South American appeal may grow in Brexit Britain

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.

Global force

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.

Adapted

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.

Values

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.

@GameofthePeople
Photos: PA Images

Soccer City: Bogotá – do you know the way to Santa Fe?

INTERNATIONAL perception of Colombia, its capital city and its football was, for many years, negative and the very mention of the country would conjure up images of guerrilla warfare, drug cartels and the Bobby Moore bracelet affair of 1970. Thankfully, they are in a better place than they were, and crime is at a 40-year low, although according to Transparency International’s index, Colombia is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

From a football perspective, Colombia remains a passionate nation although their golden “narco-induced” period and the more recent upturn have now passed. Even so, Colombia are currently number 10 in FIFA’s rankings and they are among the top 10 player exporters in the world – almost 400 Colombians are currently playing abroad in professional football.

Bogotá, which was one of the world’s most violent cities in the 1990s, is a colourful place with a temperamental climate. It is now a tourist destination and a city rich in diversity and has a cosmopolitan history. Like many Latin American metropolitan centres, Bogotá has significant imbalances around the distribution of wealth, but its poverty rate, at 12.4%, is around half the national average.

Coffee not football

Millonarios fans. Photo: Juan Carlos Pachón. CC BY 2.0

Bogotá, despite being home to two of the country’s big footballing names, Independiente Santa Fe and Millonarios, was not where Colombian football took root, that came in the sea port of Barranquilla (the birthplace of pop singer Shakira) in the early 20th century and was influenced by visiting sailors. Right up until the second world war, Colombia was better known for its coffee than its football, the beverage forming an astonishing 80% of national exports.

After the war, Colombian football became embroiled in an international sporting controversy. Colombian clubs broke away from the national association and therefore, were no longer part of FIFA. The new body, free of FIFA’s restrictions, set out to create an attractive, international league of all-star players, offering huge sums of money to lure top stars. Alfredo di Stefano, who later became the kingpin in Real Madrid’s European Cup successes, and a number of fellow Argentinians, as well as players from England, were acquired, including Stoke City’s international centre half Neil Franklin.

Clubs like Santa Fe and Millonarios sounded glamorous to Europeans, but the reality was far from the sun-drenched utopia that was sold to them. Regardless, the new league was popular, drawing big crowds and the football was fast, attacking and full of goals. Nevertheless, it didn’t work out for the English players, who found the extreme poverty startling and also felt unsafe owing to the civil war that was underway.

Millonarios had an outstanding team known as El Ballet Azul (the blue ballet), which included Di Stefano, Adolfo Pedernera, Nestor Rossi and Julio Cozzi. Eventually, the team’s success and a global tour that took them to Spain, turned Di Stefano’s head and he left for Madrid and more conventional triumphs. The duration of El Dorado was brief and for a long while, Colombia were off the international radar.

Bogotá’s top teams, Santa Fe and Millonarios, were both formed in the 1940s and established by academics. Today, they share the Estadio El Campin, a 36,000-capacity stadium inaugurated in 1938 and sitting in the El Chapinero district, now a trendy neighbourhood popular with hipsters and media types.

Capital classic

Diego Valdes of Santa Fe.

It’s the stadium where Colombia won their solitary Copa America in 2001 and if the country had hosted the 1986 World Cup, as originally planned, doubtless where the final would have been held. Although Colombia withdrew in late-1982 due to economic reasons, they were the only major South American country not to default on its debt in the 1980s.

The clashes between Santa Fe and Millonarios are known as El Clásico Capitalino, the capital classic. Attendances vary, depending on whether the derby is in the first-stage Apertura or the second-phase Clausura, but the atmosphere is always intense. In the 2019 Clausura, both clubs averaged 13,000 for their home games, but in the Apertura, Millonarios averaged 16,000 and Santa Fe 10,000.

The Bogotá clubs are not the best supported in Colombia, the highest average gates are seen at Atlético Nacional and Independiente, both from Medellin, Colombia’s second city. These two clubs, allegedly, benefitted from investments by the infamous Pablo Escobar, the drug baron that amassed personal wealth of US$ 25 billion from smuggling Cocaine. At one point, 80% of the world’s Cocaine came from Colombia and the crime rate soared, which included the tragic and shocking death of Colombian defender Andres Escobar, who was murdered in 1994 after scoring in his own goal in a World Cup game that a drug gang had placed a gambled on.

Furthermore, the editor of El Tiempo, after writing that football in Colombia was plagued by drug money, was kidnapped and held for eight months. This was the so-called Narco Fútbol era which also included referees being threatened and even killed and corruption among officials.

Millonarios had their own connection to the Escobar world in their owner during the 1980s, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, commonly known as “The Mexican”. This period, which resulted in two league titles, is now an embarrassment to the club and its fans. After an assistant referee was murdered in 1989, the league programme was cancelled and Millonarios’ owner killed himself following a battle with police. The drug cartels were controlled to a certain degree, although drugs themselves were not.

Millonarios lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis and by 2010, they were bankrupt. This culminated in the club being acquired by a supporter group known as Azul & Blanco SA.

