Why Do Brazil's Best Footballers All Leave?

In the home of the beautiful game, life is grim for the vast majority of professional players. Money is tight, organisation chaotic and morale is low. Esquire visits a country where all the best players have left for Europe

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Ask any football fan to come up with a Brazil memory and they might remember Pelé and the team that wowed the world in 1970. Some will recall the magic of Zico in 1982 or Sócrates in 1986, with his beard and back heels and the headband with political messages.

They'll smile as they wistfully think of Romário and Bebeto beaming at the cameras as they rocked the baby in the 1994 World Cup quarter-final. Or they'll reminisce about Ronaldo wheeling away after a goal with his finger in the air and his goofy smile. When it comes to football, Brazilians always seem to be smiling.

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Even when you forget the players and think of the fans, at the Maracanã or in some modern arena in Europe, they're laughing or dancing or kissing the badge. That's the way the world sees Brazilian football. It's not like ours, or anybody else's for that matter. It's glamorous and joyous and successful and often all three.

But ask a Brazilian footballer what Brazilian football is like and he'll tell you a different story. He might think back to the time they had to chase the cows off the pitch before a game, or break down the anthills in the centre circle. Or he'll grimace at the months he spent borrowing cash from his mum and dad because the club hadn't paid his wages on time. Maybe he'll tell you about the broken gym equipment – if there is gym equipment – or the long nights spent sleeping in a tiny room with three other players under the stadium's dilapidated grandstand. Or he'll smile, because these things can seem entertaining in hindsight; the five-hour bus ride to an away game and the sandwich they were given before kick-off.

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March 2014: The football players of the Boa Esporte return to the changing room during the interval in the game against the Caldense

Brendon Andrade has seen unbelievable things. Here in Itapira, with an hour to go before Mogi Mirim kick off their São Paulo state championship match against lower-league Paulista, the wiry midfielder is looking at the makeshift stand behind one of the goals. It's basically wooden planks held together with scaffolding poles and you can see right through it. It's not open tonight and probably never will be. The capacity here is 16,000 but the record attendance is 3,500. Andrade shudders at the sad sight in front of him. "Look at that stand," he says, nodding to a line of trees along one side of the pitch, a rinky-dink stand on the other. "Anyone tries to sit in that and you worry the whole thing could fall down. This is what Brazilian football's really like."

On 12 June at 9pm, Brazil will face Croatia in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup. The entire country will come to a standstill, billions will be glued to television screens across the globe and the brand-new Arena Corinthians will be filled with 68,000 fans and dignitaries hoping to see the host nation take the first step towards their sixth World Cup title.

The spectacle that will take place in São Paulo is just 56 miles from Jundiaí, where Paulista make their home, but it is a million miles away from the reality of most Brazilian clubs. The vast majority of professional sides face crippling debts made worse by amateur directors and a corrupt and outdated football association that care little for the teams, much less the players.

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March 2014: The military police wait sitting on a bench the beginning of the game between the local team Boa Esporte and Caldense

Around 85 per cent of Brazil's professionals earn less than £550 a month and some even play for food and board and the painfully small chance someone will see them and offer them a lucrative contract at a bigger club. Almost 600 of the country's 684 registered clubs play fewer than 19 games a year. More than 15,000 players don't even lace up their boots between May and December because there are no tournaments for them to play in.

The average attendance is higher for first division matches in Australia, Japan and the US than it is in the land where Pelé, Ronaldo and Neymar first kicked a ball. In a third of Brazil's 27 states, the average crowd numbers in the hundreds. In Rondônia, an Amazonian state bordering Bolivia, the average attendance last year was 273 people. In Amapá, on the border with French Guiana, it was 274.

Even major sides like Flamengo, home to all-time greats such as Zico, Júnior and Zagallo, face embarrassingly low crowds. In March, just 375 people paid to see them beat Bonsucesso 2–0 in a Rio state championship match. A few hours later, 481 people paid to watch Botafogo draw with Audax in the same competition.

It's a similarly agonising tale at Paulista. The club has a long and storied history – it won the Brazilian Cup final as recently as 2005 and beat River Plate in the Copa Libertadores the season after – but they've fallen on hard times since and things went from bad to worse in 2014. They've taken just three points from 14 games in this year's São Paulo state championship and have already been relegated to the competition's second tier.

The glitz and glamour that will be beamed around the world from the Maracanã and the Arena Corinthians come June seem like a bad joke to those who have their offices under the stands of the Jayme Cintra Stadium.
"The World Cup means nothing to us," Paulista's marketing director Marcos Del Roy says. "We're not a host city and none of the teams are based here. The league will be halted for a month, so I'll have to reach into my pocket again because there's no income. My only joy will be if one of our former players is called up."

