‘Só para inglês ver’ is a phrase commonly used in Brazil, with roots in the slave trade, pertaining to façade laws and such created ‘only for the English to see’. In a footballing context, Brazilian youth dreaming of a life-changing move across the Atlantic once played just to impress Spanish and Italian eyes. That was until, thanks to increased exposure to the Premier League, English clubs firmly entered the fray and even became first preference in some cases.
“I want to be City; I want to be Chelsea,” come the enthusiastic cries from a pack of young boys – ball in hand, jumpers for goal posts – rushing through the forecourt of a public housing building in São Paulo’s second largest favela, Paraisópolis, before receiving a ticking off from a portly porteiro (doorman) who reminds them of the premises’ strict no running and no ball games policy.
A few minutes away, on a harsh concrete square adorned by gang graffiti – half looking as if it could have been used for the post-apocalyptic scene in Terminator 2 where Cyberdyne Systems’ evil fruits have already taken over – which some frequent barefoot, the Premier League shirts are many across thrown together teams of older lads playing a one-goal-and-off round robin that will go on until a lack of daylight dictates otherwise.
Until recently, this would never have occurred. In the 1990s, Brazilians in low-income neighbourhoods only had access to La Liga and Serie A on terrestrial canais abertos (open channels), providing their families could afford a set, as the prospect of an in-house SKY, then known as Direct TV package remained fantasy – a phenomena no doubt invoking fond memories for those Brits among us who, hunched over a Sunday roast in their grandparents’ pokey council flats, were instead thrilled by the weekly exploits of George Weah and Alessandro Del Piero as opposed to the drama of their country’s own championship for many a year too, save for Match of the Day highlights.
The Champions League was hardly the best advert for English football back then either, nor the Club World Cup – taken much more seriously by Brazilians and considered the ultimate conquest in club football – on the occasions that Manchester United couldn’t get out of a group containing South Melbourne, Necaxa of Mexico and Rio’s Vasco da Gama, who would be beaten in the final by a Corinthians team that had pipped Real Madrid, and when Liverpool fell short of overcoming São Paulo in Tokyo even after defeating AC Milan in miracle fashion.
True to form, neither would the English national team provide much inspiration. Failing to qualify for the USA 94 World Cup won by Brazil on penalties, they barely made a ripple at France 98 and would be caught up in the whirlwind of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – all additionally complicit in pushing young countrymen towards pursuing their dreams in Spain and Italy – in the quarter-final of the 2002 edition, which saw arguably the Seleção’s greatest ever team take home the Jules Rimet for the fifth time in its history.
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A few months after the conclusion of the Japan and South Korea-held tournament, in October of that year, the election of President Luiz Inácio da Silva, more commonly known by his nickname, Lula, would commence a 14-year Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party) stranglehold on power in Latin America’s largest country brought to an abrupt halt by the 2016 impeachment of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.
Currently mired in corruption scandals, PT is in ruins as Lula faces prison and Dilma’s 2014 election campaign is under scrutiny due to the wide-reaching Lava Jato investigation that has already seen various politicians across multiple parties jailed for their involvement in crippling state oil company Petrobras as well as other graft schemes. Even in a country bitterly divided by left and right though, few would argue that PT helped lift millions out of poverty with welfare programmes such as Bolsa Familia.
Criticised for failing to invest in Brazil’s dire public education system – which would have truly tackled the nation’s harrowing inequality – and merely throwing money at the problem to keep voters both dependent and unwise, PT would nevertheless create a new burgeoning middle class, admittedly by its own definitions. Despite still living in undesirable comunidades, the poor now had disposable income for household electronics including flat screen TVs and could pay in instalments as credit was abundant whilst Brazil stood out among the BRIC countries in the midst of an economic boom.
By now, all international leagues and considerable amounts of Brazilian domestic games, including clásicos on pay-per-view, had made their way to cable television. Though most of the working population was in steady employ, a pitiful monthly minimum wage – still just over £200 – made expensive subscription fees out of reach. Additionally, some companies to this day refuse to provide their services to parts of Brazil’s towns and cities they deem too dangerous for their technicians to tread.
Despite that, with the introduction of clandestine gato hook-ups, signals could be ‘borrowed’ from private providers, often in nearby rich neighbourhoods, and every single channel became unlocked for just over £10 per month.
