South American Football

The gulf between South America and Europe, created by football’s global warming

Neymar in his Santos days. Photo: PA

WE ALL look to Brazil as being one of the ancestral homes of football. When World Cups come around, the TV broadcasters cannot wait to get that mythical “Brazilian samba” onto their screens, however overused that view is. Furthermore, the happy, smiling faces of Brazilian fans represent one of the iconic images of the competition.

Stereotyping Brazil and its football continues to be something that stubbornly lives on, but in reality, it is nonsense. Germany 7 Brazil 1 in 2014 all but killed the Brazil of the juggling beach footballer, the hope that a “new Pele” was around the corner and waiting to be discovered. Today, finding a star of the future from the favelas is becoming increasingly difficult.

Brazil’s club football has often struggled to keep pace with the historical reputation of its national team, which has long been a collection of individuals who ply their trade in the affluent – and not so affluent – football leagues of Europe. The Brazilian footballer is one of the most well-travelled of all nationalities – wherever there is a wealthy club owner with money to burn, the prospect of acquiring a Brazilian for your squad is hard to resist.

Argentina is not far behind with their top players among the most sought-after in the world and its clubs always eager to sell their talent abroad. This is a country that, economically, faces continual challenges and that’s why 13 million of its population live below the poverty line. Football in Argentina has been through some crises, notably the recent issues around player wages. Although they have undoubted quality in players like Messi, domestically, its leading clubs are struggling to be competitive. Both Brazil and Argentina’s football clubs need to export players to raise much-needed capital.

With so much poverty in South America and economies that swing from being high on promise and low on delivery, it is no surprise that the continent’s clubs cannot compete with their counterparts in Europe and now, parts of Asia.

Cups that no longer cheer?

The FIFA Club World Cup may be a mid-season sinecure for the suits, but South American clubs take it very seriously. But Libertadores Cup winners have emerged triumphant only once in the last 10 years – Corinthians in 2012.

That success was the last time a South American team beat a European club in the competition and to you have to go back to 2006 for a similar outcome. The decline of clubs from the region is further evidenced by some surprise defeats in the competition – in 2013, Atletico Mineiro were beaten by Raja Casablanca and in 2010 TP Mazembe of the Congo beat Internacional. In 2016, Atletico Nacional of Colombia were heavily beaten by Kashima Antlers.

The Libertadores Cup, which was once dominated by Brazil and Argentina, has also seen some changing of the guard, although in 2017, Brazil have six teams and Argentina four in the last 16. Brazil has not provided a single finalist since 2013. Indeed, in 2016, the competition was won by Colombia’s Atletico Nacional, beating Independiente del Valle of Ecuador. This was only the seventh time that the final did not include a team from either Argentina or Brazil.

Not that domestic success has much to do with the fortunes of the national teams. Over the last three major international competitions (World Cup 2014, Copa America 2015 and 2016), Argentina’s squad has had, on average just three players from home-based clubs. Brazil’s comparable average is six.

While it appears to many as though domestic football for these two giants of the South American game may be in decline, the situation in Uruguay is undoubtedly worse. Peñarol, for example, are nowhere to be seen in the latter stages of the Libertadores, a competition they’ve won five times. They were eliminated in the group stage, unlike their fierce rivals, three-times winners Nacional, who are currently in the last 16.

Fading Montevideo

Uruguay’s position in world football has undoubtedly declined, but Peñarol and Nacional were ranked first and third, respectively, in the International Federation of Football History and Statistics’ list of the greatest clubs in South American football in the 20th century.

Neither club seems to be able to make an impact in the continental competition, despite continuing to dominate local matters. The last Uruguayan team to reach the last four of the Libertadores was Defensor Sporting in 2014.

The top 10 South American clubs of the 20th century

1 Peñarol Uruguay
2 Independiente Argentina
3 Nacional Uruguay
4 River Plate Argentina
5 Olimpia Paraguay
6 Boca Juniors Argentina
7 Cruzeiro Brazil
8 Sao Paulo Brazil
9 America Cali Colombia
10 Palmeiras Brazil

Source: International Federation of Football History and Statistics

Twenty or 30 years ago, if anyone had named the top football clubs in the world, teams like Peñarol, Boca Juniors, River Plate and Pele’s Santos would have been included, but today, with much of the mystery removed and Europe’s biggest clubs becoming global corporates eager to extend their brand, clubs from Brazil and Argentina, not to mention Uruguay, do not compare so well, despite plenty of passion and, in some cases, vast support.

If a similar list were to be compiled in another 10 years, it is likely that clubs from China, the United States and Mexico would be included. The question is, where will South American clubs stand in another decade’s time?

At present, it is clear that the continent’s leading clubs have challenges. It is almost impossible to retain talent and indeed, from a strategic perspective, Brazilian and Argentinian clubs need to market their young players for financial reasons. Moreover, clubs have to compete for the hearts and minds of supporters around the world. European giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United have been very successful in selling their brand. Could we see a day when Latin American clubs are as ubiquitous as their European rivals? With only limited upside in their domestic market, due to the volatile economic conditions that plagues the region, reaching out to China and other parts of Asia seems only logical. Likewise, with a huge Hispanic population in the US, there is another audience to win over. If they are allowed to, that is.

