sell by date

Sometimes, I find it amazing how factors outside the world of football can so profoundly affect the game.

Brazil's Lucas Moura
lucas moura’s £35 million capture by PSG is a sign of the times with young brazilian talents.

For instance, a nation’s culture often influences its traditional style of play. England’s fast-paced, direct style can very much be linked to the importance of bravery, determination and a “do it for the Queen” mentality in the country’s cultural values. Germany’s traditionally disciplined outlook might have given way to a more creative one in recent years, but that was due in large part to refocusing their efforts on technical development — a prowess for which the German’s are well-known. Even in the US, our wear our heart on our sleeves, work harder than anyone else attitude shines through in our national side’s tendency to have extremely fit, industrious players.

Political fighting and revolution has seen club football in Egypt suspended since March 2011. The Pacific Northwest’s fondness for the alternative scene made it the perfect location to become soccer’s American hotbed, as they’ve embraced America’s most-bagged upon sport like true hipsters that they are. It’s even been postured that the main reason the World Cup has been hustled about to so many far-flung locations is so Sepp Blatter can win himself a Noble Peace Prize.

Of course, the biggest outside factor that I’ve neglected to mention so far is also the most obvious: money.

Most of the time when thinking about the influence that the influx of money into the game displays, most would be quick to point out one of a few key examples. The success seen with Roman Abramovich’s propping up of Chelsea, the Qatari’s pumping up Paris Saint-Germain, or Sheik Mansour pouring nearly a billion into Manchester City serve as the archetype for money’s impact on the game. But billionaires investing in various individual clubs isn’t the only way that money helps to shape the current state of the game.

To illustrate this point, consider Brazil. Long recognized as the world’s pre-eminent and largest factory of footballing talent, clubs around the world have long sought to unearth their own Brazilian and take advantage of the jogo bonito that spews from their feet. It was a relatively easy task for most European sides to cherry pick, too. Dangle a carrot of substantially higher wages than what their Brasileiro clubs could afford to pay, offer their clubs a tidy fee, and you’d have yourself a Brazilian. For instance, take a look at how much it set back European sides to purchase some of Brazil’s most famous exports over the last fifteen years:

Player Brazilian Club Buying Club Year Age Transfer Fee
Rivaldo Palmeiras Deportivo la Coruña 1994 24 £10.5m
Ronaldo Cruziero PSV Eindhoven 1994 17 £4.8m
Cafu São Paulo Real Zaragoza 1995 25 £1.3m
Ronaldinho Grêmio Paris Saint-Germain 2001 21 £4.5m
Lúcio Internacional Bayer Leverkusen 2001 24 £7.4m

First, notice that all of the purchasing clubs aren’t exactly European heavyweights — well, PSG weren’t at the time anyway. For the Brazilians, that was a good thing. Each player moved to a side that they were all but guaranteed playing time, which allowed them to develop and improve their games before they could progress to bigger and better clubs. Second, notice too how low the transfer fees paid for each of them was. With the clubs not demanding ridiculous buyouts for their players, it wasn’t a massive risk for a European side to take a gamble on a player that wouldn’t be a guarantee to pan out. And when it did work out, it did ensure a rather large profit for the club that was willing to take that risk.

But that trend soon changed, and as you might expect, it was sparked primarily by a financial boom born outside the realm of football.

While the world economy has suffered through the largest recession since the Great Depression over the last decade, Brazil’s economy has been one of the few that’s bucked the trend. Thanks to a liberalization of their foreign investment policies, combined with an emerging technology sector and the growing importance off their off-shore gas and oil holdings, Brazil’s GDP has averaged over 5% growth over the last five years and will soon become the world’s 5th largest economy. And though there are still vast amounts of people living in the slums in the country, the rapidly growth of the middle class is a sign that things are moving in the right direction.

neymar being mobbed by the masses
as neymar’s star has risen, so has his asking price.

Predictably, the nation’s national pastime was quick to see the benefits of such economic stimulation. Third party investment in the star players at Brazilian clubs — which provides the investor a large cut of each player’s image rights and shirt sales — skyrocketed, allowing Brazilian sides to offer considerably higher wages than they previously could. These higher wage offerings have allowed sides like Santos to hang on to highly sought after talents like Neymar far longer than they would have been able to in the past. Additionally, it’s also helped sides like São Paulo attract veteran players such as Luís Fabiano and get them come back a few years earlier than they previously would (I penned an entire post about this last season). All of which has helped to make the Brazilian leagues much more competitive, not to mention more appealing to the all-important foreign TV market.

So all seems honky dory, right? Well, not quite.

On the surface, Neymar and others of his generation are reaping the benefits of the country’s new-found wealth. They’re getting paid as much as they would if they had moved on to Europe, but without the risk of having to move an ocean away from home and try to adapt to a new culture. All your friends and family are close, and you’re one of the best players in the country. The average player still get’s to leave behind the life of poverty, yet doesn’t have to go a half world away to make it happen. Win-win.

