The New York Times, June 25, 2006

In Brazil, Unpaved Path to Soccer Excellence

By Larry Rohter

 

How does Brazil do it? Year after year, World Cup after World Cup, soccer stars seem to roll out of here like cars off a factory assembly line.

First came the generation of Pel¨¦, Garrincha, Tostão and Rivelino, followed by Zico, Falcão and Socrates. Since the mid-1990's, Rom¨¢rio, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and now Kak¨¢, Adriano and Robinho have further burnished Brazil's reputation for unmatched excellence. To the average fan around the world, Brazilian soccer appears to be a powerful, well-oiled machine.

But those who know it best are aware that the reality is far more complicated, that the country's record five World Cup championships are more a result of popular passion for the beautiful game, as it is often called here, than of any organized apparatus that methodically finds and develops players.

"There is no system in Brazil," said Carlos Roberto de Oliveira, who, playing as Roberto Dinamite, was a member of the Brazilian national team in the 1970's and early 1980's. "Everything happens on a random, haphazard basis."

To hear Brazilians tell it, organized professional soccer here is chaotic, corrupt and in perpetual disarray. But the game itself is so deeply ingrained in daily life ¡ª and in Brazilian identity and self-esteem ¡ª that its strength at the grass roots more than compensates for those deficiencies at the top.

Familiarity with soccer begins early, producing a bottomless pool of talent. By age 3, a boy has probably learned how to dribble the ball, and by 7 he is playing the informal sandlot version of the game with his pals in any open space they can find ¡ª a clearing in the jungle, an empty lot in a large city, a pasture or on the beach ¡ª and maybe sleeping with the ball, if he is fortunate enough to afford one.

Despite the considerable economic advances it has made over the last generation, Brazil is still a country with millions of poor among its 185 million people. And it is the poor who have traditionally seen success in soccer as their fastest ticket to prosperity and prestige.

Of the 23 players on the national squad competing in Germany this month, only three come from a background that would be considered middle class here. Most of the players, whether they were born in cities or in the countryside, come from families that are humble, the preferred term for poverty here.

Their success breeds only more success, especially now that the globalization of soccer has made Brazilian players increasingly in demand for teams all over the world. When a poor boy sees that a player like Ronaldinho, considered the best in the world going into the World Cup, can earn 28 million euros (about $35 million) a year, it encourages him to aim high and devote himself to the game.

"There are now so many role models, and no glass ceiling," said Alex Bellos, the author of "Futebol: Soccer, the Brazilian Way." "Go into any shantytown or urban center, and you're sure to find someone who had a mate at school who played with Ronaldo or knows someone else who is a pro footballer. The idea is more than a dream, it's a reality."

That hunger for success, however, does not explain the extraordinary inventiveness and fluidity with which Brazilians play the game. Some of the country's most knowledgeable analysts see that skill as a response to the confusion and unpredictability of daily life here, which has made Brazilians adept at what is called dribbling around rules and barriers.

"We Brazilians are accustomed to having to improvise, to being creative when we are in a tight spot," said Tostão, now a popular commentator whose real name is Eduardo Gonçalves de Andrade. "It's the foundation of our music and art, too, and that intuitive ability to sidestep the rules and improvise on the spot is what distinguishes the great player from the excellent."

As Brazil urbanizes and as it becomes harder to find open spaces, the game is also moving indoors, to gymnasiums in a form known as futsal. Ronaldinho and Robinho came out of that setting ¡ª the soccer equivalent of arena football in the United States.

"Futsal teaches players a capacity to create in a small space," said Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil's most influential and outspoken soccer commentators. "Then, when they get to play on the grass, on that larger stage, they can glory in really having room to create."

Traditionally, the path of a Brazilian player was clearly defined from the moment he was spotted playing sandlot ball, usually by an amateur scout who was often a fan of a local team. He was signed by that team as a teenager, passed on to a larger regional club if he showed promise, sold to one of the 20 or so teams with large national followings, and finally, if he was very lucky, ended his playing days in Europe.

Throughout his career, however long it lasted, a player was little more than a piece of merchandise. If he offended management or wanted too much money, he could easily be replaced because he had few contractual rights and there was always more talent waiting in the pipeline.

But when Pel¨¦, the country's greatest player, became sports minister in the mid-1990's, he made an effort to change the system. Using his prestige, he managed to push legislation through the Brazilian legislature that was meant to reduce the power of clubs and give players more control of their careers.

The so-called Pel¨¦ Law has weakened the clubs, commentators agree, but it has also ended up benefiting agents more than the players. The agents, or impresarios, as they are known, have increasingly assumed responsibility for finding promising players, who are signed to personal management contracts and parked at clubs willing to showcase them until their value increases and they can be sold to a European club, sometimes while still teenagers.

"In the last decade, this has become an industry," Tostão said. "The clubs don't have as many scouts out there as they once did, people who will call out of love for a club and tell them they have to see a kid. Today, it's all the impresarios and their personal networks of scouts, which I think is a bad thing because they grab the kids and put them under their personal control."

In hopes of getting an early look at future stars, teams in Italy, England, Spain and Belgium have either bought pieces of Brazilian clubs or signed development deals with them. They are also bypassing the clubs and the player agents by sending their own scouts to scour the backlands and the urban slums for exportable talent, as Major League Baseball teams do in places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Brazilian law and international rules forbid teams to sign players who have barely entered their teens. But to get around that restriction, European teams are now offering jobs as drivers or cooks to the parents of promising young players, who are then taken to Europe and enrolled on their junior squads.

Private soccer schools are also growing in importance as sources of players. These operate independently of clubs and for the most part do not receive support from the Ministry of Sports or the Brazilian national confederation. The confederation has a $165 million contract with Nike, but is widely criticized for contributing little to development programs for Brazilian youth.

Roberto Dinamite is one of several former players who operate such academies. Born and reared in Duque de Caxias, a working-class suburb of Rio, he has established the headquarters of his Roberto Dinamite Institute across the street from the rutted field where he was first spotted at age 10 by a scout for the Vasco da Gama club.

His school in his old neighborhood has functioned for little more than a decade. But it has produced one player who is on the Brazilian national junior team, another who plays for PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands and two who are signed to teams in Rio.

More than 150 boys, ages 7 through 16, participate in the program. On a cool and windy afternoon the day before Brazil's debut in the Cup, a group of 13-year-olds was going through a drill that required them to run a zigzag among a row of traffic cones, then take a pass with the right foot, dribble and finally kick the ball with the left foot.

"All of these kids know how to play, and every one of them wants to be the next Ronaldinho," Roberto Dinamite said. "But if there is even half a Ronaldinho here, or at some other school like this, then Brazil is going to remain atop the heap."










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