Similarly, FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer for those now with the means to own a console opened up knowledge of competitions beyond Spain and Italy; even kids still without could get on a PlayStation at hole-in-the-wall arcades or internet cafés in the locale.
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Again, in 2012, a Brazilian club would overcome an English foe to be crowned world champions as Chelsea lost to Corinthians. This time round, the Stamford Bridge outfit boasted three Brasileiros in Ramires, Oscar and David Luiz – then a national icon before his reckless Little Boy Lost outing against Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-final on home soil. At the beginning of the 2013/14 season, Willian, who made his bones at the São Paulo-based club before heading to Shakhtar Donetsk, would join the Brazilian contingent in west London.
Indeed, it was the acquisition of this quartet, with an emphasis on Oscar who decided to head directly from São Paulo in spite of other offers, that signalled a sea change in transfer trends. Evident in the sagas tied to the sales of both Ronaldinho and Neymar, lost to Barcelona by Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, English clubs had for years resigned themselves to always missing out on Brazilian and South American talent to Spain and to a lesser extent Italy, due to the legacies left by legendary fellow countrymen as well as similarities in climate, culture and playing style.
Incredibly physical with a gruelling calendar containing harsh winter months, the limited success of Brazilians, excluding perhaps Juninho and Gilberto Silva, in England was hardly an incentive either.
Making his way to Merseyside in the January 2013 transfer window, later joined by Roberto Firmino, would be Liverpool attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho – now the Premier League’s top-scoring Brazilian ever.
Although Coutinho first chose Italy for a troubled spell at Inter Milan as a 16-year-old from boyhood club Vasco, he no doubt played a role in computer game-loving Gabriel Jesus’ decision, partly motivated by the chance to play under Pep Guardiola, to venture straight to Manchester City after progressing from the Palmeiras youth academy to help the senior team clinch its first national title in 22 years.
Understandably, supported by less-ambitious yet highly-lucrative moves to the Chinese Super League, financial security for those who have grown up in abject poverty also plays its role. Along with Paris Saint-Germain, a modern footballing haven for Brazilians, City and Chelsea have the reputation as new money clubs willing to award handsome pay packets to their landed targets.
Read | How Philippe Coutinho escaped purgatory
Innocently ignorant to the nuances of the Home Office’s amendments to work permit laws, specifying that non-EU players must now not only have a certain amount of caps for their national team under their belt but should have featured in at least 75 percent of internationals in the two years leading up to an application to settle in the UK – apparently exploited by opportunist agents promising a cut of the spoils to coaches in return for rushing their clients through the process – the dream may have become further out of reach for budding favela stars of tomorrow.
Once embracing globalisation with open arms, the closing of the gates by superpowers such as the US and UK could see other behavioural changes in a post-Brexit Europe. For many Brazilians, with cities such as São Paulo second only to Milan and Rome for its population of Italian descendants, there exists the possibility, for those able to trace it, of being able to claim Italian, Spanish and Portuguese passports through ancestry making the mainland chunk of the continent a far more attractive, less-bureaucratic option. Meanwhile, talks are reportedly underway for a freedom-of-movement scheme between Lusophone countries like Portugal and its former colonies, including of course Brazil.
Irrespective of English clubs’ newfound pulling power, Real Madrid and Barcelona will always remain the top priority; the Premier League acting merely as a pit stop. This summer, it’s possible that, despite his protests to the contrary, Coutinho will move to the Camp Nou to be reunited with Neymar – the two having shared a close friendship since their days in Brazil’s youth set-up.
After a few good seasons in Manchester, who’s to say that Gabriel Jesus, with Guardiola on hand to talk up the institution that moulded him even at the risk of losing a star player, providing he is still at the helm, won’t allow the Catalan giants to replicate the Brazilian first team’s currently-flying front three once Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez are winding down their careers.
In recent weeks, youngsters hoping to dazzle their way out of Rio de Janeiro’s slums will have no doubt been buoyed by Flamengo and Brazil under-17 star Vinicius Junior’s agreement to head to Real Madrid, who were eager to avoid a repeat of the fiasco that saw Neymar snatched from their grasp by bitter rivals Barcelona, as part of a big money move in 2018.
Across Brazil, however, in an era with increased exposure to and knowledge of the Premier League, hot prospects remain just as eager to ply their trade in England too
By Tom Sanderson @TomSandersonSP