The sounds of a goal being scored on one of Brazil’s local radio stations, such as this one from Recife, is a marvelous, if bewildering, cacophony of bells, whistles, recorded chants, carnaval rhythms and 1950s style jingles.
And the daily sports chat shows on the same stations are often equally entertaining, with an army of grizzled local journalists holding forth on a wide variety of subjects. On one sunny Recife morning back in 2010, when Brazilian economic growth was rampant and clubs were giddy at the prospect of an influx of cash from new television deals, the question of why Brazilian stars such as Adriano and Ronaldo were returning from Europe was under discussion.
“I’ll tell you why they come home,” said one of the presenters, who we might call Statler. “Have you ever been to a European city? Paris, for example?”
“I haven’t,” confessed his companion, who shall be known as Waldorf, a whisper of regret creeping into his voice.
“Well I have,” said Statler. “I was there during the 1998 World Cup. Fantastic, you think when you get there, I’m in Paris. So you have a coffee on the Champs-Élysées, and you look at the buildings and the pretty girls, and it’s great. And then on your second day you go up the Eiffel Tower. Brilliant. Day three, the Louvre. Wonderful. Then after that … what the hell are you going to do in Paris? You can’t go to the beach, you can’t hang out with your pals or go to your mum’s house, there are no barbecues, no football, no cachaça, no samba. Christ, it’s no wonder Adriano and Ronaldo wanted to come home! There’s nothing to bloody do in Europe!”
Putting aside its slightly xenophobic feel, Statler’s theory contains at least a grain of truth. While Brazil is famed for being an exporter of athletes (according to a FIFA report published this week, 689 players left the country to play abroad in 2014), an inevitable consequence of such a talent drain is that not everyone who leaves will be able to successfully establish themselves overseas. Some will feel the tug of hearth and home and return to Brazil sooner than might have been expected.
Brazilian players are coming home in almost as impressive numbers as they are leaving – the same FIFA report found that among repatriations and foreign signings, Brazil imported 646 players last year. One of the more pleasant surprises of last season was the form of young Grêmio attacking midfielder Dudu (above), who had recently returned after leaving for Ukraine’s Dynamo Kiev at 19. Grêmio’s Porto Alegre rivals Internacional, meanwhile, have just brought striker Vitinho back on loan from CSKA Moscow, where he had moved in 2013. Further north, after failing to settle at Arsenal, defensive midfielder Denilson has become an important part of a strong São Paulo team. It is a rare Brazilian squad that does not feature a number of players who spent time abroad.
In this way, Brazil has become something of a soccer merry-go-round, with the latest generation of young hopefuls packing their kit bags and heading off into the sunset, replaced largely by legions of weary countrymen returning home from their own tours abroad. The reasons why are myriad. Soccer related factors obviously play a part – bad luck with injuries has stymied the career of many a promising player, such as Internacional central defender Rever, who starred for Grêmio in 2008 and 2009 before a move to Wolfsburg in 2010 was hampered by a succession of spells in the treatment room. Managerial changes and backstage machinations can also affect a player’s chances of success – what chance will strapping defender Doria have at Olympique de Marseille after Marcelo Bielsa declared himself opposed to the signing of the youngster shortly after his arrival?
Yet cultural factors can weigh just as heavily as sporting matters. With apologies for sweeping generalization, a great many Brazilian soccer players come from the country’s lower social strata. “Thousands of children, instead of having access to good public schools and growing up with opportunities, end up playing football and dreaming about becoming professional and famous… ” that great of the 1970 World Cup, Tostão, once said. “[I]t’s a lot of kids chasing after just one ball.”
Concentrating more on sporting prospects than academic pursuits, many such players are unlikely to have developed a burning desire to experience the world’s cultural richness by the time they move abroad – which can often happen at a very young age. Comparisons have often been made between the enjoyment Kaka, who is from a middle class family, found in life in Milan and Madrid, but the lack of enthusiasm some of his less fortunate compatriots have shown for their experiences abroad.
Atlético Mineiro striker Jô (above) enjoyed a successful few years in Russia with CSKA Moscow before slumping form and disciplinary issues with Manchester City and Everton brought his time in Europe to a premature end. “I was only 17, about to turn 18,” he told World Soccer magazine last year. “Living on your own in a cold climate is difficult, and it’s hard to adapt to the local culture. You end up shutting yourself away in your own little world. All I would ever do was go to the shopping mall once in a while.”
Such a lifestyle is a far cry from the garrulous social swirl of friends and extended family that underpins much of Brazilian society. Unfortunately for Brazilian players abroad, the support of loved ones is lacking just when it is needed the most. “Because you spend a lot of time on your own, you end up with a lot of things going around in your head,” Jô explained. “With Adriano, for example, the death of his father contributed to the problems he had at Internazionale. It’s important to have family around, to tell you where you’re going wrong and help you.”
Alongside the unhappy decline of Adriano’s career, perhaps the most dramatic example of how dark things can get away from home is that of São Paulo defender Breno, who was imprisoned after attempting to burn down his own house in Germany when he was at Bayern Munich. The player has rarely spoken of the incident, describing it as an “accident,” but it has been suggested that he had been drinking heavily that day after learning that he was to undergo a fourth knee surgery. The reasons that led to the tragedy are undoubtedly complex, but one thing is certain: Breno was not a happy young man at the time.
Removed from friends and family at a young age and placed in an often alien landscapes, it is little wonder players have often found it hard to settle, particularly given that, historically, clubs did not always do all that they could for their new arrivals. The BBC’s South American soccer correspondent Tim Vickery has often recounted the experiences of the likes of Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel at Aston Villa and Argentina’s Hernan Crespo at Chelsea, early pioneers of the foreign legion that would soon take over English soccer. In those days, with a distinct lack of club liaison staff to help with the process of adaptation, the players’ greatest challenge was often not performing on the field, but working out how to call a mechanic or buy a washing machine.
The vast influx of South American talent to Europe has changed all that, and clubs are now geared up to make their new arrivals feel as welcome as possible. Nor is loneliness likely to be the issue it was, with Brazilian ex-pat communities dotted around the globe, from the astonishing 13 exports at Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk, to Vagner Love, Diego Tardelli and Co. at Shandong Luneng in China. Such ready-made “families” can only help with the settling in process, and the joys of modern technology – from WhatsApp to Skype – have made keeping in touch with those back home a lot easier.
Even now, however, things do not always go smoothly. “All he does is cry,” growled Shakhtar boss Mircea Lucescu of young winger Bernard, reportedly to be deeply happy in the Ukraine, on a recent tour of Brazil. “He just came for the money.” Nor was it the first time Lucescu has lambasted the club’s Brazilians. “It’s very hard to work with them. I like them a lot and I really appreciate Brazilian soccer. But their professionalism leaves a lot to be desired.”
Away from the bluster, Lucescu may have hit upon an important point when he talks about Brazilian players’ lack of engagement, particularly with what they may see as “stepping stone” clubs in the less glamorous parts of the soccer universe. Historically, Brazilians have largely turned a blind eye to soccer around the world, though the growth in cable TV and internet access is bringing about a slow revolution. El Clasico now arguably attracting as much attention as local clássicos.
Even today, for a Brazilian player with no emotional or cultural attachment to his new employer, many European clubs will remain just that – an employer. Especially when based in a chilly, not always enticing spot such as Donetsk; far from the easy, familiar charms of home.
Photo credits, from top to bottom: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images; Renato Spencer/Getty Images; YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/Getty Images.