Prodigal sons

The Brazilian tradition of exporting talented footballers to the rest of the world may be changing. Robert Shaw reports

The new season in Brazil kicked off in January with an unusual sight: four of the country’s biggest stars over the last two decades (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho) were playing for local clubs. Admittedly this curious spectacle did not last long. Corinthians’ cataclysmic exit from the Copa Libertadores saw Roberto Carlos fleeing to another big pay day in Russian football and 
Ronaldo bringing forward his retirement.

But the presence of these players, along with the return of other established internationals such as Elano, has prompted talk of a renaissance in the domestic game. A pattern in recent years has been for Brazilian internationals to return home around 12 to 18 months before World Cups in order to improve their selection prospects. Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos both hoped forlornly that their return to Corinthians would help them force their way into Dunga’s party for South Africa.

One indicator of whether this is part of a longer term trend will be what happens to Brazil’s best young talent, and whether Santos and São Paulo will be able to hold on to Neymar and Lucas respectively after their starring roles in the recent South American Under-20 Championship in Peru. Even if Neymar stays longer than expected, other examples prove the ongoing pulling power of an international move. Alexandre Pato and Philippe Coutinho were signed by the Milan clubs at the earliest opportunity.

While the volume and value of major deals that take Brazil’s young stars directly to principal European clubs may have reduced, demand has grown elsewhere. Russia and the neighbouring republics are now among the most popular destinations. These can act as a stepping stone for lucrative second moves to the higher profile leagues of Spain, Italy and England. Ironically, at a time when Brazilian players are becoming relatively more expensive, the Premier League has never had so many Brazilians, with Lucas, Ramires, Anderson and Sandro, along with Man Utd’s Fabio and Rafael, all candidates for Brazil’s 2014 World Cup squad, if not the Copa América in July.

A burgeoning Brazilian economy and strong local currency makes playing at home more attractive, especially when paid by sponsors rather than directly from club funds, as with Fred at Fluminense and Adriano during his turbulent spell with Flamengo. But these deals tend to be ad hoc relationships built around the business generated by established stars, rather than persuading potential ones to stay longer in Brazil.

Ronaldinho’s move to Flamengo is cited by some as compelling evidence of this trend. His choice of a Rio de Janeiro club is reminiscent of the choice made by Romário at the peak of his career, but observers remain divided about whether this is part of a serious plan to feature in Brazil’s World Cup plans or is principally a lifestyle choice.

Rivaldo’s career since 2002 is also illuminating. Despite a dalliance with Cruzeiro and an unsuccessful spell at AC Milan, the 38-year-old spent the last six seasons in the well-paid backwaters of Greek and Uzbek football before signing for São Paulo this year. Likewise, Juninho Pernambucano delayed a long-anticipated return to Vasco by moving to Qatari club Al-Gharafa. Fenerbahce’s Alex, arguably Brazil’s most gifted midfielder of the last decade, continues to feel Turkey is a better home for his skills than his homeland.

But conclusive judgments about the Brazilian market ought to wait until after the dust has settled on the 2014 World Cup. Until then both the Olympics in 2012 and the World Cup may distort the normal market forces. One sceptic about the return of big names is columnist and 1970 World Cup winner Tostão, who argues that the process is being fuelled by aggressive marketing and the involvement of the entertainment media but that, in reality: “Brazil today looks like one of the old El Dorados, somewhere stars go at the end of their career to earn lots of money and shine a few last times… some succeed, but against weak teams and for short periods, to be better than the rest.”

What seems probable is that the model of young players leaving Brazil for their entire careers, before a single last hurrah at home, may be changing. The chance to return for lucrative short-term contracts interspersed with longer periods abroad is similar to the way cricketers parachute in for short contracts with English counties. The imperative for indebted Brazilian clubs is still to trade their best young talent, and in most cases this means overseas.

From WSC 290 April 2011