A few weeks ago, Grêmio were up the proverbial creek. After earning just one point from their opening three games in this year’s Copa Libertadores, they looked set for an unbecoming scrap for third place in the group and a spot in the Copa Sul-Americana.
It would be quite the fall from grace for a team that won South America’s most prestigious tournament in 2017 and was agonisingly close to beating eventual champions River Plate in last year’s semi-final.
Some in Brazil were ready to write them off, but they had a surprise in store. Its name was Everton Cebolinha – or Everton ‘little onion’ to you and me.
He’s small, quick, and really, really good at footy, he’s got a tattoo on his face and, well, he looks a bit like an onion. More of which later.
First to the football. After beating Argentina’s Rosario Central two weeks ago, Grêmio travelled to top-of-the-group Libertad in Asunción on Tuesday night, needing all three points to keep their hopes of qualifying for the last 16 alive.
Having provided the assist for Jean Pyerre to open the scoring against Rosario, Everton was coming into the game high on confidence and immediately made it clear he meant business again. Grêmio’s root vegetable was full of direct, darting runs and sent an acrobatic shot over the bar early on.
Then the moment of magic came. He sprinted into a gap in the Libertad back line, received Alisson’s beautifully weighted pass, dragged his right foot across the ball, threatened a shot with his left and paused.
As Libertad’s Iván Piris and Martin Silva fell flat on their backsides, he dragged it back across with the studs of his left boot and let fly, smashing a shot in off the underside of the bar. 1-0.
About an hour later, he was back at it.
With the Paraguayans pushing forward in search of the equaliser, their tormentor found some space on the right, dashed past two tiring defenders, got a bit of luck with a bounce off the traumatised Piris and again made no mistake with the finish, whacking the ball over Silva and into the, ahem, onion bag.
They were his second and third goals of this Libertadores, both stunning but perhaps neither as good as the first, which came in their opening-day draw with Rosario Central.
On that occasion he quite literally ran rings around the defence, giving Gonzalo Bettini the slip with a skill known in Brazil as a “half-moon”, before tucking a right-footed shot beyond the ‘keeper.
It is pretty easy to see why AC Milan’s Brazilian director Leonardo recently made a trip to Porto Alegre to try to hash out a deal, why Manchester City are apparently prepared to better the offer the Rossoneri made and why Everton is likely to be in the Seleção squad for June’s Copa América.
Back to the ‘little onion’ moniker. Brazilians are relentless and ruthless when it comes to giving nicknames and generally work on the premise that the less the recipient likes it, the better.
Current Flamengo full-back Pará decided to refer to him as ‘Cebola’, or (normal sized) ‘onion’, when he was at Grêmio in 2014. Everton, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of a mirror, claims to have no idea why.
His wonderfully round, shiny head with the little tuft of hair sticking out the top might be a clue.
The diminutive ‘inha’ was added when, confusingly, Grêmio signed another onion in 2015. Uruguay international Cristian Rodriguez, who inherited his ‘Cebolla’ (with an extra ‘l’ in Spanish) nickname from his dad, arrived on loan and, to prevent training ground confusion, Cebola became Cebolinha.
Two weeks from now, Gremio have the chance to go head-to-head with Chile’s Universidad Católica to decide who makes it into the knock-out rounds of the Libertadores, a chance handed to them by their nippy, exceptionally skilful winger.
If they do make it through, though, Everton probably won’t be around to help them. Manchester City and Milan are both in the market and a little onion is close to the top of their shopping lists.
By Joshua Law