Julio Baptista was perhaps one of the last major examples of a bygone era of football transfer hype.
There were no YouTube compilations entitled: ‘Julio Baptista – Welcome to [insert club name here] – Skills and Goals [fire emoji].’ There was no flood of tweets speculating about his next destination or Reddit thread discussing how he might fit in tactically at different clubs.
But if you scoured the net and football magazines for stories from outside of the British Isles in 2004 or 2005, you had definitely read about Baptista – and you probably wanted your team to sign him. He was scoring for fun for Sevilla and was the must-have new star of European football.
Spectacular in southern Spain
When Baptista arrived in Seville in 2003, he came as a defensive midfielder who had built a solid reputation in an exciting young Sao Paulo team that contained the more offensive talents of Kaka and Luis Fabiano.
Two years later, he left as one of the most explosive attacking midfielders in Europe. From the player that had been seen in the Brazilian leagues, it was quite the transformation.
Then again, if there was any club in the world that was going to promote such a rapid and surprising change in any player’s game, it was Sevilla.
At that point, the Monchi era – that would eventually lead to the club win a slew of domestic and European cups and earn more than €200million in the transfer market – was just getting up to speed.
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The same scouting network that brought in Baptista also uncovered a skinny little right-back by the name of Dani Alves and added them to a youthful squad that contained the likes of Sergio Ramos, Jose Antonio Reyes and Jesus Navas.
It was a recipe for success. After a couple of years spent re-establishing themselves following relegation in 2000 and promotion back to the Primera in 2001, they secured consecutive top-six finishes in 2004 and 2005, and there was no doubt who was the star of the show.
In 2003-04, Baptista scored 20 league goals, including two hat-tricks against Murcia and Racing Santander.
For his size and power, he was unfortunately nicknamed ‘la Bestia’ – the beast – but it was the variety in his finishing rather than any physical attribute that really stood him apart from the crowd. There were goals with his left foot, right foot and head; from inside the six-yard box and outside the penalty area; volleys, one-on-ones, penalties and free-kicks.
And after a second successive successful season in 2004-05, when he bagged another 18 in the league as well as five in eight in the UEFA Cup, Sevilla could not hold onto him any longer. Real Madrid offered €15million, 10 times what Sevilla had paid for him, and Baptista was gone.
Madrid disappointment & Arsenal
Unfortunately, that is where things started to unravel for the big Brazilian. Real proved too intimidating, too much, and a poor first season was followed by a loan to Arsenal, where, if not a disaster, he did not make a huge lasting impression.
A highlight was a four-goal haul against Liverpool in the League Cup that included a 30-yard free-kick and another powerful, low finish from outside the area.
Last year he told FourFourTwo it was a moment he would never forget: “In England, you can take the match ball home if you score three or more goals in a game, so I found myself leaving the pitch with the ball under my arm and seeing the Liverpool fans clapping me.
“I was confused, but I soon understood what it meant and was really impressed with their gesture.”
Still, with just three goals in 24 games in the Premier League, it was not enough to make Arsene Wenger splash out for his signature.
After lifting a second successive Copa America with Brazil in July 2007, scoring a wonder-goal in the final with Argentina, Baptista returned to Madrid, where he won La Liga – surprisingly, his only piece of silverware in Spain – but spent most of the season on the bench.
Julio Baptista aposentou hoje aos 37 anos, fiquem com esse golaço dele contra a Argentina.#JulioBaptista #SãoPaulo #Cruzeiro #Málaga #Brasil #Sevilla #RealMadrid #Arsenal #Roma #OrlandoCity #CFRCluj pic.twitter.com/vfdoXzO1aB
— TorcidaDesorganizada (@todesorganizada) May 23, 2019
A jaunt in Rome & a return to Spain
A move to Roma followed but things deteriorated further. A poor first season led to rumours that he would up sticks, which he addressed by telling the Italian media: “I have never considered the possibility of leaving.
“I have three more years left on my contract with Roma and I want to honour it. There will be the World Cup next year and it’s very important for me to have a good season.”
However important it might have been, he didn’t live up to his words.
Four goals in all competitions represented the worst return of his European career, and though he did eventually make the World Cup squad, he would soon be leaving Rome, bound again for the south of Spain.
This time he joined up with Manuel Pellegrini at Malaga, becoming a now somewhat forgotten part of the magnificent project that saw them reach the last eight of the Champions League.
A great spell upon arrival brought nine goals in 11 games – and a quite sensational overhead kick against Getafe – giving the impression that Baptista was back to something like his best. At the time, he told Number1Sport: “I’ve got back to feeling like a footballer.”
— La Liga Lowdown 🧡🇪🇸⚽ (@LaLigaLowdown) August 17, 2019
Yet the feeling would not last long. A series of injuries beset him for the second half of 2011 and almost all of 2012.
In total, he spent almost 18 months sidelined by a variety of knocks and muscles strains. It was a sad way to end a spell in Europe that in its first two years had promised so, so much.
Brazil, MLS & publicity stunt in Transylvania
In 2013, Baptista finally set sail back to his homeland, joining Belo Horizonte giants Cruzeiro. The injuries would not go away completely, but his two years wearing the club’s royal blue shirt brought an Indian summer of sorts.
Arriving midway through the year, Baptista brought experience to a fluid passing team that featured the subtle creative skills of Everton Ribeiro and the goal threats of Ricardo Goulart and Borges.
The boost provided by Baptista proved to be just what the Foxes needed and Cruzeiro lifted the Brazilian Serie A trophy at the end of the season, with Baptista scoring the winning goal in the game that sealed their triumph.
In 2014, Cruzeiro repeated the success, adding a Minas Gerais state title before clinching a second successive national crown. Again, Baptista was used sparingly – and spent more time on the treatment table – but was a useful option, contributing 11 goals in all competitions.
The following season brought more injury issues and he played just three times before going to join back up with Kaka at Orlando City for the 2016 MLS season and what looked like one last hurrah.
Again, game time was limited, but he did manage six goals, retaining his penchant for the spectacular, and was dubbed a “super sub” by the Orlando Sentinel.
Towards the end of his contract, Baptista told the Sentinel: “When I don’t have [desire] to come to the pitch for training, it’s time to finish my career. Or, if my body doesn’t work. But that’s not now. I feel very well. I think I could play one or two more years.”
Unfortunately for him, the club didn’t agree. Come the end of the season he was released.
Two years later he bizarrely popped up in Transylvania, signing for Romanian champions CFR Cluj. While a great deal of fanfare greeted his arrival, he did not deliver, playing just twice before finally retiring in May 2019.
He told AS shortly after hanging up his boots: “I consider myself to be very fortunate. I achieved my childhood dream – to play football for some of the top clubs and represent Brazil at the World Cup finals. I’m very, very happy I did all that.”
For the rest of us, though, there will always be a little sense of ‘what if?’ surrounding the Brazilian. The destructive talent he showed in Seville was never really reproduced elsewhere, and that still feels a shame.
Now Baptista is coaching Real Valladolid’s B Team, the club owned by his former Brazil team-mate Ronaldo. And it seems he has plans to return to where it all began.
In 2020, he told TNT that he would like to manage both Sao Paulo and Cruzeiro – though not at the same time, one imagines.
He will have a lot to offer his players in terms of advice, and having played under so many managers, he’ll surely have picked up a few tricks. One day, then, we will perhaps see him get his wish.