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How are Brazilian clubs replacing young talent cherry-picked by Europe?


As South America’s CONMEBOL Libertadores kicks off on Tuesday, it is worth remembering that six years ago this was the competition where Vinícius Júnior emphatically announced his arrival as a potent attacking force. Real Madrid had already signed him for big money — before he had played even a single senior game. It seemed like a huge gamble. Could signing him really be worth more than €40 million?

He could not move across the Atlantic until he was 18, and so he was taking his tentative first steps in and around the first team of Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo, where his every action came under the microscope. The evidence was inconclusive — until a night in Ecuador in March 2018. In a tough game away to Emelec, Flamengo were a goal down — until Vinícius was introduced from the bench. There were less than 25 minutes to go, and he needed only 20 of them to change the game.

Twice he charged through the home defense, marrying speed and precision to score goals that won the game for his side. And at the final whistle many of the Emelec fans did not seem angry with him. Recognizing that they had been present at the birth of something special, they lined up at the final whistle to have their photo taken with the new sensation.

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This is not an experience that many other South American fans have had. Just a few months later, Vini was on his way across the Atlantic. Global stardom awaited. He has won Europe’s Champions League. But he did not stay long enough to win the Libertadores. Nor did Lucas Paquetá, who supplied him with the pass for his first goal against Emelec. Flamengo won the trophy the following year. But by then Vinícius and Paquetá had long gone — which sheds light on the current model of South American football.

The continent inevitably loses its brightest talent, with Europe attempting to take it across the Atlantic as early as possible. And so the question for the local clubs is this: how do you replace the talent you have lost?

The big Brazilian clubs have come up with an answer. You bring it back from Europe, searching for two types of players. The first is the veteran looking to wind down his career at home — current Libertadores champions Fluminense, for example, have ex-Real Madrid left back Marcelo and are also optimistic of bringing Thiago Silva back from Chelsea. The second is the good player who, for whatever reason, was not able to live up to expectations in Europe and needs to regain momentum. Flamengo center-forward Pedro, quickly branded a flop at Fiorentina but good enough to go to the last World Cup, is an obvious case. You also have your own next generation of youth products to showcase. And any gaps can be filled by looking elsewhere around the continent.

The only Portuguese speakers in South America, Brazilian clubs were once very closed to transfer opportunities in neighboring countries. That is emphatically no longer the case. In the recent FIFA dates, for example, Ecuador fielded six players who are based in Brazil. Colombia, Uruguay and Venezuela each fielded five, with one apiece in the teams of Bolívia and Chile. Brazil’s clubs have recently controversially agreed to allow up to nine foreign players to be used in domestic matches.

Brazil, then, is giving other South American countries the same treatment that it receives from Europe — cherry-picking the best talent. And this comes on top of the rise of Major League Soccer, which scouts well in South America but, inhibited by higher transfer fees, is wary of acquiring players from Brazil. And so the financial chasm that has opened up between Brazil and the rest is now clearly visible on the pitch.

The Libertadores was once seen as a competition dominated by Argentina. But Brazil has now won five in a row — an unprecedented run of dominance — and three of those five finals have been all-Brazilian affairs. If this is not a cause for concern, then it should be.

It is becoming hard to see how the other nations can compete. Argentina’s River Plate now have the stadium with the biggest capacity in the continent and are probably the strongest challengers, along with the likes of Independiente del Valle and Liga de Quito from Ecuador, who can combine excellent youth development with the advantage of staging home games at altitude. But for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to imagine anything other than Brazilian domination — with a level of predictability which is not healthy for a continental competition. England‘s Premier League enjoys a financial advantage in Europe but can still expect to be pushed all the way in the Champions League by top clubs from a handful of other nations.

There is, however, an obvious solution — a genuinely Pan-American club competition. The logistics are tough — the Americas are huge — but the synergies are obvious. There is, of course, some Pan-American progress in this year’s Copa América, with the 10 South American nations together with six from Concacaf in a tournament staged in the U.S.

But South America hardly needs this at national team level. It does not matter where the likes of Lionel Messi and Vinícius play their club football. They cannot change their footballing nationality. And South America’s prestige at national team level, the product of long history and many titles, is if anything diluted by contact with Concacaf. But this is not the case with the clubs.

The only way that South American sides can hope to hold on to future versions of Vini Junior is to go Pan-American — and all of this gives the U.S. fan an extra reason to follow the Libertadores. These teams are likely to be your future opponents.



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