Everton Ribeiro’s first few months at Al Ahli were fraught, even hugely frustrating.
Recruited amid much fanfare in February, the Brazilian arrived at a difficult period both individually and for his new employers. Ribeiro had only recently completed an extensive and exhausting season in his homeland, although he did excel, helping Cruzeiro capture the Brazilian championship. Subsequently, he was voted the league’s best player, its “Craque do Brasileirao”, for a second successive year.
Ahli, meanwhile, were toiling. UAE champions at a canter the previous campaign, they languished sixth in the league table, hands slowly pried from the trophy.
So Ribeiro’s acquisition, reputedly ahead of Manchester United, AC Milan and Monaco, was heralded as a game-changer. Ribeiro was both the solution and the saviour.
He scored on debut – a straightforward finish against Sharjah – but for some time that was as good as it got. In his next 11 domestic matches, Ribeiro managed one more goal. Predictably, the critics circled.
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However, much like his club, he soon found respite in the Asian Champions League. A goal away to Nasaf, the winner came nine minutes from time. Another in the defeat to Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli. His team’s opener in the frantic 3-2 home victory against Tractor Sazi.
Three goals in the final three group games. Two vitally important strikes as Ahli finished second to qualify from the knockouts for the first time in their history. Ahli’s unlikely route had Ribeiro at its heart.
Then, in the first leg of the last-16 encounter against Al Ain, Ribeiro ran his rivals ragged, controlling the tempo and conjuring the trouble, his side’s inventive hub. He casually flicked the ball over Ibrahim Diaky’s head, leaving three opponents trailing. He provided Ismail Al Hammadi with a golden opportunity to break the deadlock.
The match finished goalless, but Ribeiro had taken a giant step forward. On a pitch that included Omar Abdulrahman, he was the game’s principal playmaker. Afterwards, Ribeiro’s relief was palpable, justifiable, too.
“When I arrived I was not 100 per cent ready and so I had to do extra work,” he said. “Finally, I’m feeling better and am playing better. About the critics, I don’t care. I know what I am capable of. I’ll allow my football to speak for me.”
It has done ever since, loud and clear. Ribeiro’s output has surged: four goals in the Champions League, four in five Arabian Gulf League matches to furnish Ahli’s 100 per cent start to this season.
And when he is not finding the net, he is finding teammates. Four assists in the league, four in Asia. Telling contributions as well, making Rodrigo Lima’s goal at Naft Tehran and twice assisting his compatriot against Al Hilal. Deep into injury-time in that semi-final second leg, Ribeiro’s free-kick fell to Kwon Kyung-won to score the winner.
But then, Ahli always knew what they were getting. Ribeiro was long the standout in Brazil, possessing a wonderful left foot and a pinpoint dead-ball delivery. He was courageous in possession, and audacious with it.
Look at his highlights reel at Cruzeiro – the “Kerlon” in the Copa Libertadores, the “chapeu” that created his famous goal against Flamengo, later nominated for Fifa’s Puskas Award.
Yet his peacock poise on the pitch is not mirrored off it. Speak to those at Ahli and they describe an accomplished footballer, but an understated individual. Ribeiro is well liked, welcome to the wisecracks and more comfortable now his fast-improving English allows it.
Gratifyingly, there is no taste for the limelight, no superstar ego for a player rumoured to command €4.5 million (Dh18m) in salary per year. Witness Ribeiro ghost through a mixed zone, his tiny frame typically with bag on his back, like the quiet schoolboy who comes alive only when a ball is at his feet.
It has impressed his colleagues at Ahli. Ribeiro trains hard, is a model professional. The focus to match the flair. In games, he regularly features in their top bracket for distance covered.
Little wonder he has found an ally in Lima. The two are cut from the same cloth, a contradiction to the somewhat-merited accusation that Brazilians wash up here only to sample the good life. From the outset, Ribeiro insisted he had other motivations.
“I have come here for the challenge,” he said upon signing. “Clubs in Europe also wanted me, but this is the project that appealed the most to me. I picked Ahli because of their plan to become the top club in Asia and win the Asian Champions League.”
Underpinned by his ability and application, Ribeiro stands two matches from guiding the club to that objective. If Ahli are to have any chance in Saturday’s first leg of the final with Guangzhou Evergrande, they need Ribeiro running at optimum. He is more than capable.
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