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"The club has a debt of 20m reais (£5.4m) that has built up over the last 15 years," Del Roy adds. "But we can't pay it. We renegotiate now and again, we stop paying, we work out installment plans, we pay something whenever we can. Last year, creditors took us to court and our assets were seized. So we couldn't use the income we were getting to pay salaries. The players took us to court but we managed to pay them. Four other directors and I had to fork out 1m reais (£260,000) of our own money. We probably won't see it again. We work for free and over and above that we spend our own money. We really are here because we love it. It's mental."

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The reasons that Paulista are heading to the second division are the same reasons the World Cup stadiums are late and over budget and the promised airports, underground lines and monorails haven't been built in time. Brazilians are world leaders in cobbling things together at the last minute, but they can't for the life of them plan ahead.

Most of the country's football clubs are run, quite literally, by amateurs. Very few of the people elected to administer the clubs are paid a salary. They all have other jobs, so the time and effort they devote to the club is limited. Because almost none of the clubs are in the black, the directors are not just trying to make ends meet during their own three- or four-year term but resolve the problems and pay the debts left by their predecessors. Short-termism, an inability to think strategically and a passion for the team that frequently translates into dubious administrative decisions, are the norm.

March 2014: Football players of the Caldense enter into the Estadio Dilzon Melo in Varginha before the game against the Boa Esporte

"There is a total lack of professionalism in football in Brazil," Del Roy says. "Compared to any of the big European leagues, it is completely amateur. We're light years behind them. We can't even discuss paying professionals to come in and run the club. It's heresy even to suggest it."

That chaos proved fatal for Paulista this year. Brazil's football season follows the calendar year and is split up into two different periods. From mid-January to April, most clubs play in their local state championships. When those tournaments wrap up, the national league of four divisions begin. Those leagues run until early December.

Paulista started 2014 with a new manager and 43 players, not one of whom was at the club a year previously. They fired their first manager after five games, then fired another five games later. Every time a manager went, some players were let go as well. Before relegation was even mathematically certain, they fired several of the highest earners and replaced them with members of the youth teams. The average age of the side that lined up against Mogi Mirim was just 20. Few of them can expect to stay; few want to.

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For those on loan from a bigger club, arriving at a team like Paulista is a shock. "We were pretty depressed," says Crystian Souza Carvalho, a 21-year-old full-back on loan from Santos, where he played alongside Neymar. "We regretted it and wanted to go home because we were used to so much more. At the big clubs you have everything you need. The gym here is very limited. At Santos we had a hydrogymnastics pool and a sauna. Here you have six showers and only three of them have hot water."

"We have what we need to play football but we aren't fed properly, to give you one example," says Diego Carlos, a strapping 21-year-old centre-half, who is currently on loan from São Paulo. "At São Paulo, there's a restaurant and a nutritionist and they bring you whatever you ask for. Here we get the same thing all the time. Rice, beans and salad and either beef or chicken."

"We learn how to do things the right way at these big clubs and then you come here and you try to maintain those standards but it's just not possible," Carlos adds. "I like to do weight training but the machines don't work. It has an effect. You end up losing your focus."

Not all of them realise it, but they are the lucky ones. The clubs they play for are in São Paulo, the richest state in the country, the one with the biggest TV deal and the best organisation, if the word organisation can ever be applied to Brazilian football. All 20 teams in the state's top tier get a decent chunk of TV money and then there's the prospect of advertising deals and home gates against one of the big four – Corinthians, Palmeiras, Santos and São Paulo.

Out in the sticks, in Amazonia, or in the impoverished north-east, or in the centre-west, where football comes a distant second to rodeo, the reality is even more precarious.
"One time we drove 48 hours by bus for a mini-tournament," says Ytalo dos Santos, a former player with Corinthians Alagoas, a small team from one of Brazil's poorest states. "We'd get off at truck stops to stretch and eat something. We had two punctures and then the bus caught on fire and we were all trying to get off as quick as we could. We lost a lot of stuff, the balls, our strips. Another team had to send their bus to pick us up and we ended up playing in borrowed strips. When we finally got there we were exhausted. That's normal. I've done that kind of trip seven or eight times."

Clubs like Corinthians Alagoano will have to get by on a few thousand pounds a year and most of their players will be paid little more than the minimum wage of 740 reais per month (around £200). Paulista, though, will bring in more than 4m reais this year (£1.08m); 2.5m (£650,000) from broadcast rights, 1–1.2m (£270,000-£324,000) in sponsorship and 500,000 (£135,000) in gate receipts. That is less than what the average League Two team makes in England but it is enough to rank Paulista among the 40 highest-earning clubs in Brazil, according to Pluri Consultoria, a sports consultancy firm.

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March 2014: Two professional football players, Leandro Vicentin Fernandes (right) and Malcon Marschel Carvalho (left), are seen inside their room in the Paulista football club stadium

But even with that privileged position, it will struggle to make ends meet. The club plays two matches a week but has to compete with the televised coverage of more glamorous matches, both inside and outside Brazil. In addition to Copa Libertadores and Champions League matches, some of which are now shown on terrestrial TV, cable broadcasts literally dozens of matches each week.

