Manchester United’s path to young Brazilian talent is now well beaten. In recent seasons Anderson, Rodrigo Possebon, and the da Silva twins have all appeared in Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team – to varying degrees of success. While Anderson arrived via Porto at astonishing expense the latter trio joined directly from their homeland for little more than loose change in compensation. It’s a policy that legendary coach Carlos Alberto called the “rape of Brazilian football.” The 1970 World Cup winning right-back has demanded that FIFA outlaw youngsters moving abroad before the age of 21 but to United it is a simple financial equation; the club spent €30 million on Anderson and less than 10 per cent of that on the da Silvas.
Far from heeding the 66-year-old’s words, United expanded the policy in 2009, inking deals with sports management firm Traffic and the agency’s Porto Feliz-based ‘academy’ Deportivo Brasil. Squaring the circle through a partnership with Dutch club FC Twente Enschede, United now intends to bring young Brazilians to Europe and enable them to qualify for either a European passport or a UK work permit if selected for the national team.
Indeed, in the past fortnight five Traffic players attended United’s 1-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford. Alongside coach Osmar Loss, midfielders Gladstony, Rafael Leão, Agnaldo and Lucas Evangelista, and striker Aguilar watched the match. That, quite laughably, the nation’s leading journalists couldn’t tell this group of Brazilians from Shakhtar Donetsk’s Douglas Costa is another matter altogether.
The quintet has pedigree too, with Aguilar recently breaking into the same Brazilian under-17 side from which both Rafael and Fabio graduated three years ago. The striker played for Twente’s youth side this week along with Lucas Evangelista and Agnaldo, while Rafael Leao and Gladstony also joined training at the club in eastern Holland. It was the first match in a long road that heads inextricably towards Old Trafford.
There is no hiding United’s attempt to bypass the UK work permit system either. Non-EU nationals are required to have played in 75 per cent of their country’s internationals over the past two years or pass a special “exceptional talent” excemption that is now widely abused.
“Twente are a partner, helping United to resolve the problem of their EU passports,” Jochen Losch, president of international business for Traffic, told Goal.com.
“For two reasons it’s good that a player goes first to Holland. First, after two or three years he’s considered to be European. And of course it’s easier to play in the Dutch league than the Premier League.”
It’s a road United has not required for the da Silva twins, who have Portuguese passports, while Possebon obtained Italian citizenship before returning to his homeland last summer. Anderson and Mexican Javier Hernández each qualified under the exceptional talent provision. It’s a wonder why the work permit rules exist at all when leading clubs so openly flout them.
Moreover, the quintet is not the first group from Deportivo Brazil to attend training at United over the past two years. The Brazilian ‘club’ has more than 120 youngsters aged between 13 and 20 on the books, with Traffic maintaining 100 per cent ownership of the boys’ economic rights. It’s the kind of third-party ownership that is now banned in the Premier League.
Traffic, whom those of a more cynical bent might conclude is an appropriate name for the agency, boasts on its website of “total control over assets” prior to players’ sale to “big-spending markets” in Europe and the Middle East. “Players are loaned out to top-clubs in Brazil, while Desportivo Brasil (= Traffic) keeping (sic) the transfer rights of those players at all times,” concludes the agency.
Some might argue that this is the meat market for players that Roy Keane so voraciously complained of, played out to the ultimate globalised degree. United’s policy is, after all, one aimed at delivering not only talent but saving on transfer fees, with the risk to the club minimised. While the financial terms of the club’s involvement is unclear, United will have to pay Traffic a transfer fee should any of the five – or other boys – actually sign at Old Trafford. It is also not unreasonable to assume that the club is already paying Twente or Traffic, or both, in lieu of the boys’ wages.
Yet the Dutch club claims there is no agreement to fast track the players into the first team, where the standard is presumably higher than at Royal Antwerp: “Our technical staff will determine whether a player is good enough to come to Twente and also whether he plays or not. Manchester United will not interfere,” Twente chairman Joop Munsterman told the Daily Mail this week.
Antwerp acted as a proving ground for more than a dozen United players over the past decade but has not served the Reds well in terms of circumventing UK work-permit laws. Danny Higginbotham, Ronnie Wallwork, John O’Shea, Phil Bardsley, Danny Simpson, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Fraizer Campbell, Jonny Evans, Ryan Shawcross and Darron Gibson have all served time in Belgium before making a career in the Premier League.
But the dream of bringing non-EU nationals to Europe and successfully integrating them into the United set-up largely failed. Hence, United’s agreement with Twente is seemingly different. Ferguson is not expected to send fringe players out on loan but a stream of young Brazilians could well work their way through Twente and on either to United or other European clubs.
Many if not most will fail though, thousands of miles from home and without a local support network. United’s response will dictate history’s judgement, not solely how many players make it into Ferguson’s team. Football’s ability to discard the unwanted player without a moment’s hesitation suggests the club will behave with monentary considerations above all else.