But like everything else in life, there’s always a flip side to the coin. And in the case of Brazilian footballers, there are several elements to other side of the coin.

Sure, Brazilians might not need Europe for its riches any longer. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t need it’s leagues either. Look at Neymar performance in the Olympic final, where the golden boy was once again exposed. Mexico’s high pressure defense didn’t provide him the time and space for his standard flash and panache. El Trí were able to force into bad positions on the pitch, rushed passes and a handful of turnovers. So for a player that many have claimed to be one of the best players in the world, why wasn’t he able to assert himself better?

Most sides that he faces in South America adopt a very deep back line to leave room for their favored counter attacking style. Coupled with the respect his talent deserves, and Neymar tends to have loads of time for his theatrics. But when forced where he was forced to face a high pressure defense, that space and time evaporated. The same thing happened to him in the Club World Cup last year, where he was in over his head against Barcelona. Just like his time playing in this summer’s Olympics, he had his moments of brilliance, but they were few and fleeting against the top-notch competition.

Oscar of Brazil
oscar shown for team brazil during the olympics, but will he be given the same opportunity at stamford bridge?

So while going to Europe won’t necessarily provide young Brazilians with the fatter wallet it used to, the old continent is still unrivaled when it comes to providing top class competition. Everyone in your side is a good player, and the day-in-day-out training and stiffer competition for both your place on the pitch and the results of the match will undoubtedly push a special talent to reach their full potential. As long as Neymar continues to stay in Brazil, it’s highly probably that he could potentially never reach that potential… and that would be a shame, especially considering the country’s sky-high ambitions.

So now that we’ve established why the young starlets of Brazil need to move on to Europe at one point or another, how does this tie back in to the country’s finances?

With these young players staying longer and getting paid on par with their European counterparts, they’ve become infinitely more valuable assets to their current Brazilian clubs. When they sell on a star player, Flamengo or Grêmio or Fluminense don’t just lose a hard to replace member of their starting eleven, but also a possibly impossible to replace income stream from advertising dollars and shirt sales. So if some club from Europe really wants to pry away one of their most prized resources, they’re going to have to shell out a handsome sum to do so. That’s why we’re seeing a young 19-year old starlet like Lucas Moura requiring nearly a £35 million transfer fee, an outrageous fee that only a super-rich side like PSG can afford. In fact, this has been a developing trend for quite a while now:

Player Brazilian Club Buying Club Year Age Transfer Fee
Robinho Santos Real Madrid 2005 21 £18.8m
Pato Internacional A.C. Milan 2007 18 £18.8m
Oscar São Paulo Chelsea 2012 20 £20.0m
Lucas Moura São Paulo Paris Saint-Germain 2012 19 £34.8m

That’s silly money, the kind that only a few teams in the world can pay. And with Internacional president Giovanni Luigi claiming Tottenham or any other suitors will need to meet the £47m buyout clause for Leandro Damião, and Santos saying Neymar is now “priceless”, it certainly looks a trend that will continue. Which would be fine, if it weren’t for just one more niggling factor.

When a 20-year Oscar arrived in West London — with the weight of expectation from his £20m pricetag hanging around his neck — there are a half dozen other players that can play in his favored central creator role: Mata, Hazard, Ramires, Essien, Benayoun and McEachran. And like we’ve seen from players that don’t get regular minutes at this pivotal point in their lives, they don’t continue to develop. Every emerging talent moving to a European power should expect a dog fight to climb into the first eleven, and understand it’s a risk.

Now compare those clubs to those of the players mentioned in the first list, and notice the size difference. If a player goes earlier to a smaller club, they might not get the pay day, but they’re given a much more realistic chance of establishing themselves in the side. The pay off for which can mean the difference between success abroad, establishing one’s place in the national team, and eventually reaching their maximum potential.

It’s almost as if young Brazilians are gallons of milk at the grocery: if they’re held onto too long, they go past their sell by dates.

One would hope that CBF officials are taking note of these kinds of trends, too. If they have any hope of Brazil lifting the World Cup trophy in the Maracanã in two year’s time, they’ll have to break the stranglehold of Spain’s mile deep talent pool, beat the German’s in the race to redevelopment, and maybe find a way to beat Mexico! And they’ll need this extremely talented crop of youngsters to reach their full potentials to do that. Yet if their starlets waste away on the benches of European giants for the next few years, I don’t know if that will be possible.

Look, it’s great that Brazil’s economy is expanding and lifting millions out of poverty. And it’s equally great that Brazilian players don’t have to seek pastures anew to achieve their dreams. But if the trickle down effect of all this money into Brazilian football continues on its current trajectory, I worry that the expectations of the entire country might be a bit too high… the victims of their own success.

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