Marcos Antônio enjoyed the game of his life as he inspired Shakhtar Donetsk to a shock 3-2 win against Real Madrid away in the Champions League in October.
Rewind three years, though, and the diminutive midfielder had no clue about where his career was heading. Having guided Brazil to the Under-17 World Cup semi-finals, he felt extremely undervalued at Athletico Paranaense.
Tipped to follow in the footsteps of other academy graduates such as Fernandinho, Bruno Guimaraes and Kleberson, he wanted an improved deal that would allow him to make more than €400 per month and abandon the club’s dormitory.
Athletico never really got close to his financial demands and so, by the end of 2017, he just vanished into thin air, refusing to sign a new contract. No one heard of him for a while afterwards.
But then, one day, the southern Brazilian team learned that Marcos Antônio had actually been in Portugal, secretly training with Estoril to keep his form. He was brought to Europe by the same sports agency who represents the likes of Vinicius Jr. and Gabriel Martinelli and also happened to control the Portuguese second-tier side.
As it turned out, they were only waiting for Bahia, as he’s called by his close friends, to turn 18, so he could pen a professional contract.
In the meantime, while Athletico threatened to take Estoril to FIFA – asking for a €30 million compensation – the youngster travelled around and even watched a Real Madrid game at the Santiago Bernabeu. The legal row didn’t stop him from posting a photo of the stadium on Instagram in April 2018 saying: “If we can dream, we can also make our dreams a reality.”
At that point, it’s safe to say that not even his wildest dreams featured him making those very same players look ordinary in a year and a half’s time.
But having come from Poções, a city of 48,000 inhabitants in the countryside of the Bahia state, popularly known for its annual religious festival, Marcos Antônio was taught from an early age to have faith in himself. He was never in any doubt he’d make it to the top. Not even when he abandoned Athletico and spent 10 months without playing a single official match.
At just 17, that could have disrupted his development, but somehow Shakhtar’s number eight survived all this.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect him to get this far so fast – I thought it would take a bit longer for me to see him performing at this level in a Champions League game,” former Brazil youth football coordinator Erasmo Damiani tells The Set Pieces.
“He has always been slight of frame, so what impresses most about him is the dynamic that he’s able to play with, exchanging passes at speed. He’s very intelligent and great in making decisions, finding solutions in tight spaces. He’s not afraid as well of moving forward and taking on the defence if it has to be. Above all, he’s very competitive and knows exactly what he wants.”
This strong mentality has helped Marcos Antônio deal with insistent questions from journalists on his pint-sized body: standing at little over five foot five, he’s hardly an imposing figure in the Ukrainian champions’ midfield.
For some, it’s a detail that could have held him back, but after coming such a long way, having left his parents’ house in Poções and crossing the whole country by bus, at 11, to Curitiba, he’d never have let height become an issue. The only thing he can do is work even harder.
“If he were 12, perhaps 15, centimeters taller, he’d be among the top of the top midfielders in the world,” Damiani says.
The 20-year-old certainly has time on his side – he has already showed he moves fast thanks to his meteoric rise.
After signing with Estoril, he initially struggled to break into the first team, featuring instead for the under-23 side. But once he settled in, he made an impact right away, with two assists on his senior debut. He followed that up by leading the small team in a surprising victory against Sporting in their own back yard. His performances immediately caught the eye of José Boto, Shakhtar’s chief scout.
It took Marcos Antônio only six months in the Portuguese second league to convince Boto of his potential and pack his things to Kiev.
He left Estoril pretty much the same way he arrived – barely known. The next time he moves again, though, he will no longer be the unheralded teenager who dreamed about playing at the Bernabeu and nobody had ever heard about.
The boy from Poções is now a household name.