One of the most famous, successful and widely known football clubs in Brazil, or perhaps even in the whole of South America, is Santos FC. The club, based in the city of Santos in the state of São Paulo, was founded in 1912 and has since won eight Brazilian Serie A titles, 22 São Paulo State Championships, three Copa Libertadores’. The Peixe are even two-time winners of the old Intercontinental Cup.
However, Santos are known even more for their high-quality youth system which, like some of the other top Brazilian clubs, provides a lot of income, primarily from European teams looking for the brightest young South American talent. As well as Santos, other clubs such as São Paulo, Corinthians and Internacional have also embodied the term ‘Brazilian Money Machine’ over the last couple of decades.
Time has played a big part in the shift from Brazilian football being a strong, reputable league of its own to a farm for European clubs. The brightest young Brazilian stars now opt to pack their bags and leave their home in favour of a bumper pay-check and the chance to play in the globally recognised tournaments of European football much earlier than they may have done in the past.
To demonstrate this, we need only look at the Brazil squads of their FIFA World Cup wins in 1970 and 2002. In 1970, all 11 of the starters in the 4-1 final victory over Italy plied their trade in their native Brazil. In comparison, of the 11 who started for Brazil against Germany in their 2-0 final win in 2002, only three played in their domestic league. Two of those – Kleberson and Gilberto Silva – would move to Europe in 2003, joining Manchester United and Arsenal respectively.
So what changed in Brazil? How did a nation with one of the strongest teams in the world, made up entirely of domestic players, become a nation of exporting footballers – sending them to Europe before they reach the age of 21? This question cannot be answered with just one factor; instead being an amalgamation of different elements coming together and resulting in this culture shock.
One of the biggest factors in this change comes with the diminishing global reputation of the Brazilian league. Back in the 1970’s when the Brazilian national team were on top of the world, the league held an equally impressive reputation. The league was full of some of the greatest players in the world and, therefore, players were encouraged and inclined to remain at home. Take Pelé for example; who spent 18 years at Santos between 1956 and 1974. Pelé was regarded as such an important part of Brazilian football culture than the government considered him to be a ‘national treasure’ and therefore would not let him leave the country. This held great sway over other players, who would’ve seen Pelé as not only a peer but an idol, wanting to remain in Brazil to follow the path of one of the world’s greatest.
Not only were the players in Brazil fantastic but the teams were consistently performing on a top level against European clubs – and succeeding. Before the FIFA Club World Cup was founded in 2000 – 2005 in its current format) – three tournaments existed to test teams from different continents against each other. The first was the Pequeña Copa del Mundo, first held in 1952 and with 12 editions at club level. Brazilian clubs won the tournament three times, defeating the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Milan in the process.
The second of these, founded in 1957 was the ‘Tournoi de Paris’, a pre-season invitational tournament founded by French club Racing Paris to celebrate their 25th anniversary. The tournament, which is largely considered to be one of the first ‘friendly’ tournaments, had 31 editions in total, finishing in 1993, with special, one-off events held in 2010 and 2012. In the first seven editions of the tournament, Brazilian clubs won four, Santos claiming the trophy in 1960 and 1961; Vasco da Gama in 1957 and Botafogo in 1963.
The third pre-cursor to the Club World Cup, which demonstrates the past ability of Brazilian clubs to competitively face off against European giants, is the Intercontinental Cup, founded in 1960 and, in 2017, officially considered by FIFA to be the first tournament to find the true club world champion. Santos lifted the trophy in both 1962 and 1963, defeating Benfica and AC Milan in the finals respectively. Flamengo would go on to beat Liverpool 3-0 to claim the tournament in 1981, with Gremio beating Hamburg 2-1 in the 1983 final. São Paulo defeated Barcelona and Milan to win in 1992 and 1993. However, this would be the last time a Brazilian club would triumph in the competition, which was abolished in 2004.
The FIFA Club World Cup has been held 14 times, with four Brazilian victories – most recently from Corinthians against Chelsea in a shock 1-0 win in 2012. However, the idea that this was a ‘shock’ victory perfectly encapsulates the demise of the Brazilian league. Chelsea were the Champions League winners and suffered a defeat that nobody expected them to. The expectation switched from a fair and even battle between the two continents, as it was in the days of the Tournoi de Paris and the Intercontinental Cup, to a one-sided contest where the European side would always be considered favourites – as a result of their status as Champions League winners.
Another factor which has led Brazil to be the money machine that it is today is, of course, money itself. In the past, although the allure of greater pay in Europe was there, it was nowhere near as high as it is today. Combine this with the fact that much of Brazil is poverty-stricken and comparatively poor, young Brazilian footballers will leave their home country so that they can afford to not only live their own dream lives but also to care for the finances of their families too. Therefore, the Brazilian exodus could be partly down to the pay-gap between professional footballers in Europe and South America; therefore increasing the lure of a move away from home.
Back to Santos and we only have to look at a recent example of the ‘money machine’ that the Brazilian league is. Seventeen-year-old winger Rodrygo agreed a transfer this summer to join Real Madrid next summer, with a fee of £40.5 million agreed. This is almost certainly reminiscent of another well-known winger who left Santos in favour of a move to La Liga in the 2013/14 season – Neymar, who joined Barcelona for around £80 million. Although these freakishly large sums are not too common altogether, most Brazilian clubs have been turning over healthy profits each season: between £15 million and £30 million a year since around 2010.
Whereas 20 years ago Brazilian clubs would sell the odd player to European clubs, perhaps once every season or two, they are now offloading talent to Europe at an alarming rate, constantly bringing in new generations of youth players, coaching them for a couple of years and then sending them abroad – with the player usually going on to grow exponentially in both value and skill when they are exposed to more high-quality training facilities and are in the public eye.
To put it once again into perspective, between 1970 and 1990, Santos FC sold just six players to Europe. Since 2010, Santos have sold a whopping 24 players to European clubs, demonstrating the switch that took place. Similarly, between 1970 and 1990, São Paulo sold five players to European clubs, Corinthians sold six and Internacional sold five – with those same clubs selling 32, 33 and 18 players to European clubs since 2010 respectively.
In all, Brazil has evolved from the heartland of the beautiful game into a factory for the stars of the future, players are leaving their homeland in the masses for a shot at their big break across the pond. This is damaging for the Brazilian game and puts an unfair amount of pressure on young players who are not only trying to make a name for themselves but have left their friends and families in order to try and support them financially. Whether or not it is right is another article just waiting to be written but the facts are there, Brazil is well and truly football’s money machine.
By Sam Wilson for the SOUTH AMERICA series