Why South American soccer's future looks bleak

By Paul Gardner

How much longer can South American soccer last? I mean, how much longer can it continue being truly South American soccer, the soccer of artistry and goals?

How long will it be before the clammy, money-drenched embrace of the European game smothers everything that distinguishes and delights in the Latin game?

This is no longer an academic question. The insidious spread of European soccer has been going on for quite a while now. Not only in South America, of course. It operates in Africa and Asia, and it is very much present here in the USA.

Let me switch to North America for a moment, because the Europeanization of soccer is something we know quite a lot about. All those coaches and scouts, all those clinics, all those exhibition games, all those “partnerships” with youth clubs and the wonderful monetary support that comes with them (well, European club shirts to wear, anyway) ... and, of course, all the magical words about helping the development of the game in this country, as though the USA is some pathetic soccer backwater eagerly awaiting the arrival of the sainted soccer missionaries from Europe.

Once those guys have set up their stalls, or taken over American stalls, and once they have given their clinics (and charged their fees) all will be sunlight and roses. American talent will blossom. And ... er, well, yes, now that you ask ... the cream of it will be shipped off to Europe.

Which raises a serious question. If we assume that the No. 1 marker of a serious soccer country is a thriving pro league (and I don’t know anyone who does not believe that), then we must ask: how does having the best young American players carted off to Europe help the growth of MLS?

FIFA has attempted to at least slow this process down. Its regulations state that a player cannot -- except for special cases -- move to another country before he is age 18. Which takes us back to South America and a sad -- but highly relevant -- little story just in from Brazil.

Wellington Silva is a 17-year-old striker with the famous Rio de Janeiro club Fluminense. He’s good enough to be playing in the first team. So, of course, he’s already been signed by a European club -- England’s Arsenal. He cannot move to England until January, when he turns 18. But his life has already been turned upside down. He has not played in the first team for several months, because, says Coach Muricy Ramalho “his mind is already in England.”

Wellington says that Ramalho barely talks to him, and admits that he is now totally focused on Arsenal.

So a well-intentioned FIFA rule, meant to minimize the disruption in a young player’s life, does nothing of the sort. In Brazil and Argentina, in particular, they have plenty of experience of the damage done to their domestic game by Europan clubs.

Take a look at the Argentine first division -- you’ll find River Plate in eighth position, and Boca Juniors in 10th. And why not? How can it be possible for them to maintain their position as Argentina’s two most successful clubs when they are constantly losing their best players to European clubs?

As soon as a promising youngster appears in the first team you can be sure he will soon be bound for Europe. Quite probably even before that the youngster will be under contract to an agent whose chief aim will be to find him a European club. The already mentioned case of Fluminense’s Wellington is not an isolated one.

It is, on the face of it, a situation that benefits everyone: the European clubs get the players, the South American clubs get fat transfer fees, the young player and his family -- who are usually not wealthy -- also get plenty of money.

It is in no one’s interest to step in and prevent the boys from leaving. But the effects of this drain are obviously going to be disastrous for Argentine and Brazilian soccer.

As for the clubs, it is not a healthy situation for them to realize that producing players for sale to Europe -- and for sale at ever younger ages -- has become one of their most important functions, and one of their most important sources of income.

How do things sit with the fans who know that as soon as they discover a new idol, their chances of seeing much of him are pretty poor. Where once they might have envisioned a new star to lead them to the national championship and domestic glory, they can now expect to wave him goodbye before he hits the age of 20. And goodbye really means goodbye -- that player will not be moving across town, or to a nearby city, he may be headed for Moscow.

How long will it be before South American soccer starts to systematically produce players who have European characteristics -- because those are the players who will fetch most money on the European market? In theory that may sound unlikely -- after all, what attracts the European clubs in the first place is surely the fact that the Latin players are different.

I think that is only a half truth. The main attraction is that the ball control of the Latins is so much better than the Europeans. Once the players get to Europe they can be trained to play a much more physical and tactically knowledgeable game. That is what frequently happens. So why should the process not begin in Argentina or Brazil?

The truly sad and alarming thing about such a trend is that it might be almost automatic and difficult to identify ... until the damage is done. That way lies a bleak future.

Suddenly, the realization will dawn that where there used to be boys with the promise of growing into another Pele or Maradona or Messi, there will be a desert of conformity, with the typical South American artistry replaced by European efficiency. I fear that is where market forces -- too often aided and abetted by modern coaches -- are taking our game.

9 comments about "Why South American soccer's future looks bleak".
  1. Paul Lorinczi, October 22, 2010 at 8:16 a.m.

    Paul -

    The South American Clubs have brought this onto themselves though. I know for a fact that some clubs in Brazil, as an example, see player development as their business to export talent to big European Clubs. Their whole club infrastructure is built around creating European players. In regards to the US, until we embrace our diversity of talent, we will continue to look like college soccer teams trying to look English. I agree that the English influence in our game requires a major overhaul.

  2. Gary Levitt, October 22, 2010 at 9:15 a.m.

    Paul - you express your opinion and concern which in this case is valid. How about offering up solutions to the issues you write about?


  3. Joe Linzner, October 22, 2010 at 9:58 a.m.

    I agree with much of what you wrote although Efficiency in European Soccer is not what I consider the play seen in this last world cup to be. Negative soccer and dirty soccer is what I saw all too frequently. Especially as it began to winnow towards finality.
    However you certainly gave valid observations and the question asked is thought provoking.
    Thank You...