As many as six fixtures from the English Premier League and Championship are televised at weekends, and games from Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Mexico and Argentina are on almost every night of the week.
The situation is made even harder for teams like Paulista because many locals prefer the hour-long drive to the capital and the prospect of glory to the more mundane pleasures of watching their local team. The average crowd at the Jayme Cintra last season was just 2,527.

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"The gate money doesn't give us enough to survive on," Del Roy says. "It's just some money to pay bills. It doesn't even cover the salaries. I need 6m reais (£1.6m) a year [for the club] to survive and I get 4m (£1.08m). We have a decent youth system, so we sell a lot of players. That's how we try to balance the books. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."

When it doesn't, it's usually the players who suffer. Lots of unthinkable things happen in Brazilian football, both on and off the pitch, but one of the most scandalous is just how often clubs don't pay their players. No matter that the chairman is a successful businessman, or that the club has a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal, or that it just got mega-bucks for selling a young star to Russia or Portugal or China. They just don't bother paying their principal employees and it's not only small clubs that are guilty.
So far this year, several of Brazil's biggest teams, including 2012 World Club Cup champions Corinthians, have admitted they owed cash to star players. Alexandre Pato and two other Corinthians players were owed more than 4m reais (£1.08m). Ronaldinho, the former Barcelona star who won the Copa Libertadores last year with Atlético Mineiro, only agreed to sign a new contract in January after the club promised to pay his teammates all they were due. And although Romário hung up his boots eight years ago, he took Vasco da Gama to court to demand £17.5m in payment, settling for £5.5m.

Paulista owe between 10 and 12m reais to players and former players, and while the effect is hard to gauge, it is not hard to imagine. The best analysis came from Vampeta, the former World Cup winner who played for Flamengo during one of the Rio club's most turbulent periods. When asked about Flamengo's money problems, he replied: "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to play."

Every Brazilian football player remembers the quote and although few will publicly say it, many agree with Vampeta. "I always give 100 per cent, that's what I agreed to," says Umberto Louzer Filho, Paulista's captain and, at 34, by far the most experienced player on their books. "I give my all so I can demand the same from the other players and the people who run the club. But not everybody thinks the same. I've seen players pretend to be injured, players giving less than they should. It's exactly like Vampeta said. If they're not going to be responsible and pay us then why should we be responsible and play? He's the only one to say what everyone thinks."

Louzer is owed 100,000 reais (£27,000) in back payments from his last club Caxias, a Serie C team from the south of Brazil. He had saved enough money over his long career to get by but for younger players, or those on starting salaries and with responsibilities, it's not so simple.

March 2014: Fans of the Boa Esporte football club watch the game against the Caldense

"When I was at Marília,  they didn't pay my salary for four months," Brendon Andrade recalls. "I kept having to borrow money from my mum. I didn't have cash to go out. One time I didn't even have enough money to get to training. It's embarrassing, a grown man, a professional footballer, having to ask his mother for money."

There's a growing movement to change Brazilian football and it's the most important demonstration of player power since Sócrates led the famous Democracia Corinthiana player revolt against club management's strict rules in the early Eighties. More than 1,000 players, including some of the biggest names in the land – former Arsenal captain Gilberto Silva, São Paulo's iconic goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni, and ex-Fenerbahçe midfielder Alex among them – are putting pressure on the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) and broadcaster TV Globo to reduce the number of games for the elite clubs and increase the number of games for the minnows.

They are also seeking financial penalties for clubs that don't pay their players on time and a fifth division of 432 teams playing on a regional basis. The Serie E would give a new lease of life for those small clubs that are currently forced to wind down in April and allow the thousands of players who take on jobs as waiters or farmers for seven months of the year to dedicate themselves properly to football.

Neither the CBF nor TV Globo have responded to the proposals, but they can't ignore the malaise in the country forever. The enormity of the challenge facing domestic football is growing by the day and although the youngsters at Paulista talk excitedly about this summer's World Cup, they see it as a whole different ball game to the one they play every week. One is about money, fame and glamour. The other is about sacrifice, survival and big dreams.

As he walks across the turf in Itapira before the Mogi Mirim game, Bruno Ostapenco says what everyone in the team is thinking. The 21-year-old winger has had a taste of the good life during spells at Gremio and Palmeiras and being here tonight is not just depressing, it is downright frightening.

"My big fear is that I'll be stuck at this level," Ostapenco says pensively. "God gave me a talent to play football and I've played at big clubs. I'm only here on loan and I'm afraid I'll get used to it. That's how it is for the majority of people who play football. I don't want to stay here, I want to go to Europe. And every player I know feels exactly the same way."

Photographer: Tommaso Protti

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