Brazilians in the English Premier League: A History

This piece originally appeared on thefalsenine.co.uk.

Brazil’s relationship with football is unique. In no other country is it such an integral part of national life: simultaneously everyone’s favourite pastime, dream job and topic of conversation. In Brazilian society, the game’s players are messianic figures. Many, such as Zico, Romário and Bebeto, have assumed high-profile political positions after retiring.

Defeat to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup Final, played on home soil in the Maracanã, was a genuine national disaster. Victory was apparently so assured that a spontaneous carnival took place in Rio de Janeiro prior to the match, an official song was composed to mark the occasion and FIFA president Jules Rimet prepared a congratulatory speech in Portuguese. The pain of that ignominious reverse served as the catalyst for what has since been an almost constant stream of success.

The men’s national team has won five World Cups, eight Copa Américas, four Confederations Cups and the hearts of millions of neutrals. According to FIFA’s Big Count, conducted in 2006, only Germany and the United States have more registered footballers than Brazil and only England has more registered clubs. Simply put, no other country can match the scale of Brazil’s success in the beautiful game, nor its devotion to it.

When discussing the relationship between football in England and Brazil, writers are fond of repeating the truism ‘the English invented it, but the Brazilians perfected it’, and with good cause. It gives the English the condescending pat on the back they feel they deserve while acknowledging that Brazil is, in this day and age, the true home of the beautiful game.

Despite the countries’ status as the two that have played arguably the biggest roles in the story of football’s worldwide success, England and Brazil have traditionally had divergent interpretations of the game and how it is meant to be played.

For as long as anyone can remember, Brazil has been the biggest developer of young talent in the world. So respected and bountiful is their production line that in six of the past eight seasons, Brazil has provided the highest number of players to take part in the Champions League – a feat that becomes even more impressive when one takes into account that all of these players have had to move halfway across the world in order to participate.

At the other end of the food chain, England’s Premier League has over the last twenty years graciously accepted billions of pounds worth of television money in order to establish itself as the Best League In The World™. Many of the best foreign players, coaches and managers have joined England’s biggest clubs, creating a division that is uniquely global both in its makeup and its appeal.

For the first fifteen or so years of the Premier League era, however, major stars from one nation – Brazil – were more or less absent.

There have always been established career paths for Brazilians in Southern, Central and, increasingly, Eastern Europe, but England has proved largely inhospitable. There have been notable exceptions, such as Juninho Paulista, but for every crossover success there have been two or three duds: Branco, Marcelino, Afonso Alves, Robinho and André Santos, to name but a few.

Unfairly, the relocated South Americans have carried the can for their apparent failure. The fact that it has taken so long for Brazilians to make a mark on the Premier League en masse clearly suggests that there have been as many problems with the British style of football and way of life as Brazilians’ supposed lack of adaptability.

For starters, the frenetic pace and tactical rigidity generally synonymous with English football are antithetical to the style of the game Brazilians learn while growing up. While the English way has until recently been to teach football to children by throwing them into eleven-a-side games and fast-tracking the most physical ones, Brazilians traditionally learn in small-sided, small-pitch games in which precise technique is allied with ingenuity of thought to defeat opponents.

These cultures are poles apart, so it is no surprise they have clashed when brought into contact. Indeed, given the problems that English football has had accepting its own creative mavericks – Glenn Hoddle being the most famous example – it is no surprise that the typical Brazilian attacker has historically failed on these shores or steered well clear of them altogether.

The Brazilians that have successfully settled in the Premier League have tended to be no-nonsense defenders or disciplined defensive midfielders: journeyman centre-back Emerson Thome discovered England to be a home from home playing mid-table Premier League hoofball, while more high profile cases such as Alex, Sylvinho and Edu also found varying degrees of acclaim during their stays.

Along with the aforementioned Juninho Paulista, Gilberto Silva was the first big name to succeed indisputably, playing 237 games for Arsenal between 2002 and 2008 and eventually captaining the side.

There is an even more obvious problem than the difference between respective styles of football – one that somehow passes under the radar, by and large – and that is that Brazil and Britain have totally different climates, cultures and languages.

Without meaning to demean or stereotype, the typical Brazilian player is from a very poor background and is probably not going to find learning a new language the easiest thing in the world. Furthermore, the cold, greyness and rain will drive him and his family to distraction. It is harder to get past these problems and be good at one’s job than most people care to realise.

As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in Soccernomics, football clubs all over the world have generally fallen way below the accepted standard when it comes to helping new signings to settle and adjust in an alien environment. Expatriate employees of most multimillion pound businesses are offered every possible assistance: accommodation, orientation tours, language classes and help finding schools for their children, for example.

The contrast with the way football clubs have treated their foreign arrivals could not be in starker. Their idea of helping the player settle in has archetypally extended to making reservations in a hotel, taking the player to the training ground and then leaving him to his own devices. One of the unappreciated reasons for Juninho Paulista performing so well during the first of three spells at Middlesbrough was that he inadvertently built something akin to a support network for himself.

Simon Clifford, the former primary school teacher now famous for his work promoting futsal and bringing Brazilian legends to Garforth Town, made an effort to speak to Juninho every day and became a close friend. Clifford took it upon himself to assist the midfielder in booking doctors’ appointments, translating official documents and generally ensuring he felt at home. All Juninho had to worry about was doing the business on the pitch.

The benefits of treating footballers as human beings have been recognised. The last few years have seen a transformation in the way clubs handle their players off the pitch and the support packages expected as standard in other industries are now common in football. Brazilian youths are no longer plucked from the favela, taken halfway across the world and left to fend for themselves. The effect has been that more Brazilian footballers are arriving and succeeding in England.

Furthermore, the sheer number of Brazilians now playing in England brings its own benefits, allowing them to form vibrant expatriate communities. For example, Chelsea’s David Luiz often hosts parties and pool tournaments at his Putney home for Brazilian players based in London, regardless of their club.

Fans of Queens Park Rangers were incensed when one of these parties led to pictures of Júlio César happily wearing a Chelsea shirt appearing on social media. What they failed to realise was firstly that the goalkeeper was dressed from head to toe as David Luiz as part of a fancy dress theme, and secondly that without such chances to fraternise with compatriots, he would probably have refused to join the club in the first place.

Away from London, there is also an established Brazilian group in the North West. On the pitch, the Da Silva twins and Lucas Leiva are sworn enemies. Off it, Manchester United and Liverpool have an interest in allowing them to hang out together: the more at ease the players feel, the better they will perform.

Things have evolved on the pitch as well as off it. As football has globalised, regional styles of the game have merged. Widespread cultural exchange and unprecedented levels of performance analysis have led to accelerated development and greater levels of homogeneity in the way the sport is played. The Premier League is now exponentially more refined than it was twenty years ago and therefore more agreeable to Brazilian players.

Recent years have seen players such as Sandro, Ramires, David Luiz, Oscar and Philippe Coutinho come to England and make instant and sustained impacts. This summer saw further big money arrivals as Fernandinho, Paulinho and Willian joined Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea respectively. They will not struggle to fit in in the way that their cultural predecessors did.

The English invented football for the Brazilians to perfect it, but it has been a long wait for Brazilians to bring jogo bonito back to England. After 150 years, the wait is over – and we are all the richer for it.

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About robbro7

I mostly write about football but occasionally go off on one about music or film too. I talk about Argentina a lot. If you have any questions or want to get in touch, tweet me @robbro7 or send an email to robbro7 [at] gmail [dot] com.
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