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In a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Renato Deasevedo is searching for the next Pelé.
“For every 10 kids in Brazil, 11 of them want to be a professional soccer player,” said Deasevedo, a youth soccer coach. “They don’t leave the hospital in normal clothes; they leave the hospital in their club’s jersey. At least 30 percent of these kids will play professionally at a high level. Most of the others will find somewhere around the world to play.”
In Brazil, soccer is in the blood of the people. In the 84-year history of the FIFA World Cup, Brazil has won more titles than any other country. And like coffee and sugar, soccer talent has become an exportable commodity for Brazilians. Today, more than 10,000 Brazilians are playing professionally around the world. But shipping away all that talent has come at a cost.
An adult business
At Botafogo Soccer Academy in a neighborhood of Rio, a group of 8-year-old protégés are already on their way to going pro. Botafogo is one of Rio’s most elite soccer clubs, where kids start playing daily by age 7 and can sign professional contracts as early as 9 years old.
In the multibillion-dollar global soccer industry, these kids are potential cash machines.
“At the age of 9, we’re already telling them, ‘You’re different,’” said Felipe Arantes, director of Botafogo International. “We’re teaching them, educating them. And we tell them they need to focus on their whole life.”
Botafogo employees a slew of people – from social workers to psychologists to nutritionists – to address any type of personal, mental or physical issue facing the players so that on field they’re free of distractions. But even if a kid doesn’t burn out from the years of training, there’s plenty of extra pressure, like the promise of seven-figure salaries on far-flung European fields.
It can be a dream for the whole family. Ivo Barbosa sees soccer as the ticket to a better life for his sons.
“I had to start working when I was 11, so I didn’t have the chance to do what my kids do,” he said. “I’m able to give them the dream. I had my time with the game, and now it’s their turn.”
At the age of 9, we’re already telling them, 'You’re different.'
director of Botafogo International
But Barbosa also stresses to his sons that they need to find a fallback, and bans them from soccer practice when their grades slip. Other parents are less cautious; they depend on their children’s paychecks.
“Sometimes, you have players who are 18, 17 years old…they are head of the family. They pay the bills,” Arantes said. “Instead of collecting trophies or looking at a long career, they end up looking for the money because they need to help their parents, granddad, sister -- everyone is focused on his career.”
And while these kids are thinking about their families, the agents are thinking about their profit. Within the first year of a contract, Arantes said agents will spot a good player and offer them boots and jerseys, and start plotting where to place the young prospect.
“Then, they go to the dad and mom and they ask, ‘What do you need? Do you need a house? Do you need a car?’ And they start buying off parents,” Arantes said. “You have parents and agents all over a kid that doesn’t have a decision of his own.”
“There's a big gap between developing a player, and the business,” he added.
Exporting the talent
Deasevedo knows all too well what it means to be a young soccer prospect in Brazil. He had his own chance at stardom, but an injury cut short his career.
“It was the dream my entire life,” he said. “I got up into the level just before professional. It was very stressful. I had issues with my ligaments and in a poor family, there’s no way to pay for an operation.”
Now he observes the way businessmen come to Brazil looking for young, cheaper talent to take abroad. He calls it, “a type of slavery.”
“It's a big frustration because most of the players are not ready to go, but at the end of the day, you're going to have the money forcing the way for him to go,” Deasevedo said. “We're losing our players very early. The players that are hungry? They leave.”
These young players are part of a legacy – carrying an entire nation's dreams on their shoulders. The next Pelé is out there, with an entire industry trying to find him – even at the expense of the Brazilian culture. Exporting players to Europe, who then return with lots of cash and tempered ambitions, has put the local game at risk.
“They're just here for the fun, and we don't see a lot of quality,” said Deasevedo about the players who come back. “And that's not a good example for the players that stay here. It’s jeopardizing the quality of our game.”