| RIO DE JANEIRO
RIO DE JANEIRO Jan 28 Brazilians, long the
great nomads of global soccer, are being lured home as European
clubs struggle financially and local teams backed by a booming
economy gain the clout to attract big names like Ronaldinho.
The 30-year-old two-time World Player of The Year left AC
Milan this month and signed with Rio de Janeiro's Flamengo,
becoming the latest in a string of homecomings in the past few
years including big names such as Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Fred
National team captain Robinho and striker Adriano also
returned for short stints.
Most of those high-profile returnees are in the sunset of
their careers, leading one Spanish sports newspaper to call
Brazil the new "elephants' graveyard" of world soccer.
Many returning players, including Ronaldinho, aim to better
catch the eye of national team coach Mano Menezes ahead of the
World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
But the trend also reflects a broader shift in economic
power as Europe stagnates and Brazil's once crisis-prone economy
goes from strength to strength.
Its currency has doubled in value against the dollar since
2003, reducing the allure of foreign salaries that have pulled
Brazil's famously skilled players to distant fields from the Far
East to the Faroe Islands.
Meanwhile, many European clubs are struggling with high
debts and weak revenues.
"Brazilian clubs have to adapt to a new reality," said
Mauricio Assumpcao, president of Rio's Botafogo club.
"It's changed and I think it's changed for good because I
don't see how the European market can return to buying the
number of players that it used to."
The number of players exported from Brazil fell 14 percent
to 1,017 in 2009 while imports rose 7 percent to 707 -- more
than double the number in 2006 -- according to the Brazil
Football Confederation, the national football authority.
Club revenues in Brazil's top league rose an average of 12
percent in the 2008-09 period, compared to 4 percent in Europe's
top five leagues, a study by Spanish sports marketing firm Prime
Time Sport showed last year.
"The European football economy is not as wealthy as it used
to be. The easy call for Brazilian clubs of sending their
players over there is not as easy as it used to be," said Esteve
Calzada, chief executive of Prime Time Sport.
At the same time, growing revenues from television rights
have boosted Brazilian clubs' wealth and enabled them to raise
their transfer budgets and wage bills, Calzada said.
"I've been involved in discussions of several potential
transfers from Brazil to Europe and some of them did not happen
because the players in Brazil already had a very good salary."
Brazilian fans have long bemoaned the lack of funds and poor
administration at their clubs that have made talented young
players easy pickings for rich European teams.
Many of those problems persist. Teams suffer from high
turnover of players and coaches, and often lack professional
Still, a big sign the tide could be turning came last year
when Santos, the team of the great Pele, managed to fend off a
reported 25 million pound ($40 million) bid by England's Chelsea
for precocious 18-year-old striker Neymar.
Santos offered Neymar, one of Brazil's hottest talents, a
five-year "career plan" that was unprecedented in Brazilian
soccer, including a share of revenue from image rights and his
own international media spokesman to enhance his global brand.
Ronaldinho's path back to Brazil, sealed by a contract he
signed in a Rio steakhouse, was also smoothed by a deal on image
Flamengo will only pay 20 percent of the player's salary,
according to Brazilian media, the rest being footed by the
investment fund that has the right to exploit his image through
TV commercials and other publicity.
Paulo Vinicius Coelho, one of Brazil's leading soccer
writers, said commercial deals such as the one keeping Neymar in
Brazil held the key to stopping the haemorrhaging of talent to
Europe and other regions.
"Brazil lost the capacity to form players with Brazilian
characteristics," he said. "The system of exporting players has
to change urgently because football is our cultural patrimony
that is being lost."
A stronger economy alone would not guarantee a renaissance
in domestic football, he said, pointing to the return of great
players such as World Cup winner Romario in the mid-1990s during
another period of currency strength.
(Editing by Rex Gowar in Buenos Aires and Jon Bramley in
London. to query or comment on this story email