Paulinho was a forgotten man. One of the central figures in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil that would suffer 'the 7-1’ at World Cup 2014, nobody had really seen him since.
For two years, he’d gotten nowhere near an international return, always overlooked for Brasil Global Tour matches and not even in the conversation when the time arrived for Dunga to pick two Copa America squads.
But in June 2016, an old friend offered Paulinho a lifeline, plucking him from the wilderness and throwing him straight in at the deep end. Having conquered the world together at Corinthains, new Selecao coach Tite had not forgotten him.
In the 11 months since, Paulinho has been reborn, finding the international form of his career in a resurgent Brazil side that have galloped to eight consecutive victories in World Cup qualifying to become the first country to book their ticket for Russia 2018.
"I was very proud to be back after so long,” Paulinho told Brasil Global Tour.
“I knew the difficulties, the challenges that lay ahead, but the most important thing was that I had the confidence of my coach and the support of my team-mates. They are why I have kept coming back.”
And he most certainly is back. Paulinho has started seven of Brazil’s eight qualifiers under his former Corinthians coach, his only absence arriving due to a suspension. He’s slotted seamlessly into Tite’s 4-5-1 variant, forming a formidable midfield three with Renato Augusto and Casemiro that has provided Brazil the sort of balance they had been missing for so long.
“Tite has a lot of good options, today he has a few players, tomorrow he can call up others, but I am sure of one thing: both Renato and I have been doing really well,” insists Paulinho. “I just try to enjoy the opportunities that come my way. If I'm going to play or not is another story, but if I'm among the 23 then I will always fight for my position.”
He hasn’t had to fight. Not only has he gone from persona non grata to a mainstay, but as of today there isn’t even a natural competitor for his shuttling role. And having made his name as a goalscoring midfielder with Corinthians, he has been back on the scoresheet for Brazil, too.
The 28-year-old has hit four goals in seven appearances since his return, including three against Uruguay in March, which saw him net the first hat-trick of his career and became the first Brazilian to net a treble against Brazil’s old rivals in almost half a century, since his namesake Paulinho Valentim hit one in 1959.
“I'm happy to be scoring important goals in the national team and here in Guangzhou, too. I have been in very good form since 2015.”
Two trophy-laden years in China that have brought national and continental titles, and Paulinho’s form for his country, has seen the former Spurs man linked with a move back to a top club in Europe after an ultimately disappointing time in the Premier League.
“It's difficult for me to say if I will go back because things happen very quickly in football. One minute I was with Tottenham, the next came a proposal from China,” he says.
“I took a step back to think about it and decided it was the right time to move. Today, I see that it was the right attitude to take. If I feel I should return, if there is an opportunity that is right and will make me happy, then I will take it. So maybe I can start a new story in Europe.”
He’d hope it would be a better tale than his frustrating stay in North London, which saw him fail to truly settle as he was asked to operate in a number of different positions under different coaches. Paulinho made 28 starts in his first season in England, but managed just three following World Cup 2014.
“In my first season, I played the entire season in my central midfield role. I did well but then we had a change of coach as Andre Villas Boas left and that Englishman (Tim Sherwood) came in. Then Mauricio Pochettino arrived and I did not play much. I only played a maximum of 4 matches in my preferred role and sometimes as a no.10.”
But Paulinho holds no grudges. “No, no I don’t hurt. Pochettino had his options and at that time he thought I was not the best option for him. But I do think that if he gave me the opportunity in my role then I would have convinced him. When I saw that it was not there, I decided to leave.”
A move to China was supposed to end his international career for good, but Paulinho is one of three Asian-based players which are now Brazil regulars under Tite, who insists that they always report for duty a few days prior to the rest of the squad to battle jetlag and undergo increased physical training.
“Tite always says that he is paying attention to our form regardless of where we are playing," he added. "There are lots of good Brazilian players in China who have the quality to make the difference. We have Ricardo Goulart, Alan, and in the other clubs there’s Alex Teixeira, Hulk, Oscar, Ramires, players who have started the year very well.”
Paulinho’s start to the second chapter of his Brazil career has gone very well, too. It was a chance many thought may never arrive. But when Tite calls up his next squad ahead of Brasil Global Tour’s double-header with Argentina and Australia in March, nobody will forget Paulinho.