Ex-Bayern Munich defender Breno seeking redemption with Sao Paulo
He calls it an accident, but that was not how the court in Germany saw it in July 2012. Nine months earlier, the luxury villa he rented in a suburb of Munich had burned to the ground. A grave error, surely, but not unintentional, according to judge Rosi Datzman, who handed him a sentence of three years and nine months in prison. Prosecutors had pushed for more.
So it was that Breno, once viewed as one of the most promising young defenders in world football, arrived at his lowest ebb. A career that had promised so much -- the Brazilian was snapped up by Bayern Munich while still in his teens and was seen as a future Seleção stalwart -- lay in tatters, his name destined to become little more than a bizarre footnote or the answer to a pub quiz question.
Or so it appeared.
For against all odds, Breno is working toward a footballing renaissance back in his homeland.
Released from prison ahead of schedule as reward for good behaviour, the centre-back -- now 25 -- wasted little time in cementing a return to São Paulo, where he first made his breakthrough in 2007. He is currently in preseason training, and the Paulista giants are cautiously optimistic that he will have a big part to play this year.
The emotional bond between player and club is a strong one: São Paulo offered Breno a contract in 2012, when he was still in prison. It was an olive branch that he grasped with both hands and a gesture he clearly appreciates. "They supported me from the start," he told Globo this week. "The welcome they gave me was sensational; everyone has been so warm."
Early signs have been positive. Breno has trained well and has spoken of rediscovering "the monster" that once terrified opposition forwards. Nonetheless, coach Muricy Ramalho is preaching patience. "We won't put any pressure on him," he said earlier this month. "I know the boy well. When he's ready to play, he'll play ... there's no pressure. He needs time to recuperate in every respect."
That is a wise approach given Breno's history. His was a meteoric rise from obscurity to recognition, with his senior debut and a 12 million-euros transfer to Europe separated by fewer than 50 games. It was a lot for a teenager to cope with.
Breno struggled with the German language and found first-team chances hard to come by: "My agents told me I was going there to play, but I was never first choice. I was just a kid and maybe I listened to the wrong people."
Things improved slightly with a loan spell at Nuremburg, but his progress was soon hampered by a serious knee injury that kept him out for 10 months. It was the stress of being told he would have to undergo a third operation on the joint that pushed him over the edge on that day in September 2011.
In his own words: "I got really down and, on the day of the accident, I received news they would operate for a third time. I drank, passed out, and it just happened. People said there was some argument with my wife, but that wasn't true. It was an accident and an error on my part."
That day will always play on his mind. And to many people, he will always be little more than a cruel caricature, the footballer who torched his own home. Yet Breno now appears to be at peace with his past, calling the past five years a learning experience and insisting that "the nightmare is over."
"You have to look for the positives," he said this week. And he certainly seems to be doing just that. He hopes to prove his fitness in time for the Campeonato Paulista and to earn a new long-term contract. He clearly still harbours ambitions, refusing to rule out a return to Europe one day when asked this week.
However, Breno must realise that it will take a lot of hard work for him to fulfill even half of his potential. But given that any redemption at all must have seemed out of reach from his prison cell, salvaging even a year or two of football from the ashes would go down as a victory. Anything more would be a bonus.