Naldo, one of the Bundesliga's greatest imports, deserves Brazil World Cup call
It was an unstoppable thunderbolt. Naldo's magnificent long-range free kick -- powerful but swerving at the same time -- left Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Burki little chance on Sunday. The Brazilian defender made it 2-0 for Schalke in the Ruhr derby, ensuring the points and almost certainly a Champions League spot for next season. That was Naldo's seventh goal of the season, as he equaled his personal record.
Dortmund don't like facing Naldo. He's scored six goals against them already throughout his career, including the dramatic injury-time equaliser in November when Schalke came back from 4-0 down at halftime to draw 4-4. He's only the fourth Schalke player to score in both fixtures against their bitter rivals in the same season. Not a bad feat for a defender.
Born as Ronaldo Aparecido Rodrigues, he chose to shorten his name to Naldo in order to avoid comparisons with the famous countryman. However, his ability to overcome knee injuries against all odds proved to be similar to that of the former Barcelona, Inter and Real Madrid superstar. Naldo turned out to be "the Ronaldo of the defenders," even as far as goals are concerned.
Naldo is at the very heart of everything Schalke have achieved this season, incredibly having played every single minute of the 30 Bundesliga matches at the age of 35. This could arguably be his best campaign yet, Brazil coach Tite had at one stage hinted that the veteran could go to the World Cup.
"He is one of the players we have in mind," Tite said, but decided not to call him up ahead of the friendly in Germany in March.
Now, with Naldo scoring twice in a row and putting in outstanding performances at the back, Tite should think again of the man whose only international tournament was the 2007 Copa America. Naldo played only 16 minutes as Brazil won the tournament, just after making his debut in England's first game at the new Wembley Stadium.
Naldo's last game for Brazil game before Thiago Silva's first. The Paris Saint-Germain player is not mentioned by chance, because the pair are good friends, having played for the modest Juventude together in 2004. It was Juventude coach Ivo Wortmann who converted Naldo, formerly a striker, into a commanding centre-back, and gave him a belated professional debut at the age of 21. The switch was a stroke of genius, because Naldo suddenly became more prolific from the back than he used to be up front.
Scouts noticed his talents, and Werder Bremen's sporting director Klaus Allofs to watch him personally. Juventude were so reluctant to sell Naldo that they benched him upon hearing the news, but Allofs persisted and stayed another week. Eventually, he headed to northern Germany in the summer of 2005.
Flourishing under the attacking approach of coach Thomas Schaaf at Bremen, Naldo became the most prolific defender in the Bundesliga, thanks to his free kick expertise and aerial prowess in the penalty area. Very tall and robust at 198 centimeters, he possesses surprisingly sound technical skills, and this combination made him unique. He once even scored a hat trick against Eintracht Frankfurt. When Werder reached the UEFA Cup final in 2009, it was Naldo who netted their goal in the 2-1 extra-time defeat at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk.
His future looked bright those days, and Naldo dreamed of starring at the 2010 World Cup alongside his best pal. "To play for Brazil with Thiago Silva would be sensational," he said.
Fate had other ideas. Naldo suffered a mysterious knee injury and Bremen doctors failed to find a way to cure it, while initially rejecting the player's wish to get treatment in his homeland.
Only in January 2011 was Naldo successfully operated in Brazil. A lot of time was wasted -- he missed the entire 2010-11 season and only came back after 16 months on the sidelines. He described the club's behaviour as "wrong and disrespectful" and the relations were broken beyond repair. The player didn't trust the management and the medical staff, while the club didn't trust Naldo's fitness, thinking that his career was about to be over.
Thus it was only logical that the move to Wolfsburg, where Allofs had moved on to as the sporting director, happened in 2012. "We didn't buy an unfit player, and we firmly believe that Naldo would be resilient in the coming years," Allofs said. He was right. While Bremen nosedived, Naldo enjoyed a fantastic spell with the Wolves.
He was instrumental when Wolfsburg finished as runners-up in the Bundesliga in 2015, and then played a crucial role in the run to the Champions League quarterfinals during the following season, scoring a brace against Manchester United and helping to knock the Red Devils out in the group stage.
By the summer of 2016, however, Wolfsburg's offer to extend his contract fell short of expectations, possibly considering that his career end was getting closer. "I didn't feel that the club was fighting for me, but at Schalke it was different," was how the Brazilian explained his decision to move to Gelsenkirchen.
Once again, discarding Naldo proved to be a big mistake. Wolfsburg were never the same without him, but Schalke are rejuvenated, especially this season under the sensational coach Domenico Tedesco. "He is the best coach I have ever had," Naldo says, and the mentor clearly trusts the veteran, making him an ever-present in the starting lineup.
Few would have thought that could be possible back when Naldo's career was in danger, but in January he broke Ze Roberto's record and became the Brazilian with the most appearances in the Bundesliga, with his tally currently standing at 347 games. He has scored 46 goals and doesn't intend to stop, recently extending his contract until 2019. He is going to play in the Champions League for a third German club, and his status as one of the very best imports ever is assured.
Can Naldo's career be capped off by a place in Brazil's squad for the World Cup finals? It's up to Tite to decide now.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.