World Cup highlights Brazil's soccer export power
More than a dozen Brazilian players, managers, and support staff represented countries other than their own in Germany.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL — Felipe Scolari entered this World Cup hoping to become the only coach to lead different teams to victory in the championship game of soccer's greatest tournament. Four years ago he led his home country Brazil to its fifth World Cup title. He fell short of his goal this time, but has taken an underrated Portuguese team to the third place game Saturday against host country Germany, something only one other coach has been able to do in Portugal's history.
Helping Mr. Scolari take Portugal into this unfamiliar territory is star midfielder and fellow Brazilian, Deco, who moved to Portugal at age 20 to play professional soccer, and became a citizen six years later.
But Deco and Scolari are not the only Brazilians to play or coach for other countries this World Cup. Marcos Senna played well for Spain, Francileudo Santos boosted the chances of Tunisia, Zinha provided a spark for Mexico, and Alex dos Santos made an impression for Japan, a team coached by former Brazilian star Arthur Coimbra, also known as Zico.
All of them, and more than a dozen more Brazilian players, managers, and support staff, were at the World Cup in Germany this month representing countries other than their own. Some 804 Brazilians signed for foreign clubs last year in 83 nations, according to the Brazilian Football Confederation. In addition to soccer hot spots like Italy, Spain, and England, players went to Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Cyprus and Thailand.
Either playing as naturalized citizens for their new nations or simply as hired hands, all are perfect examples of the seemingly innate talent that has helped make Brazil the only country in the world to win soccer's most coveted title five times. Once again, they were the favorites this year, but were upset in the quarterfinals by the same French team that beat Portugal in the semifinals Wednesday. Still, as the game has gone global, Brazil stands as the No. 1 exporter of what is called the world's game.
"They have a tradition of excellence," says Simon Kuper, author of the prize-winning book "Soccer Against the Enemy," a voyage around the world's soccer hot spots. "They have something that the rest of us don't."
What Brazilians have is talent and skill in spades. Even though almost every country in the world plays soccer, Brazilian players are unique. They have a swagger and swing that helps them dribble, superior control and technique, and a savvy ingenuity that helps them create plays from nothing.
Today, players with those skills are easier to spot and easier to hire, Mr. Kuper says. Relaxed labor laws have made it easier for Brazilians to get work permits in Europe, often getting passports from the land of their migrant grandparents. Globalization and improved communications have made it easier for foreign clubs to find and contact players who might once have gone unnoticed. Brazil's large population of 180 million means the pool of talent is always full. And the success of Brazilians who have made the leap overseas encourages managers to keep going back to the same source.
Brazil rose to soccer prominence in 1958 when it won the World Cup for the first time. It added to its growing aura by taking the trophy four years later and again in 1970. The brilliance of that team, led by Pelé and still widely acclaimed as the greatest ever, was beamed into homes around the world by satellite and was responsible for fixing that image of the supreme Brazilian soccer player in the world's mind.
Today, Brazilians are stereotypically assumed to excel at the game. " 'Brazilian footballer' is akin to 'French chef' or 'Tibetan monk,' " says Alex Bellos, author of 'Futebol:The Brazilian Way of Life,' a quirky study of the culture of Brazilian soccer.
"In no other country is talent at football so closely tied up with the idea of national identity as it is in Brazil," Mr. Bellos says. "This is both Brazil's self-image and also what other nations think of them. It is hard to think about Brazil without picturing Pelé, Ronaldinho, or imagining the yellow shirts."
That is what motivates clubs outside Brazil to sign Brazilian players. Having a Brazilian in their lineup gives a club cachet and perhaps even a psychological advantage over rivals, coaches say.
"The other side is subconsciously aware that he can do something, and that unpredictability gives you an advantage," says Charlie Howe, coach of a New Zealand team that last year signed Brazilian player Leandro de Souza. "Brazilians bring character and spice and that adds value to our game and gives spectators something to look at."
Although a few top players go to Europe and Japan and earn multimillion dollar salaries there, the overwhelming majority who go abroad are little-known journeymen. Most of those who play the game in Brazil earn the minimum wage of around $175 per month and they can earn much more playing in even the remotest outposts.
That is good for them and good for Brazil because their exodus serves a cultural purpose, Bellos says. Brazilian soccer players plying their trade overseas far outnumber the diplomats who work in Brazilian missions abroad and their effect is often similar.
"They are cultural ambassadors as well as sporting ones since Brazilian lifestyle is so closely linked to how they play football," Bellos says.
Brazilian coaches are also in demand. Brazilians took charge of five nations national soccer teams this year – Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Portugal, and Brazil itself – a number far exceeding any other nation.
But Brazilian coaches admit that competing against their homeland provoked mixed emotions. But at least Zico, whose Japan team played Brazil on June 22 (and lost), had an honest answer when asked who he wanted to see win the cup. "I support Brazil, I always have and I always will."