It’s a sobering thought, but this year the Chinese Super League — the national league of a country that has qualified for the World Cup once, and lost all three of its games without scoring a single goal — will boast a richer stock of talent than the game’s most storied soccer nation, five-time World Cup winners Brazil.
In the red corner, there’s now Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Fredy Guarin, Demba Ba, Alex Teixeira, four key players from 2015 Brazilian title winner Corinthians, the two winners of most of the individual awards from the 2014 Brazilian season (Diego Tardelli and Ricardo Goulart), and Dario Conca, the 2009 and 2010 Brazilian player of the year.
In the yellow, green and blue corner, there’s the promising Gabriel, aka Gabigol, and the talented creative midfielder Lucas Lima, at Santos. There’s the usual clutch of embryonic, untested, new talents, such as Gabriel Jesus at Palmeiras. There’s also Paulo Henrique Ganso at São Paulo, though by now it feels like there’s always been Paulo Henrique Ganso.
It’s hardly a recent development. Brazil, like all of South America, has been a seller’s market since the 1980s, when stars such as Zico and Socrates blazed a trail to Italy. In the days when Brazil still produced the world’s best players and the African player market had yet to open up, the buyers were almost always European.
But Brazil doesn’t produce the world’s best players anymore, at least not very often, and it may be a long time before a European team splurges $47 million on a player from a Brazilian club, as Paris Saint-Germain did when buying Lucas in 2012.
Cue China. Egged on by massive economic growth, generous corporate sponsors and/or owners, a soccer-mad president, and an awareness of the weakness of a Brazilian game, Chinese soccer has pounced. It makes a lot of sense considering hugely indebted Brazilian clubs could barely afford to pay player wages even before the country’s current financial nervous breakdown, during which the real has lost 49% of its value against the dollar.
And it isn’t just players getting snapped up. A handful of big name coaches from the country formerly known as the país do futebol, such as Luiz Felipe Scolari and Mano Menezes, have also answered the call to serve on the other side of the globe.
China has been signing Brazilian players since the beginning of the 21st century, with a reported 134 players moving east between 2003 and 2010. Yet it is only in the last few years that China has had the chutzpah to target top Brazilian players, with clubs such as Guangzhou Evergrande and Tianjin Quanjianas encouraged by the vulnerability of Brazilian teams that are watched by average crowds of around 17,000 (less than the Super League’s 2015 average of 22,000) and struggle with an unwieldy calendar that can force top teams to play up to 80 games a year.
Brazilian soccer’s woes, financial and otherwise, are not just reflected by the players lost to China, but also in those brought in as their replacements. In recent years, familiar names such as Adriano, Ronaldinho Gaucho, and Alexandre Pato repatriated. At the height of Brazil’s economic boom in 2012, AC Milan legend Clarence Seedorf, at the ripe old age of 36, was remarkably convinced to spend a year or so at Botafogo.
This off-season, the biggest name to arrive in Brazil has been 35-year-old Uruguayan center-back Diego Lugano, released by West Brom last summer. His new home? São Paulo.
The talent shelves in Brazilian club soccer have rarely looked barer, and while most local fans have learned to deal with the reality of losing players to Champions League clubs, the fact that their heroes are now moving to a country with little or no soccer tradition is a bitter pill to swallow. Thus, online comments sections littered with words like “mercenary” and “no ambition.”
Yet the future is not entirely bleak. Brazil still has 200 million people. Add the massive TV contracts handed out by broadcasting giant Globo and an economy that, while reeling, still dwarfs those of many of its neighbors, and it’s clear that Brazilian soccer is far from the bottom of soccer’s economic food chain. So in an attempt to heal itself, Brazil clubs did what top-feeders usually do: they turned to replenishing their squads with talent from their South American rivals.
Atletico Mineiro’s Argentinian striker Lucas Pratto, signed from Velez Sarsfield in December 2014, had a barnstorming start in Brazil before running out of steam toward the end of last season. Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero, who gave a string of impressive displays for his country at Copa America in Chile last summer, switched Corinthians for Flamengo in May 2015.
Another Copa America standout, Paraguay’s Lucas Barrios, is now at Palmeiras, while much is expected from Cruzeiro’s Uruguayan midfielder Giorgian De Arrascaeta this year after a bedding in season in 2015.
They, along with gringos who have been in Brazil so long they almost seem like locals (such as Internacional’s Pablo Guiñazú), will be joined by a coachload of new foreign arrivals this year.
Flamengo snapped up midfielder Federico Mancuello, who almost made Argentina’s Copa America squad, from Independiente, as well as Colombian defensive midfielder Gustavo Cuéllar. Rio rival Botafogo, meanwhile, signed four gringos in the off-season.
Cruzeiro took former Boca Juniors left midfielder Sánchez Miño on loan from Torino, while Belo Horizonte neighbor Atletico Mineiro is awaiting a documentation imbroglio to be straightened out before seeing what its new Ecuadorian playmaker Juan Cazares can do.
The trend continues further down Brazilian soccer’s pecking order. Sport, from Recife in the northeast of the country, recently watched as its impressive 2015 side was picked apart by wealthier rivals. In response, the club swooped for the Chilean Mark González, once of Liverpool, and Colombian Reinaldo Lenis to bolster its midfield.
Of course, not all the signings are here to stay. Brazil’s reputation as a springboard to Europe sometimes turns the country’s clubs into something of a shop window or training ground. Boca Junior’s exciting 22-year-old striker Jonathan Calleri will spend the next six months gaining experience at São Paulo before joining Inter Milan.
Financially speaking, then, the benefits of the Chinese raiding of Brazilian soccer should be spread around the continent, even if it is at the expense of South American domestic talent levels. Velez made $3.4 million from the Pratto deal, while Cruzeiro paid Defensor of Uruguay a similar amount for De Arrascaeta, and São Paulo gave Racing $3.2 million for midfielder Ricardo Centurión last February.
And in one sense not much is different – South American soccer’s business model of selling its best talent abroad continues, even if Beijing Guoan is now as likely to be the buyer of said talent as Barcelona. The money, more often than not, is still being used by clubs to pay off debts or stave off a financial crisis.
Only two things are likely to change Brazilian soccer’s current state of affairs: a shift in the global economic context, or greater financial maturity on the part of the region’s clubs that are well-known for frequently mismanaging their teams’ vast potential resources.
Sadly, neither seems likely to happen in the near future.