Allure of European football still remains
A year ago, I spoke to Brazilian midfielder Sandro a few minutes after he had made his debut for Tottenham. I caught up with him again a few days ago as, recovering from injury, he watched his international team-mates train for last Monday's international against Ghana at Craven Cottage in London.
He was, he said, thoroughly delighted with his first season in the Premier League. Despite a few problems adaptating, the whole experience had more than matched his expectations. Twelve months on, he was in no doubt that he was a much better and more complete player, emphasising in particular that he had learned to play at a higher tempo.
Midfielder Sandro cost Spurs £8m from Brazilian club side Internacional. Photo: Getty
This is not a perspective likely to please the nationalists back home. Brazil, like Argentina, has a proud footballing culture. It rankles with many that the bulk of the national team play for foreign clubs. Especially when results are poor, there are frequently calls for more home-based players to be called up.
Two myths underpin this way of thinking.
The first is that those who play with domestic clubs are more committed to the cause. The reality usually is that they might still be waiting for an offer to Europe. And the idea that living abroad automatically makes a person less patriotic is palpable nonsense - the reverse is often true.
The second myth is that the move to Europe inevitably means that the South American will have his natural flair coached out of him. Of course, it may apply in some cases. But again, the opposite is as likely to be true. When Dunga was in charge of Brazil, for example, he used to complain that many Brazilians abroad were excused defensive duties in order to exploit their attacking strengths. They would go as full-backs and be transformed into wingers.
The nationalist lobby will then point to the World Cups won by Brazil and Argentina. They will say that the successful teams of the past were culled from domestic clubs. Therefore, today's teams should be as well.
It is an argument that ignores the huge changes that have taken place in the game over the last 30 years. The World Cups of 1958, 1970 or 1978 came before the global market in footballers opened for business. The best Brazilians and Argentines were playing at home. Also, their national teams were able to spend months together in preparation for the World Cup, which is unthinkable today. With their accumulation of top talent and their time spent together, the national teams could set the standards in terms of quality of play.
Nowadays, these same advantages are only enjoyed by the major European clubs. They vacuum up talent from all over the world and then work with it week after week, grudgingly releasing their players for the odd international fixture.
It is little wonder, then, that nowadays it is Europe's Champions League that sets the standards in a game - and even less of a surprise that the best South Americans want to be a part of it. Quite apart from any financial considerations, shining in the Champions League is essential for any player to be considered truly great. Sandro's eyes light up as he recalls the tussles with Milan last season.
Leandro Damiao (left) and Neymar are Brazil stars who have stayed in the domestic game. Photo: Getty
True, this is a dynamic process. The possibility of a shift exists, with Brazil's economic boom coupled with Europe's problems. The terms of trade have already altered, with Brazilian clubs able to hang on to youngsters for longer and bring back established stars sooner. Against Ghana, Brazil were able to field a front four entirely made up of home-based players, centre-forward Leandro Damiao backed up by Neymar, Paulo Henrique Ganso and Ronaldinho.
But the general trend remains - and will do so for the next few years at least. Sooner or later, the younger three of the quartet will be on their way to Europe, where they will look to spend their peak years. If they had any doubts, they only had to observe the performance of their veteran colleague.
On his recall to the national team, Ronaldinho hit some splendid free-kicks and found the space to supply a couple of dangerous crosses as Ghana, down to 10 men, wilted in the closing stages. But for most of the game, he was a peripheral figure, unable to reproduce his form with Flamengo, where he has been so decisive on the edge of the opposing area.
Brazil coach Mano Menezes commented afterwards that the rhythm of international football is much quicker than that of the domestic Brazilian game and that Ronaldinho had not found it easy to make the adjustment.
It might be dangerous, then, to draw too many conclusions from this month's two friendlies between Brazil and Argentina, the first on Brazilian soil this Wednesday. Both sides are restricted to home-based players. Among them are some very interesting prospects. For Brazil, for example, Vasco da Gama's Dede is a centre-back of formidable strength and quality.
But the games are put into context by Sergio Batista, recently deposed as coach of Argentina. In the first interview he gave following his sacking, he mentioned the headaches that he had been given by having, alongside the first team, a squad of home-based players. "Some of the directors," he said, "still don't understand that the first-team players will always be based abroad. The point of having a group of domestic players is that when they go abroad they know what it is to represent the national team."
And their chances of success will be improved still further once they have picked up the kind of experience that Sandro is so pleased to have acquired in the first year of his European adventure.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) You often comment on players' prospective moves to Europe saying that they are not yet ready to make the transition to European football. Are there any players who you are surprised haven't been signed by a European club despite, in your opinion, being ready?
Not many, because there have so many forces pushing players across the Atlantic - agents, often the clubs wanting the sale, pressure from their families to cash in. There are a few, though, usually from outside Brazil and Argentina. Victor Caceres of Paraguay, Michael Arroyo of Ecuador (now Mexico-based). Another Mexican based Ecuadorian is Cristian Benitez, who had that year with Birmingham. I'm very surprised no-one else in Europe picked him up afterwards.
This is going to become a fascinating question in many Brazilian careers, I believe, because clubs in the country are now paying such high wages that there is no longer an automatic financial advantage in coming over. Players will have to judge what is best for their career. Hernanes of Lazio is one, I think, who should probably have made the move earlier than he did. In the future, there will probably be more players who might be regretting that they came across too late, rather than too early.