by Jonas Gerken
I decided to go to Brazil for one main motivation: football. Real football. Soccer. The country is ripe with football culture. Jerseys are sold in every shop; games are on televisions in every eating establishment; pitches exist in almost every neighborhood. Brazilian fans have been known to go to extremes for their national team, including jumping off of buildings, both in defeat and victory. In Brazil, torceda (supporting a team) really is coração (heart).
In Brazil I played for a team called Orlando City, an academy or development team created and sponsored by the Orlando City soccer team based out of the United States. It was a fun team to play on, and I got to play with my host brother which helped strengthen our relationship. The Brazilians that I played with were very talented, some of the best on the island of Florianopolis, but paled in comparison to kids from around the country. When we played in the Copa Floripa, the largest tournament on the island and in Santa Catarina, we scored just two goals and lost every game by a dividend greater than three. But the kids I played with in Brazil did something that kids in the US soccer system stop doing after they are about fourteen: they play for fun.
In one of my favorite videos from my childhood produced by Nike sponsored Joga TV, Eric Cantona, Manchester United and overall soccer legend, narrates over a young Ronaldinho playing futsal. Cantona says, “When you were a kid it was easy. You were not afraid to try, to dare. You did it just because you liked it.” This is the Brazilian football mentality, and as I’ve found through my 15 years watching and playing the sport, why Brazilians are so technically superior to players from other nations. But there is another factor that contributes to Brazilian football success, and it might seem counter intuitive at first.
Socioeconomically, the north and south of Brazil are very different. Historically the northern states of Brazil have primarily made their money through coffee, a cash crop that up until fifty years ago accounted for over 50% of Brazil’s domestic income and exports. While Brazil now has a thriving industrial sector and a lucrative and corrupt oil monopoly under Petrobras, coffee is still king in the Amazon regions. The south of Brazil, with its close proximity to the nations of Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina, is much more reliant on cattle ranchers, field farmers, and workers of higher education (lawyers, office workers). The result of this economic contrast is a nation in which the vast majority of its wealth resides in its southern states, specifically the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Paraná, Santa Catarina–the state where I spent the majority of my time in Brazil–, and Rio Grande do Sul.
Because of this imbalanced distribution of wealth, these southern states have far superior infrastructure, greater foreign investment, and better quality of life. Brazil’s best football clubs reside in these states because they have the resources to purchase the best players, make connections with European teams, and sell their superstars to invest more money in their club. Such teams include Gremio (my team), Flamengo, and Botafogo. But these teams aren’t just “born” with the best Brazilian players; in fact the majority of them aren’t even from the same states as the club they play for. That’s because while the south of Brazil sports the best of Brazilian clubs, the north is home to the best of Brazilian footballers, with some exceptions.
Take Brazil’s most legendary player as and example. Pele, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, is from Tres Coracoes in the state of Minas Gerais. The football infrastructure in Minas Gerais, especially in the time of Pele, was not great, with only a few actual grass fields to play on and only the best teams able to play on them (artificial fields had not yet been invented). So players like Pele were forced to play in the only places they could: the streets. Eventually good players like Pele would be told to try out for the local team, where they would be able to play in real matches, on real grass, and get exposure to scouts. In Brazil scouts range from neighborhood mulekes (random people) to official club scouts, but no matter how word gets out about you, if you are a talented player in Brazil they will find you. Pele got recruited and began playing for Santos at the age of 15 and the Brazilian national team at 16. Pele went on to win three World Cups with Brazil and led Santos to win two Copa Libertadores, the largest club tournament in South America. Pele represents one of many ways that the Brazilian football systems works to get its best players to the top stage. But Pele is from an antiquated time in football history, where the game wasn’t as much about money as playing for your team, and basking in the glory of winning your league trophy or The World Cup. Back then football was much more romantic.
In the modern game, starting in the late eighties, European clubs began to accrue incredible financial resources, and were able to reach out anywhere in the world to find players for their clubs. Consequentially, the football world looked towards Brazil as a nation with seemingly limitless untapped talent. My favorite example of this shift is in the case of Ronaldinho Gaucho who I consider the greatest technical player to ever have lived. Ronaldinho was born in Porto Alegre, the capital of Brazil’s southernmost state Rio Grande do Sul. Porto Alegre is home to Gremio Football Club and Internacional, one of the largest rivalries in Brazilian football. Ronaldinho started his football career playing futsal (indoor soccer), and as any Brazilian success story goes he was picked up by a scout for Gremio. Gremio is an excellent team, arguably the best in Brazil, but they had neither the skill nor the holding power to keep a player of Ronaldinho’s caliber, so they sold him to Paris Saint Germain for five million euros, a small fee for PSG but an incredible amount of money for the Brazilian club. Ronaldinho then continued his European tour, moving to Barcelona, the best club team in the world, before moving to AC Milan at a time when Serie A could produce teams to compete at the international level with success. With age, Ronaldinho returned to Brazil to play for four other clubs before retiring. Ronaldinho won a World Cup in 2002 with the Brazilian national team, likely his greatest achievement.
Ronaldinho’s story is not unique. Neymar Jr., currently the highest regarded Brazilian player in the world started his career at Santos as well. He then moved to Barcelona, like Ronaldinho for 57.1 million euros, and incredible amount of money for Santos. Roberto Firmino, one of Brazil’s most promising forwards came from Alagoas, a state on the north coast, and started his career at Figueirense’s youth program before being transferred to play at Hoffenheim and then Liverpool. Other notable players who followed the same path include Kaka, Philippe Coutinho, Casemiro, Thiago Silva, David Silva, Marcelo, and Gabriel Jesus. The point remains that the best Brazilian players don’t play in Brazil.
One of the players on my team that I played on in Brazil went through a similar process. Wesley, a fourteen year old from Cacupe, a generally low income neighborhood in Florianopolis, played with the eighteen and nineteen year old team. In February a scout came to watch us play and the next week he left the team to travel to Madrid, to play in Real Madrid’s youth system. According to my host brother, this is a regular occurrence for teams in Brazil: young talented players come to the club from low income neighborhoods looking for opportunities to play, and end up getting recruited to play at high level teams. To these kids, my brother told me, it’s their way out. And this makes sense; there are programs that exist all around the world that look to recruit excellent players in unwealthy regions of the world. When I played for Arsenal Football Club in California, we frequently played against teams like Golden State FC and Santa Barbara, who have active recruiting programs for coaches and players in Brazil, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and various other nations in South and Central America, and as a result outclassed us with technically superior players.
To witness both sides of this exchange was interesting, because it makes sense to everybody. It is in the best interest of the club in the United States or Europe to recruit these players because they are looking for the best players. It is in the best interest of the players because they ultimately want to get seen and play for the best club that they can. It is in the best interest of the Brazilian team because that means they can potentially make money off of these programs to improve their process and find more players to send into these programs. It is an incubation machine for world class footballers.
And yet, soccer culture in Brazil still thrives. Brazil has such an abundance of excellent technical and athletic players who populate the pitches at all levels. It is so ingrained in their culture that they can sell their best players without taking a major hit to the level of play in their leagues. Millions of fans still watch their local teams on TV, go to games, buy jerseys and flags, and bleed the colors of their clubs and the national team. Because in Brazil, it really is only about enjoying the beautiful game.
Kuper, Simon, and Stefan Szymanski. Soccernomics: Why Spain, Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the USA, Japan, Australia – and Even Iraq – Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport. HarperSport, 2014.