Grow, sell, repeat: how Brazilian football fuels Europe and the Premier League with young talent

Endrick, who will join Real Madrid this summer, is Brazil’s next top talent (Getty Images)

For any Brazilian teenager who breaks into the first team of a big club like Corinthians, Sao Paulo, Flamengo or Fluminense, there’s a good chance they’ve just earned a lucrative ticket to European football. The five most expensive transfers in Brazil this season were all players sold to one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Crystal Palace. Their average fee was £20 million, according to Transfermarkt. Their average age was only 19 years.

Brazil has always been fertile ground for growing talent, but the export sector is busier than ever when it comes to the best young players, especially on their way to the Premier League. In recent years, the number of Brazilians playing in the English top flight has increased from just 12 in 2018 to 33 last season.

Some of them come straight from Brazil, some from other European clubs, but almost all of them have something in common: leaving Brazil as a young player with a suitcase full of potential rather than the end product.

European agents have set up shop in South America to facilitate the boom. There was a gap in the market for more than just handling contract negotiations, but providing 360-degree support, from career development advice to the use of social media. Five players from Brazil’s squad to play England on Saturday night have been signed to one agency, Roc Nation, which has Vinicius Jr on its books and is behind the next superstar talent Endrick, and the 17-year-old’s move to Vinicius at Real. Madrid this summer. There would have been six Roc players in the Brazilian squad if Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli had not been injured.

Vinicius Jr, 23, flourishes at Real Madrid (AP)Vinicius Jr, 23, flourishes at Real Madrid (AP)

Vinicius Jr, 23, flourishes at Real Madrid (AP)

“I don’t really think the flow of talent from Brazil to Europe has necessarily increased,” said Fred Pena, president of Roc Nation’s Brazilian business. “Brazilian talent has been in vogue for more than thirty years. What has changed is the profile of the players who are transferred to Europe. You mainly see young talent, maximum 20 or 21 years old, going to the five major European competitions.

“Players aged 22 and over usually go to what are called ‘alternative’ markets, such as the countries of the Middle East – so Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar – or Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Asian countries, Mexico and the MLS. The latter also bring along young talent, but not the top talent. The young top talent goes to the big five, with the Premier League being by far the main destination.”

The ability to lift their entire family out of poverty is the absolute priority

Fred Pena, Roc Nation

After Brexit, English clubs were initially shackled to the new Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) rules that foreign purchases had to comply with. The criteria were strict and threatened to strangle clubs’ ability to buy diamonds in the rough and untapped potential abroad. But a new rule last summer loosened those rules and freed up the market, especially for clubs further down the food chain buying lesser-known talent.

“The FA gave clubs the right to sign at least two wildcard players from anywhere in the world,” explains Alan Redmond, executive vice president of Roc Nation Sports International. “This means that players who may not previously have met the requirements for a work permit can now move. This will be really beneficial for our Brazilian operations and it will allow all clubs to truly scout globally. The previous system perhaps favored the richest clubs.”

Endrick, centre, trains for Brazil this week (Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire)Endrick, centre, trains for Brazil this week (Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire)

Endrick, centre, trains for Brazil this week (Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire)

Brazilian football itself is undergoing some evolution, and there is some desire to revive its own national league. A 2021 law encouraged private investment in its clubs, and since then there have been a number of examples of new ownership in Brazil’s Serie A: the owners of Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City bought Esporte Clube Bahia in Salvador; US-based 777 Partners, who are trying to add Everton to their portfolio, bought Vasco da Gama in Rio; American tech entrepreneur John Textor bought Botafogo; Ronaldo, one of Brazil’s greatest players, bought the first club he ever played for, Cruzeiro.

The room for growth in Brazilian football is clear. While the Premier League gets 50 percent of its broadcast revenue from abroad, only 2 percent of the Brazilian league’s TV revenue currently comes from international markets. There is significant untapped potential if it can sell the product to foreign viewers.

That shouldn’t be difficult, because the product itself is attractive. Brazil has historic clubs, packed stadiums, fierce rivalries, talented homegrown players and no shortage of flair and entertainment on the pitch.

But organizationally, Brazilian football can sometimes resemble a basket case: there is a political division among the top clubs that prevents the kind of unity that the English Premier League brought to life in the early 1990s, and the league is tainted by a history of corruption and scandals. Last season, Botafogo’s new owner, Textor, accused match officials of cheating after a 4-3 defeat to Palmeiras. “This championship has become a joke,” he raged at full-time. “This is damn corruption.”

Lucas Moura celebrates Sao Paulo's Supercopa win over Palmeiras last month (Getty Images)Lucas Moura celebrates Sao Paulo's Supercopa win over Palmeiras last month (Getty Images)

Lucas Moura celebrates Sao Paulo’s Supercopa win over Palmeiras last month (Getty Images)

In some ways, the competition is its own worst enemy. There is potential for Brazil’s Serie A to grow into a thriving product in its own right, complementing the profitable business of selling homegrown talent. But building the league requires the kind of cohesion and vision currently lacking at the top levels of Brazilian football. Selling assets is one way to pay off the debts that many big clubs are struggling with, and it remains the quickest and most effective way to make ends meet.

And for the players, the pull of the European elite is stronger than ever. It’s a potential path to the top of the game, as well as access to life-changing wealth unlike anything they earned in South America.

“Let’s not forget that most youth athletes in Brazil come from poor families,” Pena added. “They love football and are certainly fans of domestic clubs, but the opportunity to lift their entire family out of poverty is the absolute priority. This is why Brazilian talent will go anywhere in the world where there is a lot of money for them: Russia, Ukraine, China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Mexico…

“For me it is normal that a Brazilian youth player today is more interested in participating in the Premier League or Champions League than in the Brazilian Serie A or Copa Libertadores. They want to compete with the best and hopefully be considered the best.”

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