Their rivals, Santa Fe, have also had their image tarnished by involvement with a drugs cartel. In 2010, they were accused of money laundering after police intercepted two large cash amounts, totalling the equivalent of around US$ 40 million, which had been sent by drug trafficker Daniel “El Loco” Barres.

While Millonarios and, to a lesser extent, Santa Fe, were the dominant forces in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, since the 1990s, the Medellin clubs have been more successful, including Atlético’s two Copa Libertadores triumphs in 1989 and 2016. The closest a Bogotá club has come to lifting South America’s premier club competition was in 2013 when Santa Fe reached the semi-final, narrowly losing to Paraguay’s Olimpia.

Rare

The recent local derby.

League titles have been rare for both clubs in the 21st century, Millonarios winning two Clausuras in 2012 and 2017 and Santa Fee finishing top in the Apertura in 2012 and Clausura in 2014 and 2016.

Before football was suspended earlier this year, Santa Fe were faring better than their rivals, losing just one of their eight league games, while Millonarios had won just one of their seven fixtures. The two sides met in March at El Campina in front of 25,000 people, drawing 0-0. Santa Fe have benefitted from the the goals of new signing Diego Valdes, a 29 year-old striker who was signed from Deportes Tolima in the close season.

Bogotá has a number of other clubs, not least another Primera A team in La Equidad, who play at the 8,000-capacity Metropolitano de Techo stadium. Their nickname is the Aseguradores – the insurers, which explains the club’s roots, which date back to 1982 when the club was formed by La Equidad Seguros, an insurance cooperative.

La Equidad are watched by around 3,500 people and struggle to compete on many levels, but they did win the Copa Colombia in 2008. They share their stadium with two other Bogotá clubs, Tigres and Bogotá FC.

These clubs are relatively young clubs and have gone through a number of name changes and have both threatened to leave the city because of lack of support. They are both currently in Primera B and Tigres were propping up the rest at the time of suspension.

When we can we expect to see Colombian football return? This is a million peso question but there has been talk of it coming back in July, although President Ivan Duque doesn’t want the country to be the first in South America to resume.

When it does happen, Bogotá will also welcome back the tourists, for pre-virus visitors to Colombia were at an all-time high, some 4.5 million per year, of which around 60% came from the US and central America. People still have to be careful, but the country has come a considerable distance since a dark period in its history.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA

Antlers keep Japanese interest high

THEY WERE little more than the token host nation representative to keep local interest alive, but Kashima Antlers are now one game away from the FIFA Club World Cup final.

The Antlers won their second game in the 2016 competition when they beat Mamelodi Sundowns in the quarter-final game in Osaka. This follows their previous win against Auckland in the preliminary round.

It has been a busy week for the Antlers as they won the J-League only last weekend, beating Urawa Reds in the final.

They showed great resilience against a Mamelodi side that dominated the first period and looked set to claim a semi-final place. But for Antlers’ goalkeeper, Hitoshi Sogahata, who pulled off a string of fine saves, the Japanese would have been beaten by half-time. But like so many African sides in the FIFA Club World Cup, they fell at their first hurdle. The Antlers scored twice in the second half through Yasushi Endo and Mu Kanazaki.

Strangely, Mamelodi coach Pitso Mosimani claimed that Kashima were over-physical, not something usually associated with Japanese teams. “We were a little out-muscled,” he said. “It was a game of two halves…we showed a little bit of inexperience, particularly in the final third.”

The Antlers also demonstrated their character in lifting the J-League title. They came top of the first stage, losing just two of their 17 games, but slipped to 11th in the second phase. Urawa ended top overall and qualified for the play-off, but Kashima had to play Kawasaki Frontale to see who would meet Urawa. They won 1-0.

The first leg of the play-off saw Urawa pull off a 1-0 win in Kashima thanks to a second-half penalty. In the second leg, played before 60,000 people in Saitama, Kashima fell behind to an early goal, but came back to win 2-1, with Mu Kanazaki netting both goals.

Kashima’s coach, Masatada Ishii, the first Japanese to lead the Antlers to the J-League, was overjoyed at his team’s success. “We started this with the duty to win a title and now we’ve achieved that I am truly really happy,” he told the Japanese media.

The J-League play-off format has been universally unpopular and is being abandoned. When they decided to  implement a two-stage season, the media warned it was “courting disaster” and it has done little for the sport’s popularity in Japan. Next season, the J-League will be a 34-game single stage affair, with the top team being declared champions.

As for the FIFA Club World Cup, Kashima become the fifth Japanese side to reach the semi-finals – Urawa 2007, Gamba Osaka 2008, Kashiwa 2011 and Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2015 have all been there before.

They will face Colombia’s Atlético Nacional, the Libertadores Cup winners, and the club that was due to meet Brazil’s Chapecoense in the Copa Sudamericano. Of course, Chapecoense’s team was wiped out by a terrible plane crash.

How the Chapecoense affair affects the Colombians remains to be seen, but it is possible they will have to lift themselves in the aftermath of tragedy. But on arriving in Japan on December 10, their coach, Ronaldo Rueda said: “The best tribute [to Chapecoense] we can give is to play a great tournament and reach the final.”