Lille (on loan from Manchester City)
Not many could have guessed the journey Marcos ‘Rony’ Lopes would undertake when he settled on the shores of the Portuguese peninsula. Eighteen years young, the Brazilian-Portuguese starlet has been given the mantle in spearheading his adopted nation’s next ‘Golden Generation’ of young footballing enigmas down a road not trodden for over twenty years.
From humble beginnings
On the 28th of December 1995 a star was born in the aptly named Brazilian city of Belém, or Bethlehem. Born Marcos Paulo Mesquita Lopes, his parents immigrated to Portugal in search of a better life in pastures new when he was only four years of age.
The Brazilian-Portuguese starlet was soon to be known as “Rony” for the jersey he wore that bore the Brazilian legend’s name whilst training at AD Poiares in Coimbra. The name soon stuck as he called his colonial motherland home, committing his international future to A Seleção das Quinas as he graced the red of Portugal for the U17s, U19s and more recently Rui Jorge’s U21s.
Playing in the Portuguese youth leagues for over eight years with AD Poiares (2003-2006) and the famed SL Benfica for five seasons, Rony has talked immensely about his time in Portugal as “a great experience for me as I grew as a person and as a player.”
England beckons as Lopes heeds the call
Having ‘struck oil’ with the Abu Dhabi United Group takeover in 2008, The Sky Blues had begun to start an impressive youth system, soon to be spearheaded by none another than Lopes himself. Signing on in 2011, he became a regular for the City Elite Development Squad in the 2012-13 season and went on to claim the inaugural Academy Player of the Year award in the same year.
The youngster first found the limelight a year on. At only 16 years of age, Lopes was a surprise addition to Mancini’s preseason tour squad. Even more astonishing was his involvement, participating in six of their seven fixtures.
Rony makes his mark
Despite his involvement with the first-team’s season preparations, the craque would have to bide his time, debuting in City’s FA Cup third round tie against Watford. Brought on in the 88th minute for David Silva, the Star of Bethlehem made the best of starts, taking the game in his stride after 120 seconds to score the Citizens’ third and final goal, becoming their City’s youngest ever goalscorer for the first team in a competitive tie in their history at 17 years and 9 days.
Having made a name for himself, Lopes was given the captain’s armband for the City Development Squad that following season that was capped off by impressive performances in the inaugural UEFA Youth League. A brace against FC Viktoria Plzen and a hat-trick at home to Bayern Munich were the pick of a host of fine displays in an impressive run to the quarter-finals.
All this undoubted potential aside, it was on the 21st of January in the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg that Rony set his name in lights. Making his first appearance in the City starting eleven against Wigan Athletic, the number 10 ran riot in a man-of-the-match performance, assisting both Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo in a 3-0 victory. “My style is more a playmaker, but I like scoring goals likes everybody else,” seen with the burly number 10’s fourteen goals for the U19s. “If I can help the team play and score goals, it’s perfect. I hope to score more goals to help the team.”
A Seleção? Or A Seleção?
With thirty caps from the U17s to U21s, Marcos Lopes has become a mainstay in the Portuguese youth development scheme. Leading his side to a finals berth at the U19 European Championships, only to lose to a formidable German outfit, Rony’s name is on every football pundits lips.
Although committing his international youth future with the red of Portugal, a half of Rony’s heart still exists in Brazil. “It’s a difficult situation,” pondered the much sought after teenager. “In spite of having lived my whole life here (in Portugal), I still have family in Brazil. My heart is torn. At the same time it is good to know that Portugal and Brazil follow my exploits. I feel even more motivated to pursue my career in football.”
At the time of writing, the Luso-Brazilian is yet to make a conclusive decision, honoured to be even considered by both Seleções. Nonetheless, regardless of specualtion linking him to the Verde-Amarela, Lopes is commited to A Selecao… das Quinas. “Interest from the Brazilian team makes me very happy… but not long ago we managed to qualify for the U20 World Cup and I hope to be there.”
A versatile No. 10
Lopes is a pure attack-minded midfielder, often compared to Ronaldinho, with his speed across the ground and footballing brain allowing him to play through the centre or on the flanks. It is through the middle that he was employed at the U19 European Championships, although he was given permission to roam, switching to the flanks and playing as a support striker at times.
His vision is one of his best assets, with the ability to pick a pass and find men on the run demonstrative of raw technical ability beyond his years. Relatively small at only 174 centimetres, Rony uses his strong build and speed to his advantage, allowing for him to hold off the opposition with ease, complimented by a powerful left foot shot that packs a real punch, especially when on the burst.
The ‘Golden Generation’ of yester year, led by the likes of Rui Costa and Luis Figo, were boys no different to the charges flanking Lopes; faced with similar expectations in the midst of a flurry of disappointing displays on the biggest stage.
After years of frustration, with little to show for the talent at their disposal; Portugal has found itself in a rut, with the lone Cristiano Ronaldo emerging from a group earmarked by untapped potential lacking drive, the fading lights of Dani, Quaresma and Viana scorned examples.
With Paulo Bento no longer at the helm, Portugal reeling after one of the worst spells in their history and their participation at Euro 2016 in doubt, the time for change is now. With this young crop filled with undoubted ability and potential gracing the pitches of Europe in some of the best leagues in the world, one would be obliged to ask: is the wait over? Lopes encapsulates this, knocking on the door of Lille’s starting eleven, with European football, albeit the Europa League, on offer.
Undoubted potential aside, can Lopes and co. prove the doubters wrong and fulfil what their predecessors’ failures and bring A Seleção das Quinas to the forefront of the Beautiful Game? Or are we in the midst of more disappointment? Time will tell.