India wasn’t where they thought they would wind up, coming from the land of jogo bonito. But a bunch of Brazilians travelled halfway across the world to land contracts in the Indian Super League, after their teenaged dreams of setting Europe on fire faded, then frayed to tatters. Mihir Vasavda tells the story of footballers from the famous South American powerhouse, camped currently in India who missed their chance to be extra-ordinary.
THE modest, single-tiered bleachers of the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune were a far cry from the giant sports amphitheatre in Rome that Jonatan Lucca once hoped he would grace. As he strode out of the tunnel in FC Goa colours for a crucial away encounter against Pune City, one wondered if Lucca’s mind drifted into the past, thinking of the cruel twist of fate that landed him in this hilly western Indian city when he was destined for something bigger at the historic Italian capital.
It was a little more than a month after he turned 18 three years ago. With a twinkle in his eye and an impish grin, the Brazilian had posed for a dozen photographers at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Donning AS Roma’s famous red jersey, he was paraded in front of 20,000 curious fans, wondering who this mystery signing was. Roma’s Hungarian manager Zdenek Zeman promised flair, which you associate with almost every Brazilian player. But this boy wonder from Santa Maria held promise, as he had shown while playing for the youth team of South American giants Internacional.
‘Nouvou (new) Ronaldinho,’ screamed one of Italy’s leading football websites on its homepage the following day, comparing his technical skills to that of the Brazilian great. Lucca was living his dream. And with endless possibilities in front of him, the midfielder prepared himself for a dizzying journey with Roma, hoping to follow the paths of his more famous countrymen. Or so he wished.
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Three years on, he finds himself playing in front of a motley crowd in a fledgling league in distant India. It’s a story gone awfully wrong. And his isn’t the only one. Including Lucca, there are 17 Brazilian footballers in the Indian Super League (ISL) this season. And almost each one of them has a tale to tell.
It may seem exotic to be a professional footballer in the land of sun, samba and soccer. But beyond the stories of jogo bonito orchestrated by Selecao superstars in Europe’s finest leagues are the journeymen who are forced to leave their backyards in Brazil to kick a ball thousands of miles away just to earn a living.
According to FIFA’s transfer statistics, 689 players left the South American country to play abroad in 2014 – more than players from any other nation. They were also the most transferred nationality. Out of the 13,090 transfers registered last year, 1,493 were Brazilians.
Taken at face value, it may seem simple economics where supply exceeds demand resulting in the surplus being exported. But talk to the players and they paint a grim picture of circumstances that force them to leave their families and venture out of their country.
“There are so many academies in Brazil which produce many, many footballers. So some awesome players are picked by big clubs. But there are also many great players who do not get such opportunities,” says Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos, the player-manager of Delhi Dynamos.
The glitz and glamour that is generally associated with Brazilian football feels like a bad joke to those who have plodded their way through the crowded youth system and an inefficient domestic structure. They are the vagabonds who are not wanted by Europe’s elite and are unable to obtain salaries playing league football at home.
“They pretend to pay. We pretend to play.”
FORMER midfielder Vampeta, a member of the 2002 World Cup winning squad, could not have summarised Brazilian clubs’ financial situation better. Most Brazilian players often remember the famous quote but few will say it. They do not talk openly about the dire monetary troubles faced by the clubs back home as most are still under contract with them and are loaned out to the ISL clubs.
However, according to a recent study by Britain’s Esquire magazine, around 85 per cent of Brazil’s professional footballers earn less than £550 (approx. Rs 55,000) a month. Some even play for food and just a fraction of them get a lucrative contract from a big club. In contrast, average pay in the I-League for foreigners is around Rs 2 lakh. It’s a conservative estimate. In the ISL, it is nearly double of that.
Carlos, who moved out of Brazil when he was 22, says Brazilian clubs’ inability to match the wages offered by not just European clubs, but also the teams from non-traditional football countries, is one of the key reasons players are tempted to play abroad. “For example, Real Madrid comes to a small local Brazilian club with $20 million and they take away their best talent. For a club which is not so strong financially, how can you say no?” Carlos says.
