Let's talk Latin America

Latin America provides Europe’s football stars

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Bristolatino’s Sports editor Freddy Hare tells us why Latin American footballers continue to make the journey across the Atlantic in pursuit of a European career.

A quick glance at any Latin American country’s Wikipedia page will tell you that they are almost all exporters of raw materials such as oil, gas, metals, coffee and sugar. However, they always fail to mention another key export of theirs. Footballers. Although there is a strong sense of nationalism in South America, and playing for the selección or seleção is the ultimate prize, it is impossible to stop aspiring footballers dreaming of the bright lights of the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga.

As Tim Vickery pointed out in his BBC blog, “for more than an hour in last Wednesday’s (18th September 2013) Champions League matches, up and down the continent, every goal had been scored by players from either Argentina or Brazil”, a statement which underlines Latin America’s contribution to the European game.

However, one of the most striking aspects of this import-export process is that so many players return to Latin America to play for local teams- whether it be in Brazil, Argentina or Mexico- at the end of their careers. Atlético Mineiro, the most recent winners of the Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent of the Champions League), had a certain Ronaldinho in their squad, an all too familiar name within the European football scene.

After stints with Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris St Germain, the attacking midfielder has returned to his native Brazil and added to his already impressive trophy collection. Although largely anonymous in the final, where Atlético Mineiro overturned a 2-0 deficit from the first leg to win 4-3 on penalties, there is no denying the impact Ronaldinho’s arrival had on the club who won both the Mineiro Championship and the prestigious Copa Libertadores.

Maradona, Romario, Juan Sebastián Verón, and even Juan Pablo Angel, once of Aston Villa, are further examples of South American footballers who came over to Europe, only to finish their careers in their home country. Verón has actually just come out of retirement to play for Estudiantes, his first professional club, having previously been their technical secretary.

Although FIFA’s ranking system is ever changing and not always the most convincing of sources (at the time of writing, France were the 25th best team in the world and England a worse side than both Greece and the USA), it does offer a basic overview of which countries are performing well at a given time. For example, with Colombia’s recent success in the South American World Cup Qualifiers, they moved up as high as 3rd in the world (they are now down to 5th), and 7 Latin American teams make up the top 21.

This statistic is however a stark contrast to the level development of football in the region. Despite producing some of the world’s finest talent, domestic leagues in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico have not been able to take off and compete with European football. This is due to squads constantly rebuilding as they lose their best players to European leagues and the slower pace of the game in comparison to its European counterpart.

Indeed, as the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano suggests in El futbol a Sol y Sombra, a fiercely satirical yet passionate description of the modernisation and globalisation of the world’s most popular sport, the export of Latin American footballers to Europe is almost a pure reflection of European colonialism and trade between the two continents.

It is Europe, as the colonisers of Latin America for 400+ years, that benefited from trade, and that remains the case today. Many Latin American countries have been left behind economically as they sell raw materials at a low price and import expensive manufactured goods. This is a trend that is slowly balancing out, as economies such as Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have boomed in recent years. The parallel in football is obvious.

So, where does Latin American football go from here? With increased interest in the region’s competitions (even if the interest is merely to scout future stars), Latin American football is increasingly highly regarded. Nevertheless, development will take major investments of time and money, which governments and footballing bodies simply cannot afford.

In my opinion, the popularity of the European game and the money that goes along with it is another crucial factor. Indeed, nearly all of Latin America’s best players come from poor backgrounds and have been playing football barefoot in the street for much of their childhood. To try and deter them from the promised land of money and fame is a big ask, and I fear that Latin America will forever remain Europe’s provider both on and off the pitch.

With big-money transfers such as that of Neymar to Barcelona from Santos this summer, the economic disparity between football clubs in the two regions is all too obvious. With the proceeds, Santos will of course invest, yet this investment will only make its way back to Europe. The money will initially go into the Santos youth system, but the new Latin American gem they will no doubt discover will eventually make the same journey over to Europe as so many of his predecessors have done.

Photo by Alex Carvalho/AGIF