WITH Britain now divorced from the European Union, the early indications suggest it will be a little harder for FA Premier League sides to sign players from some of their traditional markets. At the same time, in the new order, South America could become a more accessible market. Anyone thinking that leaving the EU may give young English players a better chance of making the grade could be mistaken. The transfer market is an industry in itself, those who work in and around it will ensure activity continues in some shape or form. Wherever there are hurdles in business, there’s a sub-industry that works on solving the problems.
South America is already an attractive market for European clubs. Across the main leagues, there are some 200 players from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and other countries. There are just under 50 currently with Premier League clubs, half of which are Brazilian.
Spain, Portugal, England and Italy are the biggest European takers of South American talent, but Brazilians can be found all over the world, even in the most remote places. In fact, Brazilians constitute the only truly global force in the football labour market. According to CIES Football Observatory, there are over 1,300 Brazilians playing across the Americas, Europe and Asia. Players from Argentina and Brazil represent just under 10% of all recruitments across the big five leagues in Europe.
England’s big six clubs have, over the past 20 years, been increasingly interested in Latin American talent. Firstly, they are technically superior to many European players and secondly, they offer good value for money. Thirdly, they are marketable and can produce good returns in player trading.
In the past, South Americans were rare in English football and often, they struggled to adapt. Of course, the most high profile arrivals in the pre-Premier era were Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, who joined Tottenham in 1978 just weeks after being part of Argentina’s World Cup winning squad. Ardiles was a success, but Villa struggled at times. Others, such as Alberto Tarantini (Birmingham), Juninho (Middlesbrough) and Mirandinha (Newcastle) had mixed fortunes.
In the modern era, South American players have adapted better, largely because of the global nature of football and also a reflection of how the English game is now played. Television has made South Americans less of a mystery package, but climate and culture still means there can be an adjustment period.
There’s another important factor and that’s the commercialisation of player movement from South America to Europe. The number of expatriate Brazilians and Argentinians tells you there is an established trade route and a system in place to take young talent from these countries to Europe’s major clubs. Portuguese clubs have been especially adept at acquiring players from Brazil and other countries and making good profits when trading them at a later stage in their careers. Portugal, especially clubs like Porto, Sporting and Benfica, has become a stepping stone for many players.
Porto, for example, have spent € 150 million on Brazilian players and generated income of € 307 million over the past 10 years. Barcelona have spent € 542 million on Brazilians, while the biggest buyer of talent from Brazil in England has been Manchester City (€ 252m) and Chelsea (€ 212m). As for Argentina, the Italians lead the way, Inter spending € 217 million and Juventus € 190 million.
In the same timeframe, Porto’s total income from the transfer market has topped € 1.12 billion and their net balance was € 526 million. Benfica, their big domestic rivals, have generated € 1.18 billion with a net balance of € 637 million.
At the same time, selling players has been a vital source of income for South American clubs. River Plate and Boca Juniors, over the past decade, have enjoyed positive transfer market balances of € 303 million and € 216 million respectively, and in Brazil, São Paulo (€ 222m) and Santos (€265m) have had healthy surpluses.
There’s good money to be made in taking players to Europe. A prime example is Lautaro Martinez, the 23 year-old Inter Milan forward, who was signed from Racing Club Buenos Aires for € 25 million and is now valued between € 80 and € 100 million. Richarlison, is another player whose value has shot up, signed for € 12.5 million by Watford from Fluminense and, under a year later, sold to Everton for double that price. He is now valued at upwards of € 60 million.
There’s an added competition to the traditional trade route in that the US is now appealing to young South American players and by 2019, there were 100 registered on Major League Soccer (MLS) rosters. One of the big attractions is the financial stability of MLS – wages are guaranteed and in South America that isn’t always the case.
However, there’s more South Americans among the top English clubs than at any time in the past 20 years. The “big six” have 23 on their books at the moment, a decade ago it was just 15 and in 2000-01, it was five. Tottenham have half a dozen at the moment and all the others have at least three.
The Football Association has issued a lengthy document on the rules concerning the signing of overseas players. It makes clear that from the start of 2021, clubs cannot sign players freely from the European Union. There are now major restrictions around how many players can be signed and how many signings can be under-21 years of age. Also, it is clear that players under the age of 18 cannot be signed. Like the immigration rules, the FA is operating a points-based system. Players will have to meet the required number of points to gain a Governing Body Endorsement which allows them to work in England.
The prospect of South Americans playing in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga still excites the fans. Brazil and Argentina may not be the powerful forces they once were on the world stage, but football is still a second religion in these countries. They can still produce brilliance in abundance.
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