Brand Brazil Continues to Defy Apathy over International Football
When Gilberto Silva played for Arsenal, I vividly recall that his unfussy defensive style confused people. “The least Brazilian Brazilian player I’ve ever seen” the man behind me used to complain. The stereotype of the Brazilian footballer is dyed into our mindsets. Half man, half stepover, the legend of the ‘malandro’ carries great weight.
Over the years, great national teams have often informed great club teams. The Dutch sides of the 90s were indelibly linked with Ajax, Barcelona and Sacchi’s Milan. Arsene Wenger added a sprinkle of France’s 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship winning side to an all-conquering Gunners team.
The great Spain team of 2008-2012 inverted this phenomenon a little. The national side availed of the Spanish superclubs Real Madrid and Barcelona. There is little doubt that the significance of international football is fading from people’s consciousness in Europe. Generally, international form counts for little as the popularity of the club game expands and swallows our collective attention span.
Except that is, in the case of Brazil. The Seleção brand is still incredibly strong. Many an eyebrow was raised when Paulinho moved from Guangzhou Evergrande to Barcelona this summer. For many Europeans, Paulinho was the guy who couldn’t cut it at Tottenham Hotspur and slunk off to China with his tail between his legs.
The case was a little more complex than that, Paulinho just didn’t fit Tottenham’s system or style. He acquitted himself well in China and performed under compatriot Luiz Felipe Scolari. However, that isn’t what convinced Barcelona to part with €40m for his services. Under Tite, his former coach at Corinthians, Paulinho has been reintroduced into the national side with great effect.
He has performed excellently and caught the eye with some important goals. He notched a hat trick against Uruguay in Montevideo in March. Playing well for Brazil shows up on the radar of European clubs in a far more significant way than other nations. When Pep Guardiola secured the signature of Gabriel Jesus he last year, he gushed, almost incredulously “this guy is the number 9 for Brazil!”
Earlier this year, Real Madrid agreed to pay £38m for Flamengo teenager Vinicius Junior. Vinicius had yet to appear for Fla’s first team by the time the deal was agreed. Madrid were impressed enough by the player’s 7 goals and player of the tournament bauble as Brazil won the Campeonato Sudamericano Sub-17 in March. At present, he is in and out of Fla’s first team, but performing in Canary yellow, even at U-17 level, was enough for Madrid. Having missed out on Neymar and Gabriel Jesus, Real are desperate to nab the next Brazilian wonderkid for themselves.
In many ways, there is a lot of logic in having a higher regard for the performances of South American players on the international scene. South America has fewer teams than Europe, whose nation count is growing by the year. CONMEBOL qualifying is super competitive as a result, with few whipping boys a la San Marino and the Faroe Isles.
Chile, the current bi-campeão of South America, did not even manage a playoff berth in the most recent World Cup qualifiers, finishing beneath Peru. Venezuela and Bolivia are the only truly low lights in CONMEBOL, but even a trip to Bolivia is hard work given that they play 12k feet above sea level.
When Chile won back to back Copa Americas, few European clubs were persuaded to come in for their players that weren’t already at leading clubs. Brazil invites a unique reverence. So Paulinho playing well for Brazil can convince Barcelona to sign him, for instance. When Barca brought Neymar to La Liga in 2013, it’s doubtful that his Santos form carried as much weight as his displays in the Brazil side.
Paris Saint Germain brought David Luiz to France a few seasons ago, largely on the basis of his partnership with Thiago Silva at international level. Silva was, of course, already in the French capital. It’s difficult to think of similar examples from other nations in the modern game, where international football’s candle is fading. But the yellow shirts of Brazil glow as brightly as they ever did for Europe’s big clubs.