Tim Vickery Column: That Brazilian conveyor belt of talentWendell the latest revelation for Grêmio
One of the greatest things about covering Brazilian football is the opportunity to get an early glance at the future stars of the global game. The production line of talent never stops working, there are always promising new players appearing. Some will fall by the wayside, others will become household names all over the world, and it is fun to spot them early and follow their progress.
Let us take the example of Gremio. Last year. For their Libertadores campaign, they repatriated left back Andre Santos from Arsenal . The team were knocked out of the competition relatively early, he was not a spectacular success and moved on to Flamengo – leaving space for Alex Telles to make the position his own.
The youngster had a splendid season in the Brazilian Championship, being voted in most surveys as the best left back in the competition. I was lucky enough to be in the stadium when he scored his only goal for Gremio, a cracking effort that won a vital game against Botafogo. He will not be scoring any more for the club – not for a while, at least. Alex Telles has already left Gremio, and is now playing for Galatasaray in the Champions League.
Back in Porto Alegre, though, he hardly seems to have been missed. His sale has given the chance for Wendell to be promoted, and the 20 year old has already made a big impression – so big, in fact, that he too has already been sold. In the middle of the year he joins Bayer Leverkeusen in Germany. And so the conveyor belt keeps moving on.
Wendell’s young team-mate, support striker Luan, has made an even bigger impression. Thrown in the deep end in the Copa Libertadores, where Gremio have been drawn in a very difficult group, Luan is making things look easy. What is striking about him is not only his natural ability. It is capacity to operate in a collective context, his vision of the game and the maturity of the decisions he is taking on the field. Two months ago he was an unknown. Now, he is surrounded by huge expectations.
All of this is quite extraordinary. There is no other country in the world, not even Argentina, where promising players are revealed with such frequency. Spend a month away from Brazil and you are already out of date; new players will have emerged in your absence. Of course, by no means all of them will fulfil that early promise. There is no other profession which contains such a huge step up; within a matter of weeks a youngster can go from being an anonymous youth team player to someone whose work is being assessed by thousands inside the stadium and millions following via the media. This brings brutal changes in lifestyle, psychological pressures, new financial opportunities and a change in daily routine that can be thoroughly disorientating. It is no surprise that lots of these players find these changes too difficult to assimilate. There is a huge gap between promise and reality.
Luck, as always, plays a part – and not just in terms of injuries or first team opportunities. There is also the crucial point of who the young player is surrounded by and what their motivation might be.
How does his family react to his progress? There are plenty of such cases in Brazil where, when the youngster starts showing real promise, his entire family stop work and construct all their economic hopes on his football ability – a pressure which can only be described as inhumane. They might want him to accept the first big money offer that comes in, regardless of whether it is in the long term interests of his career.
The same can apply with agents or investors looking for a short term profit, or clubs desperate for a sale in order to pay off a backlog of wages.
Thursday is a big day in the careers of the Gremio youngsters. The team have won their first two games in the Copa Libertadores, but the next three are the trickiest. On April 2nd they travel to Medellin for a difficult match away to Atletico Nacional of Colombia. And before that come home and away clashes against Newells Old Boys of Argentina, an attractive side spearheaded by Maxi Rodriguez, with the passing ability of Ever Banega and the experience of David Trezeguet in reserve. Winning the Libertadores is an obsession for Newells, who lost last year on penalties in the semi final to eventual champions Atletico Mineiro. The 2014 model Newells will be all out to prove themselves against Brazilian opposition, next week in front of their own fans in Rosario, and this Thursday in Gremio’s new Arena.
Can Luan continue to shine in these difficult circumstances? There is no guarantee that Wendell will be available for the first match. He is suffering from a thigh strain. It might be beyond even Brazil’s conveyor belt of talent to produce a new left back in time for Thursday.