18 January ~ The Brazilian club Botafogo have recently acquired a new strikeforce – the Argentine Germán Herrera on loan from Grêmio and prolific Uruguayan international Sebastián Abreu. The club's fans are particularly excited about the arrival of Abreu (to the delight of the marketing department, nicknamed "El Loco") and flocked to the General Severiano training base to see Botafogo legend Mário Zagallo hand the player a "lucky" number 13 shirt. But the acquisition of two high-profile non-Brazilians is a further sign that the country is now exporting so many of its good young footballers that it needs to import foreign players to fill the gap.
By recruiting from other parts of South America Botafogo are putting themselves at odds with a proud history of providing more representatives for the Brazilian national team than any other club. O Glorioso are also notable for sending sending players the other way, with the prolific Heleno de Freitas and Paulo Valentim both becoming major stars at Boca Juniors in the late 1940s and early 60s respectively.
The club's youth system, a victim (and principal cause) of Fogo's woeful financial state, has produced few notable graduates for the first team squad. A promising campaign in this year's Copa de São Paulo junior competition apart, Botafogo remain vulnerable to the charge of quick fixes, seeking "off-the-peg" foreigners rather than developing local talent.
The club directors seem to share a common Brazilian admiration of the ruggedly red-blooded football associated with their southern neighbours. But not all signings have lived up to the hype. Argentine striker Leandro Zárate came with a glowing reputation in 2008 but, despite months of training, failed to work off the excess poundage accumulated partly through a reported fondness for street barbecues. Uruguay reserve goalkeeper Juan Castillo has also disappointed and since moved on to Deportivo Cali in Colombia.
Foreign imports have also been a response to a dearth of players in certain positions, with the Chilean "wizard" Jorge Valdivia at Palmeiras between 2006-08 and Dario Conca, first at Vasco and and now Fluminense, filling a vacuum left by the paucity of young Brazilian playmakers. Yet despite the prominence of Brazil's domestic leagues (thanks to clubs' strong performances in the Copa Libertadores) the country is still not receiving the cream of South American talent, which is much more likely to head to Europe. And despite the success of Serbian midfielder Dejan Petkovic in improbably spearheading Flamengo's 2009 national title triumph South America, rather than Europe, remains the major source of imports to Brazil.
In some ways the move of South American players to Brazil is similar to the import of Scandinavian players to British football, with the odd gem mixed among a batch of players of indifferent calibre. Botafogo hope that "El Loco" will prove a masterstroke rather than one more madcap signing. Robert Shaw