Most clubs are in deep debts and with little money coming from TV rights and gate receipts, the major source of income becomes the transfer fees by selling a player. Surprisingly, the average crowd attendances for a domestic match in the land of Pele, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are in hundreds. Earlier this year, only 375 people paid to watch Rio giants Flamengo beat Bonsucesso 2-0 in a state championship match.
The general indifference to the state of the domestic game means that few Brazilians care about the players leaving the country in droves to play abroad, says Brazilian journalist Paulo Freitas, who writes for renowned websites and newspapers across the world. “Most Brazilians don’t really care much about this but the ones who do usually blame the situation on several factors — too many players, foreign clubs offering bigger salaries than small Brazilian clubs and also the fact small Brazilian clubs often don’t play the whole year,” Freitas says.
He adds: “As players have a short career and football is regarded by the players mainly as a job, they usually take the opportunity to get good contracts if they can. The ISL also becomes extra attractive as it pays well and it’s a short competition. So even top division players like Elano feel interested as they can make more money playing there than they would playing in Brazil in the same amount of time. At the same time, they are still able to play most of the year in Brazil.”
But talk to the players and they say money is secondary. Opportunity, or the lack of it, is the reason why they are forced to travel to obscure lands, flying into a footballing culture blind.
“You have to be God’s chosen individual.”
REINALDO says as if he’s stating a matter of fact when asked about what it takes to make it big in Brazil. The FC Goa striker is your quintessential journeyman. In his 16-year career, the 36-year-old has played for 17 clubs across eight countries and three continents, including clubs like French giants PSG and Brazil’s São Paulo.
However, he still remembers the struggle to get his first breakthrough. “When I had a trial with Flamengo (in 1999), there were 80 players and eventually, only me and two other players passed the trials. Of course I had my qualities as a player but I believe at that moment you are selected by God,” Reinaldo says, getting philosophical.
Opportunities are few because of the chaotic organisation. According to various reports, there are 684 registered clubs in Brazil. But most of them play less than 19 games a year. And nearly half of the approximately 30,000 registered players (30,784 in 2013) do not even lace up their boots between May and December as there are no tournaments to take part in.
Teams, on an average, have roughly 50 players registered for a season meaning the competition for every place is intense. Consequently, many players are left without much game time and are left warming benches. “Some people back home think we take our decisions for more money or things like that. But those are not the reasons,” says Lucca. “Brazil pays well to its footballers. Sometimes, players look to other countries for opportunities. A player always wants to play.”
So instead of their homeland where no one seems to want them, the players move out. Even if it means taking the road less travelled and becoming the missionaries of a footballing philosophy the world worships.
Gustavo Marmentini dos Santos is among them. A product of Atletico Paranaense academy, the Delhi Dynamos attacking midfielder came to India at the age of 20 after he could not muster a single senior team appearance last year. “The main reason to come here was to get experience of playing abroad. In Brazil, the opportunities are very less. I always wanted to play outside and I thought this was my chance of doing so,” he says.
“Not a heartbreak. Just life.”
LUCCA may not have reached the dizzying highs he would have once dreamt of. But he is content just to be making a living out of what he loves the most. After being signed by Roma for 700,000 euros, he could not break into the starting XI or make an appearance, although he was named on the bench on multiple occasions.
He was loaned back to Brazilian side Atletico Paranaense before he signed for them permanently earlier this year.
The Brazilian top division side again loaned him out to a third tier team Guaratingueta where he made his senior team debut before he was sent to FC Goa, again on loan. It must have been frustrating but Lucca feels this is the ‘right time for him to show his football.’
He talks as if he wants to prove a point. To Roma, to Paranaense and to all those who’ve put faith in him. In a country where the difference between footballing haves and have nots (talent wise) is seemingly less, it takes an extra-ordinary talent to rise through the ranks and make a name for himself.
