Why soccer players may be Brazil's greatest export

Martin Rogers
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Brazil's Fred celebrates a goal scored during a practice session at the Granja Comary training center, in Teresopolis, Brazil, Monday, July 7, 2014. Brazil will face Germany on Tuesday in a World Cup semifinal match without Neymar. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

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BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – The World Cup is taking place in a nation of exports, so much so that Brazil itself got its name back in the 1500s because the chief commodity leaving the country was brazilwood.

It continues to this day, a steady flow of natural resources being sent around the globe. Sugar. Rubber. Coffee, of course.

And…soccer players.

The Brazil national team that will take on Germany at the Estadio Mineirao on Tuesday is spread far and wide on the international soccer map, with its 23 players performing in nine different countries, from England to Ukraine to Russia and even Canada.

Brazilians Oscar (L) and Willian both ply their trade for Chelsea in the English Premier League. (Getty)
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Brazilians Oscar (L) and Willian both ply their trade for Chelsea in the English Premier League. (Getty)

It ranges from megastars such as injured absentee Neymar of Barcelona and the world’s most expensive defender, David Luiz, at Paris St. Germain, to players of slightly more modest reputation, earning power and stature.

There is Julio Cesar, who plies his trade in Major League Soccer with Toronto FC. There’s Bernard, a possible introduction into the side for the semifinal, who plays in Ukraine for Shakhtar Donetsk. Only four of the 23 are Brazil-based, and two of those are unused reserve goalkeepers.

“We come together as one,” Luiz said early in the tournament. They have to.

Seeking fame and fortune or merely just gainful employment far from home is a necessity for many Brazilian soccer players and there are thousands who do just that. There is certainly demand for the human product; for many clubs on every continent having a Brazilian soccer player has an irresistible cache, like a Japanese sushi chef, a Swedish masseuse or an American basketball player.

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It has been thus for years. The national team guys are the pick of the crop, but it spreads much deeper down the food chain than that.

Last season, two Brazilians played professionally in the Faroe Islands, a tiny chain of islands between Iceland and Scotland inhabited by only 50,000 people. One was a newcomer trying his luck in Europe for the first time and worked in a fish factory to supplement his income. The other was a long-time import who met a local girl and stayed.

You can find Brazilians playing in Malta and Azerbaijan and Cyprus and Bulgaria. There are many in South Korea and Japan and scattered around the small leagues of Southeast Asia.

Paulinho, a midfielder on the national team now with Tottenham of the English Premier League, first moved to FC Vilnius in Lithuania as a 17-year-old, headed on to Lodz in Poland, then returned to Brazil and eventually secured a lucrative move to England.

Paulinho takes part during a training session at Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza, Brazil. (Getty)
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Paulinho takes part during a training session at Castelao Stadium in Fortaleza, Brazil. (Getty)

“We didn’t earn very much and somehow we had to survive,” Paulinho told the London Daily Mail about his tough times in Poland. “My wife was pregnant, so I decided to return to Brazil and start from zero to reconstruct my career.”

Not everyone can make the vast sums in the big leagues; most survive on relatively modest salaries.

In 2012, the Guardian newspaper reported that 1,169 Brazilians were playing overseas and even though some leading Brazilian clubs have upped their salaries and managed to hold onto their stars, there is still a steady drain of talent making its way elsewhere.

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“It looked like it was going to change a few years ago,” a leading soccer agent told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of teams were looking at players from Argentina instead and people began to think Brazilians were too expensive. But it is like irresistible fruit to a team, it boosts their ego to think they can sign a Brazilian. Often it works out at least on some level, because Brazilian players do have great natural talent.”

For the stars of the Brazil World Cup team that headed far afield, things have generally worked out just fine. Neymar, Luiz and several others make enormous wages and their success in Europe has made them superstars in that continent as well as their homeland.

But the ultimate prize awaits this week, the dream of winning a World Cup title on home soil. That outcome would have one guaranteed effect; it would further increase the magic aura around Brazil’s greatest export.