the pitch before injury forced him off. But ask any PSG fan, and they will tell you who was key to that historic triumph.

 

Ronaldinho (PSG 2001-03)

Honours: None

 

Like Neymar after him, the dazzling delights Ronaldinho could produce with his feet were well known in Europe before they had even touched the Old Continent's soil. And when they did, we weren't disappointed.

 

"When Ronaldinho arrived at PSG, it was exceptional," explained Luis Fernandez, 'Ronnie's' coach at the Parc des Princes. "When I discovered him in that first year, when I saw him daily, he had all the qualities required: the potential, the talent, the attitude etc. He was keen to learn. Scolari, the Brazil coach, came to congratulate us just before the World Cup: 'What you have done with Ronnie is marvellous, fantastic.'"

 

Ronaldinho would be integral to the Seleçao's fifth global crown in 2002, the summer between his two seasons at the Parc des Princes. He didn't pick up any silverware in France — the closest he came was a Coupe de France runners-up medal just before he moved to Barcelona in 2003 — but boy did he leave his mark!

 

WATCH: And be dazzled by Ronaldinho

 

 

Much to PSG fans' delight, arch-rivals Marseille were often on the receiving end of their brilliant Brazilian's twinkle-toed genius with his now world-famous elastico leaving both opponents and supporters open-mouthed.

 

There is undoubtedly a strong whiff of 'what if?' about Ronaldinho's second season in Paris — as Fernandez said, "I think he already had his head elsewhere than Paris Saint-Germain — but there was never a dull moment, and it was hugely entertaining."

 

 >> PROFILE: Ronaldinho, PSG's joga bonito