It may seem that those who do not make it are gathering pieces of a broken dream. But Dos Santos is realistic about the situation. “Not everyone will make it, no? We all dream of Selecao, the jersey and all that. But it’s tough. Very, very tough. It’s not a heartbreak. It’s just life,” he says, smiling.
The smile never leaves their faces. When they are on the field or talking off it. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing in an obscure country and an even obscure league. They’re happy just to be playing football.
The outsider, the heartbreak kid and the nomad
Vinicius Ferreira, Midfielder (Delhi Dynamos)
Vinicius Ferreira has won the world title thrice. Is famous for his powerful left foot. And has partnered ‘Pele’. Just that neither of his accomplishments are in football. Instead, the 27-year-old is a foot-volley champion, crowned global winner three times along with his partner Bello, apart from half-a-dozen national championships. He is considered one of the best players in the world while Bello is dubbed as ‘Pele of foot-volley.’
Ferreira, however, insists his first love is football. “I’ve been playing football for the last 10 years whereas foot-volley for just six. In the beginning, foot-volley was just fun but then I realised I was getting better and I love challenges. So I decided to compete for real. Titles kept coming and I got addicted to it,” says Ferreira, who has played professional football for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. He claims to have known Roberto Carlos for quite some time and when the offer to play under him at Delhi came, he couldn’t refuse. Carlos, meanwhile, feels Ferreira’s foot-volley skills are coming to good use in football as well. “He has some unique skills and is technically very good. But his kicks are very powerful,” Carlos says.
Jonatan Lucca, Midfielder (FC Goa)
As a teenager, Jonatan Lucca was living every boy’s dream – playing football, grabbing attention with his performances and generating interest in Europe. He was even signed by AS Roma in July 2012 for 700,000 euros. The future looked bright until the script took a nasty turn.
The ‘new Ronaldinho’ – as he was called by the local media – failed to get even one start in his time with Roma. He was named on the bench for 13 Serie A games but again, could not manage a substitute appearance. In 2014, he was loaned to Brazilian first division side Atletico Paranaense. He was signed permanently by the club in 2015 and played in five matches of the state championships but not the first division.
He eventually made his senior league debut earlier this year but not with Paranaense. Instead, he was loaned to a third division side Guaratingueta, where he played three matches. He was loaned again to FC Goa in September. He looks settled in India, playing a crucial role for Zico’s side. “It’s not an easy task to be a professional footballer anywhere, irrespective of the country you’re playing for. But I think this is the right time to show my football,” he says. And perhaps target another return to Europe.
Leonardo Moura, Right back/midfielder (FC Goa)
He is your classic journeyman. In his 18-year long career, Moura has played for a dozen clubs. But he is among the few who has played for all four Rio-based clubs – Botafogo, Vasco, Fluminense and Flamengo. It’s similar to a footballer turning out for Manchester United and Manchester City, or say Mohd Sporting, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
Wherever he went in Brazil, fans saw him with suspicion as he was called ‘the nomadic player’ owing to his habit of constantly changing clubs. He, however, has achieved bulk of his success with Flamengo. A skilled passer and dribbler, the 37-year-old was a key player for the club and cemented his position as one of the all-time greats, notching up more than 300 appearances.
Brazilians in ISL
Delhi Dynamos: Roberto Carlos, Anderson Cardoso, Gustavo Marmentini Dos Santos, Vinicius Ferreira de Souza
Chennaiyin FC: Eder Monteiro Fernandes, Mailson Alves, Bruno Pelissari, Elano Blumer, Raphael Augusto
FC Goa: Elinton Sanchotene Andrade, Luciano Sabrosa, Lucio, Jonatan Lucca, Leonardo da Silva Moura, Reinaldo da Cruz Oliveira, Raphael Coelho
Kerala Blasters: Bruno Perone