IN 2001, a 13-year-old Lionel Messi and his family relocated from Rosario to Barcelona. Reports of his trial are poetic, as just two minutes on a football pitch were enough for the club’s technical director to realise that Messi was some messianic footballing entity, immediately drawing comparisons with Diego Maradona. In fairness, his value to Barcelona since then has been incalculable. If there is another player with his potential lying in wait, clubs are taking measures to make absolutely sure they are the ones that find him.
Dr Lynn Lashbrook is president and founder of Sports Management Worldwide (SMWW.com), an online organisation that trains scouts all over the world in 23 different sports. “Hundreds apply every month; we just keep growing and growing,” he explained to me. Indeed, SMWW has 10,000 alumni in 144 countries across the world, and one can request a scouting report free of charge directly through their website, with recently trained scouts looking to gain industry exposure. In Dr. Lashbrook’s eyes, “Nobody knows a Venezuelan baseball player better than a Venezuelan.”
What was most clear from our interview was that the industry for identifying talent is expanding, with many of SMWW’s alumni going on to work in a professional capacity, in an industry once reserved for ex-pros and coaches. “It’s impossible to keep up with the world identification of talent,” he says.
Nowhere is this statement truer than in South America, the continent responsible for producing history’s most mythical players, and a scouting Neverland for uncovering future superstars. Norwegian scout Tor-Kristien Karlsen wrote an article for the Guardian in 2013 explaining the importance of the South American Under-17 Championships. “Players are too young to be widely known yet, so it’s the first chance for scouts to see them altogether.” After being named player of the tournament at the 2017 championships, Vinícius Júnior became the latest example of a high-profile manhunt. Real Madrid snapped up the 16-year-old Brazilian from Flamengo for £39.6 million.
Due to international transfer laws, Vinícius won’t be playing in Madrid until he is 18, and a loan move back to Flamengo lasting until 2019 has already been arranged. Spending that kind of money, under those circumstances, represents a huge show of faith, but Real clearly feel that it’s a risk worth taking if it means signing the next Neymar, and perhaps more importantly, stopping their rivals from getting him first. Real, maybe with Messi on their minds, feel they can no longer afford to miss out on the next big South American prospect, at any cost. And now there are more clubs looking.
Historically, it is the Spanish and Italian clubs that have had a monopoly over South American talent. This is thanks in large part to the absence of work permit restrictions, but they are also at a cultural advantage; 90 percent of CONMEBOL nations speak Spanish, and Italian is not so far removed. With a Mediterranean climate thrown in for good measure, it’s not hard to see why players have preferred a move to southern Europe.
To name but a few, Spain and Italy have taken Maradona, Messi, Neymar, Rivaldo and Kaká across the Atlantic, players that have all single-handedly won trophies for their clubs, and for years have given teams the edge over their English, French and German counterparts.
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Recently, Premier League sides have used their financial strength to follow the example set by the Spanish and Italians by stepping up their South American recruitment network. In 2010, Liverpool struck a cooperation deal with Belgian club Gent as a way of bringing in South American players while circumventing UK employment laws. Then, in 2011, Manchester United made ties with São Paulo academy Deportivo Brasil, and doubled their scouting presence in the region.
“Quite frankly, they do produce. It’s in their blood,” said Sir Alex Ferguson of South Americans. The shift is reflected in the numbers: 204 South Americans have played in the Premier League, and 92 of these have signed since 2010. The number of Colombians and Chileans has also tripled since then. The BBC’s South American correspondent Tim Vickery speculated in 2014 that by having 50 South Americans dotted across the Premier League, “critical mass has been obtained … there are now enough to form a welcoming committee.”
But now it’s not just the big leagues with an eye on South America. At the 2011 Under-17 South American Championships, Edison Flores scored three goals in Peru’s four games and started to raise eyebrows. Peru were eliminated at the group-stage, but Flores, who had recently been named player of the tournament at the inaugural under-20 edition of the Copa Libertadores, earned a move across the Atlantic to Villarreal B.
Although Flores later returned to Lima’s Universitario de Deportes, he was picked up shortly after for a million euros by Aab on a four-year contract, becoming the Danish Superliga’s first ever Peruvian and their only active South American. Flores has since been instrumental in guiding Peru to 10th in the FIFA world rankings, the 2018 World Cup, and is now reportedly being watched by Valencia and Sevilla.
Flores’ transfers do not make the back pages, and following Peru’s two-legged tie against New Zealand, his biggest claim to fame may just be as the world’s most jet-lagged footballer. However, his journey shows that the chase for South American talent is now a race with competitors from all over Europe, and as more clubs are searching, more players will be looking to make the move. Fortunately for scouts, they want to be found.
Players know that the big clubs will have their people at showcase events like under-17 championships, and will be trying to get noticed. From their point of view, a transfer represents a chance to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned world-beaters, who rose to the top while in Europe and made the move while they were young.
It is also a transfer to the first world and the higher wages that go with it. Footballers’ careers are short, and moving towards money represents a greater security, of which South Americans are more acutely aware. It is this delayed gratification that may even benefit the player’s development. Former Liverpool director of football Damien Comolli believes that high wages among teenagers europe is denting their hunger. “If you look at attacking players at the top 20 or 30 teams across Europe, many are from South America,” he added. “From a mental aspect, they have a greater drive.” South Americans are not paid the higher wages until they make the move, and so they are remaining hungry until a later age.
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For clubs, a European buyer is highly desirable. Of the top 100 most expensive transfers ever, all of them involved a European side. Having your best players watched by Real Madrid’s scouts is not as frightening as when you’re a Premier League club. On the contrary; some clubs are counting on it.
Deportivo Maldonado of Uruguay’s second tier have learned how to exploit the growing market more than most. In March 2010 the club bought Alex Sandro for £1.9 million from Atletico Paranaense, before immediately loaning him to Brazilian giants Santos. Without so much as setting foot in Uruguay, he was sold a year later to Juventus for £8.2 million, making Maldonado a £6.3 million profit.
By having their players in the shop window of bigger clubs, it increases the chance they will be seen. They’ve pulled the same trick with Manchester City’s Gerónimo Rulli, Real Sociedad’s Willian José, and have many other players on their books who’ve never put on a Maldonado shirt. European clubs are happy to spend, and South American clubs are happy to take their money. It’s not as though they’re being ripped off; as with Vinícius Junior, they recognise a desperate face when they see one, and will charge appropriately.
Ultimately, the race for South American talent is benefitting both sides of the Atlantic, with buyer, seller and player trying to capitalise.
If anyone is losing out, it is the quality of South American domestic football. There was a time when Brazilian and Argentine teams were amongst the world’s best, but the growing tradition of supplying Europe with their best players means this is no longer the case. It is now considered an inevitability that their most gifted players will move. In fact, if a talented South American stays in CONMEBOL-administered territory, it is taken almost personally.
Pelé never played in Europe, and many argue that because Maradona succeeded at Napoli and Barcelona, this was evidence of the Argentine’s superior footballing ability. Pelé has suggested, however, that the Brazilian government did not allow him to make the move.
Nowadays, it’s unthinkable that the next Pelé would not cross the Atlantic. As money in football continues to snowball, competition will increase, and recent history suggests that those with the latest South American prodigies will have the advantage. While scouting networks continue to expand, it’s fair to expect that more and more South American starlets will be plying their trade on the other side of the Atlantic, and no longer just for the usual suspects