  4. Gus Keri, October 22, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    May I remind you, Paul, that Messi grew up in Barcelona which is a European club? Not all Europeans are the same. Also, I wouldn't worry about the future of South American soccer because they have been exporting talents to Europe since the beginning of time and the beaches and the slums of Brazil and Argentina will still produce tons of talents every year. Telents of all kind of skills and players with all kind of physical attributes.

  5. . Lev, October 22, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

    1. Soccer Darwinism, Mr Gardner.
    No laws (or bile) in the world will stop evolution.
    2. The game's beauty lies in the eye of the beholder - and we are many!!

  6. James Froehlich, October 22, 2010 at 1:27 p.m.

    I definitely agree with the more cool-headed responses above. However, I would never want to discourage you from, as Ric intimates, tilting at soccer windmills. I do however, have one counterpoint to make. When you talk about "European football" I see it primarily as English football. The Bundesliga has never been overly welcoming to any outsiders even though a few slip through periodically. Serie A has, I believe, recently changed their foreign player limits inlight of their awful showing in South Africa. And la Liga, well I don't think we need to be too worried about the dilution of South American skills for players playing there. Soooo, most of the problem seems to be in the EPL. Which brings me to the question of when the English FA will follow Italy and begin to limit the number of foreign players. Personally I think it willl be a while since the money sloshing around in the EPL will probably fight tooth and nail to maintain the oppen door. Maybe when a majority of English fans come to the belief that their national team is suffering from the inability of their own league to support the development of home-grown players.

  7. Brian Herbert, October 22, 2010 at 9:53 p.m.

    Do we really understand the forces that are driving a trend toward a more brutish or boring game, or if that is even happening? As counter-points: Spain won the World Cup with beautiful style, Germany moved to a much more open attacking style, La Liga has become stronger relative to the EPL, Inter-Milan won the Champion's league with a high quotient of foreign players and a decidedly un-Italian style of play, while the unimaginative Azurri made a quick exit at the Cup. As for South American "intervention", every country seeks ways to create an export surplus amidst worldwide financial uncertainty and there is a lot of poverty in the South American communities that many players come from. So let's avoid repeating similar mistakes to how we once approached the topic of rainforest deforestation in these same areas: we rich Gringos spent most of our efforts telling them what they couldn't do to earn income for their families, but little effort on identifying how to partner and share responsibility to create a sustainable economic model. History shows if we take care of the demand side (the soccer consumer), the "supply" side issues you mentioned will not be issues - Plenty of technical South American footballers to carry on their legacy. If there is a problem of money corrupting the style of play, its because its making people money to do so, and that points right back to the soccer fan. One thing that is odd is that overly physical and technically poor soccer is BORING to fans. So, how can fans make our voices heard to club management, soccer governing bodies, and sports investors as to what we want to see (and pay for)? Paul's article obviously dealt with European influence, but the topic is relevant here: I worry that the powers that be will try to imitate some of the physicality and violence of NFL-style football in an effort to win over fans here in the States. But we should remind soccer promoters that if millions of US sports fans will watch a FOUR HOUR baseball game with 30 seconds of scratching, spitting, and gang-signing in between each pitch, then soccer needs no increase in physicality in order to get sports fans hooked!

  8. James Froehlich, October 23, 2010 at 11:33 a.m.

    Brian -- your latter comments raise a real issue that already is influencing not only on-field play but also the announcing. I am sick and tired of hearing the constant praise for the "workmanlike" performance of a player who isn't afraid to go in hard. Or the even more common statement that the referee is "letting them play". What this really means is that hard challenges are being ignored. MLS already has a reputation as being a very physical league and our announcers and indeed many fans seem to pride themselves on that fact. Don't get me wrong -- I recognize that there is a very real and acceptable physical aspect to the game but when we praise players (especially defenders) for "getting stuck in" rather than for the highly skilled defensive take-away we run the risk of eventually obsoleting skillful defensive play. Soccer is a very frustrating game where the most skilled team can be defeated by a well organized defense, as the Danes nearly showed Barcelona this week. As frustrating as I found that game, I had to applaud the Danish team for its excellent defense which did not resort to the brutal tactics of the Dutch in the WC, but were still able to throw a scare into Barca. However, ultimately, I want to see skillful attacking and beautiful goals and giving defenders a license to brutalize the skillful players and rewarding them with the ridiculous title of "hardman" does nothing more than lessen the opportunities for goals. I love great skillful defenders but we have fewer and fewer of them because we constantly reward the crude brutes. If MLS is not to become a caricature of crude soccer, we need to start by changing the actions and attitudes of our referees and announcers.

  9. David Mont, October 24, 2010 at 7:56 a.m.

    Unfortunately, this whole article is based on a very flawed premise, namely, that South American soccer is somehow, opposed to the European soccer, is the soccer of artistry and goal scoring. That has never been the case at all with the occasional exception of Brazil. Even long before any significant European influence on South American soccer, it was primarily the game of excessive physicality and at times even brutality. Need I mention, as examples, Chile of '62, Argentina of '66, Uruguay of the 70's and 80's, even Brazil of '74 and '78? And what about the "artistic" soccer of Estudiantes in the late 60's and early 70's? Yes, South America produced Pele, Maradona, and Messi, but Europe can boast Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Best, Platini -- players of no lesser artistry.

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