Ludogorets wing wizard Jonathan Cafu destined for bigger things in Europe

Jonathan Cafu has always aspired to emulate Neymar, and even the Barcelona superstar would be proud to score some of the goals the 25-year-old wizard from Ludogorets has netted in the Champions League this season.

The first work of art was produced against Red Star Belgrade in July. Cafu received the ball near the halfway line and made fun of the defence, passing everyone including the goalkeeper, as though he was Lionel Messi. A week later, in the return leg in Serbia, the Brazilian netted an even more astonishing goal, dribbling past five opponents before sending a screamer into the top corner.

Ludogorets eventually won in extra time, and then outfought Viktoria Plzen in the playoffs to qualify for the group stage. They were considered clear underdogs in the first fixture at Basel, but Cafu had other plans. He scored a magnificent goal on the counter, and the Swiss champions barely managed to salvage a draw.

Now, as the likes of Leicester City have started to follow his progress very closely, the Brazilian arrives in London to face Arsenal in the biggest game of his career so far.

It is ironic that Cafu is actually older than Neymar, and could have played for Santos before him. At the age of 16, the winger spent six months at the famous academy, but things didn't work out and he was discarded. The disappointment was so huge and the criticism so insulting that the youngster considered quitting football for good. But he was persuaded to continue by his mother and brothers, and started a very long journey that seemed to be taking him nowhere at times.

His "Cafu" nickname is flattering, but it could lead to unrealistic expectations. Born as Jonathan Renato Barbosa in 1991, the kid was soon called Cafu by one of his cousins who admired the legendary right-back, and it stuck. At first, he was known at Cafuzinho, which means "little Cafu," but then adopted the full name. The problem was that he played in attack rather than in defence, and never seemed to be close to the original as far as potential is concerned.

Jonathan's life has never been easy. He is the seventh of eight brothers who grew up without a father in a very poor Mario Dedini neighbourhood in the city of Piracicaba. Their mother, Leandra Cristina, worked extremely hard to feed them, and the children had to help too. At a certain stage, Cafu earned money as a postman, delivering various leaflets from door to door. That is hardly surprising when you take into account that his monthly salary at Rio Clara academy stood at about $60 and he had to support a son himself, having become a father at the age of 16.

The dream of becoming a professional footballer looked nearly impossible more often than not, especially after two trials in Europe went wrong. In 2009, Cafu tried his luck at Braga in Portugal, and was back within two months. A year later, he made the trip to PSV Eindhoven, but the Dutch giants decided against signing him as well. No significant club in his homeland was interested, and the youngster initially played for Desportivo Brasil in the fourth division.

Moving to magnificently named XV de Novembro, who played in the regional Paulista league in 2012, was a huge step forward, but he had to wait two more years before finally getting a decent chance to prove himself. In fact, club managers wanted to release him on numerous occasions, and only in the beginning of 2014 Cafu began to shine, especially after scoring in the 4-1 win over Ponte Preta.

Even during the hardest of times, Cafu continued to believe that he was destined for bigger things. Ahead of the move to second division Ponte Preta in March 2014, he stated: "I want to play for the national team. The big dream is to sign for Real Madrid, Barcelona or Chelsea. I want to play in the Champions League."

Not a single fan who read that interview in the local Jornal de Piracicaba took his words seriously. And yet, just two years later part of his wishes had come true, and more is to follow.

The rise became possible thanks to the coach Guto Ferreira at Ponte Preta. "I owe him everything. He brought me to the team and gave me the chance in the professional football," the winger said after becoming one of the leaders of the side. Such was his contribution that the biggest clubs took notice. Cafu has always supported Corinthians, but it was still an easy decision for him to sign for Sao Paulo in the beginning of 2015.

Naturally, the new player needed time to settle in the top division, and Cafu barely played in the first few months. Thus an offer from Europe was rather unexpected, and Cafu himself was a bit hesitant to move to Bulgaria after Ludogorets' sporting director Metodi Tomanov got in touch with his agent.

"We didn't accept the first offer, but the second was very good for me and Sao Paulo," the winger told ESPN Brazil. The fact that Ludogorets had seven Brazilians in the squad already helped to make the move much smoother.

With Ludogorets paying a club record of €2.2 million for his services, much was expected of Cafu, and he didn't disappoint. His technical skills and audacity are truly reminiscent of Neymar, and such a star is almost unprecedented in Bulgaria. The Brazilian took the league by storm, scoring eight goals on the way to the title last season. He proved himself as a good centre-forward, even though his best position is on the wing. Now, after his incredible exploits in the Champions League, the club management are over the moon, waiting to make the biggest deal in their history.

"There is no chance that Cafu will go for €6m. They can take pictures of him for that money. We told the player that he will not be sold for less than €10m," Ludogorets president Kiril Domuschiev said. The player's contract was extended last week, even though nobody believes that he will stay at the club for much longer.

Thousands of Brazilian talents never fulfil their potential and go astray in lower divisions, but Cafu has overcome plenty of difficulties and is now living his dream. A great show against Arsenal at the Emirates on Wednesday night would obviously help. Jonathan didn't get a chance to play with Neymar at Santos almost a decade ago, but they might yet meet on the biggest stage of all.