How the Premier League became a dream destination for young Brazilians
Brazilian players once set their targets on Italy or Spain, but England has caught up thanks to satellite TV, video games and a string of high-profile signings.
“Para inglês ver,” is a phrase that is used a lot in Brazil. Its roots go back to the early 19th century, when the British government was pushing Brazil to stop using slaves. Treaties were drawn up and signed, which kept the British happy, but coffee production was exploding and slaves kept profits up for decades to come. The law was just for show, “just for the English to see.” Not so long ago young Brazilian footballers who dreamed of life-changing moves across the Atlantic played to impress Spanish and Italian eyes but, thanks to the rise in popularity of the Premier League, they are now increasingly playing for the English to see.
“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 goalposts – as they rush 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 who reminds them of the strict no ball games policy. A few minutes away, on a harsh concrete square adorned by gang graffiti, a group of older boys, some in barefoot and many in Premier League shirts, are playing a one-goal-and-off round robin that will go on until the daylight gives in.
This would not have happened a generation ago. In the 1990s Brazilians in low-income neighbourhoods could only watch La Liga and Serie A on terrestrial canais abertos (open channels), providing their families could afford a set. The prospect of watching satellite TV – Direct TV – remained a fantasy back then, a phenomenon that will be familiar to the many Brits who hunched over their Sunday roasts and watched the exploits of George Weah and Alessandro Del Piero instead of paying to see the drama unfold in their own country’s championship.
The Champions League was hardly the best advert for English football in that era. When Manchester United won it in 1999 they became the first English club to do so for 15 years. English clubs offered very little in the Club World Championship, which is taken much more seriously by Brazilians, who consider it to be the ultimate conquest in club football. Manchester United couldn’t get out of a group containing South Melbourne, Necaxa of Mexico and Vasco da Gama in 2000 and Liverpool followed up their miraculous win against Milan in the Champions League final with a 1-0 defeat to São Paulo in the Club World Championship final in 2005.
True to form, the English national team did not provide much inspiration either. They failed to qualify for the USA 94 World Cup, which Brazil won on penalties, barely made a ripple at France 98 as Brazil made it to the final, and were caught up in the whirlwind of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – who were all complicit in inspiring a generation of young players to look to Spain and Italy – in the quarter-finals in 2002 as one of the Seleção’s greatest ever teams won the country’s fifth World Cup.
Things began to change a few months after that World Cup. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, more commonly known by his nickname Lula, was elected president in October 2002, heralding a 13-year stranglehold on power for his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party). That reign came to an abrupt end in 2016 when Lula’s successor and Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached.
Currently mired in corruption scandals, Partido dos Trabalhadores is in crisis as Lula faces prison and Dilma’s 2014 election campaign is under scrutiny due to the wide-reaching Lava Jato investigation that has already left various politicians across multiple parties in jail. 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.
They have been criticised for failing to invest in Brazil’s dire public education system – which would have tackled the nation’s harrowing inequality – but PT did oversee the creation of 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 flatscreen TVs. With the economy growing at 7.5% in the boom times and Lula’s approval rating hitting 83%, things were looking up. Credit was abundant and viewers were paying off those TVs in instalments.
By now, a considerable number of domestic and foreign league matches had made their way to cable television. Though most of the population were in steady employment, a pitiful monthly minimum wage – still just over £200 – made expensive subscription fees out of reach. 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 these hurdles, the introduction of clandestine gato hook-ups meant signals could be “borrowed” from private providers, often in nearby rich neighbourhoods, and every single channel became unlocked for just over £10 per month. With more young people now able to afford games consoles, Fifa and Pro Evolution Soccer helped open up knowledge of competitions beyond Spain and Italy; kids without a TV could even get on PlayStations at hole-in-the-wall arcades or internet cafes.
Again, in 2012, a Brazilian club overcame English opponents 1-0 to be crowned world champions as Chelsea lost to Corinthians. This time round, though, the losing team had three Brasileiros on the field: Ramires, Oscar and David Luiz – then a national icon before his reckless Little Boy Lost outing against Germany in the World Cup semi-final in 2014. At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, Willian, who had spent a decade at the São Paulo-based club before heading to Shakhtar Donetsk, joined the Brazilian contingent in west London.
The acquisition of this quartet, especially Oscar, who moved directly to England from Brazil in spite of other offers, signalled a sea change in transfer trends. For years English clubs had resigned themselves to missing out on Brazilian talent to Spain and Italy due to the legacies left by legendary fellow countrymen as well as similarities in climate, culture and playing style. Brazilians had only enjoyed limited success in England, excluding perhaps Juninho and Gilberto Silva, and the physical style of play, gruelling fixture calendar and harsh winter months were hardly incentives either.
Philippe Coutinho – now the Brazilian with the most goals in the Premier League – made his way to Merseyside in January 2013. Coutinho no doubt played a role in attracting Roberto Firmino to the club two years later. He will also have helped inspire computer game-loving Gabriel Jesus to venture straight to Manchester City from Palmeiras, where he helped the club clinch their first league title in 22 years.
Premier League clubs, along with Paris Saint-Germain, give ambitious players who have grown up in abject poverty a chance to achieve financial security, with Manchester City and Chelsea seen as havens for players in want of handsome pay packets. But that may not last. The FA has changed their rules in a bid to reduce the number of non-EU players in the Premier League and the post-Brexit closing of the gates on migrant workers may discourage players from leaving mainland Europe for England. Many Brazilians are able to claim Italian, Spanish or Portuguese passports through ancestry, making the mainland chunk of the continent a less bureaucratic, more attractive option. Portugal has even suggested a freedom-of-movement scheme between Lusophone countries.
English clubs are enjoying a newfound pulling power but the Premier League still acts as a mere pit stop as far as two clubs are concerned. Real Madrid and Barcelona will always remain the pinnacle for young Brazilian footballers. Coutinho may still progress to Barcelona, where he would be be reunited with Neymar – who has been a close friend since their days in Brazil’s youth set-up – and, if Gabriel Jesus enjoys a few good seasons in Manchester, he may look to join them when Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez are winding down their careers.
Last month, youngsters across Brazil would have been buoyed by the news that 16-year-old Flamengo star Vinícius Júnior has agreed to sign for Real Madrid. Not every teenage hot prospect attracts €46m bids from the European champions so, in an era when youngsters are growing up watching their heroes play in the Premier League, England is worth being seen in too.