By Alan Feehely.
“Here is the itinerary of a player from the southern reaches of the globe who has good legs and good luck.
“From his hometown he moves to a provincial city; then, from the provincial city to a small club in the country’s capital. The small club has no choice but to sell him to a large one.
“The large club, suffocated by debt, sells him to an even larger club in a larger country. And the player crowns his career in Europe.
“The continuous outflow of good players means mediocre professional leagues and ever fewer, less fervent fans.
“People desert the stadiums to watch foreign matches on television. When the World Cup comes around, our players come from the four corners of the earth, meet on a plane, play together for a short while and bid each other goodbye, without ever having time to gel into a real team; eleven heads, 22 legs, and a single heart.”
— Eduardo Galeano – Football in Sun and Shadow
Galeano’s depiction of the archetypical South American’s career path rings true, even more so in the years following the book’s publication in 1995.
And now there is an additional stage on which South American’s can shine. Increasingly, stars from the continent are using the United States and Major League Soccer as a stepping stone to reach Europe.
It is a process that has exacerbated a decline in South American domestic football and an improvement in the game to the north, as well as a shift in strategy on the part of MLS franchises regarding the use of their Designated Player slots.
Over 100 DPs were registered between 2007 and 2015, with the preference being high-profile stars looking to wind down their careers in the US. David Beckham is their patron saint; a business-oriented footballer seeking to raise his profile in a crucial market.
There have been many others; Giovani dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Kaká, Sebastian Giovinco, Tim Cahill, Thierry Henry. This trend has been challenged, however, with more and more clubs looking at a different model of recruitment; up-and-coming youngsters from South America.
Beckham is now the owner of Inter Miami, MLS’s latest franchise. It was part of his contract to have the option of creating an expansion franchise when he joined LA Galaxy back in 2007.
70% of Miami’s population is of Hispanic origin, and they have traded heavily on the city’s Latin heritage in the cultivation of their brand, a strategy evident in their very name; Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami.
They have looked closely at the South American market to build their maiden roster; Christian Makoun, Venezuela’s under-20 captain, was one of their first recruits, alongside former Estudiantes winger Matías Pellegrini and ex-Banfield forward Julián Carranza. In addition, the club’s coach is Diego Alonso, a Uruguayan.
Over 100 South Americans were registered on MLS rosters in 2019, with the number certain to increase this year. The trend began before Beckham, however, with Atlanta United in 2017.
They were the first to shift their focus to younger players, working under the stewardship of Argentinian Tata Martino, the current coach of the Mexican national team and formerly of Barcelona.
Miguel Almirón is their poster child. He began his career in his native Paraguay with Cerro Porteño, spending seven years there before moving to Argentina to join Lanús. He signed for Atlanta two years later and thrived in the US, scoring 21 goals in 62 appearances before earning a move to Premier League side Newcastle United.
Martino and technical director Paul McDonough recruited several other South Americans at Atlanta, including Héctor Villaba from San Lorenzo, Yamil Asad from Vélez Sarsfield, Venezuelan Josef Martínez, experienced Chilean Carlos Carmona, and Independiente’s Ezequiel Barco.
Elsewhere, LAFC signed Brian Rodríguez from Peñarol, while LA Galaxy persuaded Cristian Pavón to join them from Boca Juniors.
“Everyone thinks that one goes to MLS to retire, but that is a mistake,” Almirón told Radio ABC Cardinal in 2018.
“The league is growing year on year. I don’t know if we can compare it with others but it is slowly growing and this is important. Young players are arriving who fit in with those who have more experience.”
Nicolás Lodeiro, of Uruguay and Seattle Sounders, agreed, telling Yahoo: “South Americans have football in our blood, and I think that’s what attracts people in the United States and other countries to us.
“They know the Latin player lives football with a lot of passion, so that’s why you see them bring a lot of us over here, and sometimes we provide the upgrade teams need.”
For young South Americans, the attraction of MLS is clear. “Players know they will get paid a good salary and that their wages are guaranteed each month, which isn’t always the case in South America,” explains WFi’s Colombia-based football journalist Simon Edwards.
“You then have the quality of life, the stadiums and the chance to show their quality to a broader audience. Brazilian and Argentine football provides a good platform for the best players on the continent but MLS has a higher profile than Uruguayan, Colombian or Chilean football.
“Almirón is an important example for players in South America that a move to MLS isn’t the end of the journey.”
What this shift says about South American football is less heartening. European clubs are increasingly favouring teenagers when recruiting from the continent, with an example found in Real Madrid’s combined €130m swoop for Brazilian trio Vinícius Júnior, Reiner Jesus, and Rodrygo, all before they turned 18.
For the continent’s elite, the South American Footballer of the Year award is indicative. 2018’s winner was Gonzalo Martínez, who subsequently joined Atlanta from River Plate. Other recent winners, including Luan and Miguel Borja, are still playing in South America, while the current holder of the award, Gabriel Barbosa, plays for Flamengo having returned from Europe after an unsuccessful spell with Inter Milan.
Outside of Brazil and Argentina especially, young South Americans are increasingly drawn to MLS as a means of putting them in the shop window.
“Brazilian clubs can’t compete with European sides financially but they tower above their South American rivals and should dominate in a way they rarely do,” continued Edwards.
“Brazilian and Argentine football has everything to provide a fan product they should be able to sell around the world, but they have been too insular and conservative in their approach.
“The stars of the biggest clubs or the best national youth team prospects will look to Europe first, but for everyone else, the United States is an ideal second step.”
The off-pitch security MLS gives to young South American prospects extends on it.
“Because of the fact that MLS isn’t exactly to the standards of the major European leagues, you have this sort of security for a lot of these young South American talents to find their feet and develop properly with a significant amount of playing time and competitiveness,” explained Paraguayan-American football journalist Roberto Rojas.
“A league that is roughly 25 years old will take a while to surpass Brazil or Argentina in terms of standards, but we are seeing a lot of these young players heading to the United States because of the financial stability and to use it as a springboard to Europe.”
Rojas believes that ultimate prestige will remain south of the border, but that economic realities could lead to a short-term exodus. “I know we’ve seen a big financial loss for a lot of these clubs, but the history and tradition that [they] have is unique,” he adds.
“Many of these kids want to play in [their] first division and dream of playing for bigger teams, particularly in Europe. The tradition and uniqueness are still there, but with the rise of MLS and that financial stability, I could definitely see an increase in interest [in MLS] for the young South American.”
No matter how much it grows in stature, MLS will never replace South American football. The continent has a unique relationship with the beautiful game and inspires a degree of fervour unmatched anywhere else in the world.
To observers in the 1950s, it would have been unthinkable that European clubs would move so far ahead of their South American counterparts, but they have. Today, scarred by this experience, there is sure to be anxious glances thrown north to the US.
As their game continues to progress, one worries whether the dystopian vision outlined by Galeano could prove prophetic.
Atlanta United will never be a bigger club than River Plate, nor will LA Galaxy ever overtake Boca Juniors, but both lost key players to them in recent times.
South America will never lose the passion and culture that sets it apart; nothing can rival the connection its clubs share with their fans and the importance of their role in local communities. But if a second promised land develops in the manner it is threatening to, it could spell danger for the quality of domestic South American football.