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.