Boca Juniors recently won the Argentinian league. Photo: PA

Creating value

The US, however, has its own agenda and its clubs are arguably wealthier than even the most established and well supported South American outfits. According to Forbes, of the top 15 clubs in the Americas, seven are from the US, three from Mexico, one from Canada and three from Brazil. There’s every reason to anticipate that US teams will become more powerful and when they start to take top exports from Argentina and Brazil, we’ll know they’ve truly arrived. As it is, the momentum is positive with clubs like LA Galaxy (value USD 265m), Seattle Sounders (USD 260m) and New York City (USD 255m) significantly more valuable than all but three Brazilian clubs and the Buenos Aires duo, River and Boca.

At the same time, the European giants are way ahead of the Americas.  Forbes Mexico published a list of the most valuable clubs in the region at the back end of 2016. The figures highlight the difference between the old and new worlds – the financial muscle is clearly in the old, with growing power from the far east.

    Value USDm Av. Attendance Libertadores

Cup wins

Domestic title wins Country
1 Corinthians 533 30,413 1 6 Brazil
2 Palmeiras 480 32,913 1 9 Brazil
3 Gremio 321 20,257 2 2 Brazil
4 Sao Paulo 188 22,623 3 6 Brazil
5 Internacional 159 26,235 2 3 Brazil
6 River Plate 147 36,193 3 36 Argentina
7 A.Paranense 142 16,769 0 1 Brazil
8 Flamengo 128 24,905 1 5 Brazil
9 Boca Juniors 126 34,750 6 32 Argentina
10 Santos 112 11,655 3 8 Brazil

Corinthians has long been considered to be the most valuable of all South American clubs, despite not enjoying the sort of dominance clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona enjoy in Spain. Brazil’s top line football is far more egalitarian than many major European leagues and in the past 10 seasons, there have been six different Serie A champions.

The revenues streams of Brazilian and Argentinian clubs pale into insignificance when compared to the European “uber-clubs” and this is underlined in the rankings created by organisations like Brand Finance. Corinthians and their city rivals, Sao Paulo were the last South Americans to be ranked in the top 50, but they have gradually disappeared from sight in this league table, going the same way as Internacional, Flamengo and Santos.

Corinthians have benefitted from the Brazilian “boot drain” of talented young players heading to Europe as much as any club. Among their sales in more recent years have been Paulinho, Carlos Tevez and Willian. The club has around 30 million fans across Brazil and has endured its share of crises – at one point they appeared to be drowning in debt. They are also struggling to meet the cost for their new stadium, the Arena Corinthians, which was built for the 2014 World Cup.

Palmeiras, the second most valuable club, has the most modern stadium in Latin America and has strong support from, among others, Adidas. But Palmeiras, like many clubs from the region, has had to overcome financial turmoil in its history. When Parmalat was providing sponsorship, Palmeiras were extremely successful, but as soon as the Italian food giant withdrew, they sunk like a stone. But they currently have a good kit and sponsorship deal, so Palmeiras is in reasonable shape at the moment, partially due to the large fee they received for the sale of Gabriel Jesus to Manchester City.

Gremio, from Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, are the third most valuable club, and they’ve been in the news recently around the need to sell players to balance the books. The club continually invests in itself and also has decent sponsorship from Banrisul and Umbro. To complete a quartet of Brazilians at the top of the table, Sao Paulo, often referred to as Brazil’s top club, have possession of the largest privately-owned stadium in Brazil.

The Forbes list does demonstrate that, in terms of club valuation, the city of Sao Paolo is ahead of Rio de Janeiro. Rio’s Flamengo is ranked eighth, but Fluminense are 14th and Botafogo and Vasco de Gama don’t feature in the top 20. Four of the current five Sao Paulo teams in Serie A are in the top 10.  Two Argentinian clubs are reasonably placed, with Independiente (13th) and San Lorenzo (15th) also included. The only team outside the two major countries is Colo-Colo of Chile, who are ranked 16th.

Marginalised?

What next, then, for South America? On the global stage, the national teams of both Argentina and Brazil have enough talent to keep them among the contenders. The story might be different for the continent’s leading club sides. There was a time, not so long ago, when the top European teams struggled against the skilful and often aggressive Latin Americans. The history of the World Club Championship is laden with tales of the black arts adopted by the fiery Latinos. That’s changed. The best South Americans head to Europe and, more recently, China. Analysis of the clubs employing the squad members for the Copa America in 2016 reveals that English clubs provided 34 players, more than the combined total from Argentina and Brazil (30). Spain provided 30, the USA 29, France 17, Italy 15 and Germany 11.

Was it meant to be like this? Have Argentina and Brazil simply become a nursery for the Barcelonas and Real Madrids of this world? Globalisation has made it easier for talent to be snapped-up by the rich clubs of the west (and now the east) thus depriving domestic markets of the very best players. Another consequence could be that this traffic of resources to the very top clubs has helped to erode the fascination and wonder of competitions like the World Cup. Want to see the world’s best players – just turn up at the Nou Camp every fortnight. There’s little that can be done about this, but Brazil and Argentina, to name but two, could be in danger of being as marginalised as many of Europe’s football leagues. Or has it already happened?

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