Hulk returns from wilderness for Brazil World Cup qualifiers and Argentina grudge match

Hulk Atletico MineiroGetty Images

As comeback stories go, the tale of Brazil's returning hero could indeed have jumped straight off the pages of a comic book.

Five years after his last international appearance, and in the midst of an acute selection crisis, former Porto bruiser Hulk has emerged from the shadows to represent the Selecao once more.

In addition, nobody can say that this unexpected opportunity is anything less than fully deserved for Atletico Mineiro's burly sharp-shooter.

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Brazil coach Tite has turned to Hulk as one of a raft of last-minute call-ups made necessary by the Premier League's refusal to release its South American stars for September's World Cup qualifying triple-header.

While neighbours and arch-rivals Argentina were able to sneak their England-based quartet onto a plane back home, Brazil lost no fewer than nine of its top performers, including first-choice goalkeepers Alisson and Ederson and an entire elite attacking line in the shape of Roberto Firmino, Richarlison and Gabriel Jesus.

In this moment of urgency, then, the Copa America finalists have summoned their very own superhero.

“This call-up means as much to me as my very first one,” the 35-year-old, who boasts 48 international caps and 11 goals, beamed to reporters following confirmation of his inclusion in Tite's plans. “You might get anxious, or hopeful... but I never imagined this.

“Last year I was in China and now I'm here wearing the Brazil shirt.”

Hulk Atletico Mineiro GFX quoteGetty Images

Hulk is the man of the moment back in Brazil. He returned home after 17 years wandering the globe in an illustrious, trophy-filled career which included spells in Japan, Portugal, Russia and, most recently, Chinese Super League side Shanghai SIPG, where he lifted the title in 2018 to become a tri-national champion following his successes with Porto and Zenit.

The forward wasted no time in adding another crown to his collection with Atletico Mineiro's victory in the Mineirao state competition and now, thanks in large part to his glittering talents, the Belo Horizonte giants are still active in three further tournaments. 

They sit top of Serie A, four points clear of Palmeiras, and also find themselves in the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores and one game away from the last four of the Copa do Brasil for good measure.

While the team coached by Cuca boasts stars of international quality across the pitch – even adding Diego Costa for the final push for glory in 2021 – few have been as decisive as their veteran striker.

Hulk has netted seven times in Serie A to lead his team, while in his first-ever Libertadores campaign he has smashed a further seven in 10 games, with only Flamengo ace – and new international team-mate – Gabriel Barbosa ahead of him in the scoring charts.

That form had already put him in the sights of Brazil's selectors, only to miss out due to the enviable wealth of talent the nation enjoys in the final third. But it was not just the Premier League's controversial refusal to release players that sealed the deal.

Performances like the scintillating 90 minutes he put in back in August to see Atletico past River Plate in the Libertadores quarter-final, where he took one of the continent's best defences apart and as well as scoring a sublime goal of his own set up Matias Zaracho for the first strike of his side's 3-0 rout, show Hulk's unique range of abilities at his best: his immense physical stature, his impeccable technique and movement on and off the ball, his natural willingness to play in team-mates even if he has a path open to goal.

Hulk Atletico Mineiro GFXGetty Images

If anything, he has come back to Brazil just as good a player, and certainly more assured on the pitch, than when he was fighting for Champions League honours at his prime with the likes of Porto and Zenit.

“The thing that has changed is my experience, which you pick up as the years go by, your confidence,” Hulk added. “Right now I feel much more confident due to playing closer to goal.

“I am back with the national team after five years, much more mature and confident. You can be sure I will give my very best.”

Hulk has an excellent chance of picking up minutes in this marathon qualifying round, with the privilege of anchoring the attack alongside Gabigol and Neymar likely to come down to a straight fight between the Atletico star and uncapped Olympic gold-medallist and new Atletico Madrid signing Matheus Cunha, who is 13 years his junior.

Whoever makes the cut, they will have no easy task ahead of them. Tite's improvised team faces a daunting visit to Chile on Thursday, before hosting full-strength Argentina less than 72 hours later in a repeat of July's Copa America final and rounding off with another tough clash at home to Peru.

The Selecao sit top of the CONMEBOL standings with maximum points from their six matches so far, and their chances of making Qatar 2022 with ease should not be affected even if they struggle in all of September's fixtures.

But coming so soon after the disappointment of losing out to Argentina on home soil, another defeat in particular against the Albiceleste would be a huge blow to national pride, and heap pressure on their shoulders.

It will not be a match for the faint-hearted, but then again, nobody has never dared to level that accusation at Hulk. The all-action striker will put everything on the line given the chance and, in the absence of so many stars, his presence might just prove crucial when the going gets tough.