South American way

The latest "new Maradona" is ready to fly the nest but, as Ben Collins asks, where will he land?

It was only a matter of time before Carlos Tevez left Argentina, especially after some spell-binding performances at last summer’s Olympics. However, the team that tempted the latest “new Maradona” away from Boca Juniors was not a star-studded Champions League regular, but Corinthians of Brazil; a fascinating choice for a number of reasons, not only because the US$22 million (£11.4m) transfer may have been instigated by a certain Russian billionaire.

Europe’s elite have had their eyes on Tevez since he made his breakthrough as a 17- year-old with Boca in November 2001. The playmaker-cum-striker led his team to the league title, the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup in 2003. Sizeable bids from Bayern Munich and PSV Eindhoven were turned down before Tevez hit a new level this summer, helping Argentina to the Copa America final and Olympic gold with eight goals in six games.

Now 20, he had already been pursued by the press, but after becoming a national hero he became increasingly frustrated with the media scrutiny of his relationship with 26-year-old model Natalia Fassi and his rowdy private life, which scared off Atlético Madrid. He spoke of a longing for “tranquillity” and a move was imminent, but the journey north for a Brazilian transfer record was some surprise. Argentines rarely move to Brazil – it simply isn’t done. One of the most high-profile transfers between the arch-rivals saw Bernardo Gandulla leave Boca for Vasco da Gama some 65 years ago, but he failed to produce in Brazil, spending most of his time on the bench, throwing the ball back. Brazilians delighted in the failure of Gandulla and even today gandulla is the term used to describe a ballboy in Brazil.

With an estimated 25 millions fans, Corinthians of São Paulo are the second most popular club in Brazil. Their fans have been known to show their discontent by invading the dressing room or ambushing the team coach, so it is probably the least “tranquil” destination that Tevez could have chosen. Furthermore, it’s astonishing that a Brazilian team had the resources to clinch such a deal, which saw Tevez sign a five-year, $10m contract. Brazilian football is skint and an estimated 800 footballers left the country this year. In November, however, a London-based group of investors agreed a ten-year partnership deal with Corinthians. Media Sports Investments arranged to clear $20m of debt, with the Tevez purchase a “gift”, in return for a 51 per cent share in the club and 51 per cent of any future profits.

With Corinthians’ fan base and location in South America’s financial centre, it’s easy to see why MSI wanted to do business. They have expressed a desire to turn Corinthians into “a team of galácticos” and a global brand, and have promised a further $35m to bring in at least three Brazil internationals and another foreigner (they’re allowed only two).

Yet all is not well in the Corinthians camp, with opinion divided amongst both the club’s board and supporters. The club’s current individual salary cap of $100,000 a month has been smashed and there are question marks over the identity of MSI executive Kia Joorabchian, who brokered the partnership deal and the Tevez transfer. Educated in Britain, the Iran-born entrepreneur has a number of business interests and admits previously dealing with the most notorious of Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky. From being a car dealer, Berezovsky became a member of Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle after investing in an airline, aluminium, media and oil. However, he fell out of favour with current President Vladimir Putin and is wanted on fraud charges. Berezovsky has been granted political asylum in the UK, allowing him to avoid extradition, and is now based in London, an ideal location to keep in touch with old friend and former protégé Roman Abramovich.

Spanish newspaper As claims Abramovich has a 15 per cent share in MSI, while his yacht was spotted in Buenos Aires days before the Tevez deal was completed last month, though Joorabchian denies any link with Chelsea and with Berezovsky, for that matter. It is claimed by some that MSI own the rights to Tevez and have ceded him to the club, the transfer thus preventing him moving to Europe until Chelsea are ready to take him on. But with such peril waiting around every corner, you have to wonder if Tevez will still be ready by then, or just playing fetch on the sidelines.

From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month