With both teams putting in superb end-of-season charges in the Brasileirao, Flamengo and Fluminense hit form when it mattered most to secure a national title and a miraculous escape from relegation respectively. And the fierce Rio de Janeiro rivals also boasted another common factor in the shape of their star strikers, Adriano for Fla and Fred at Flu, both of whom appeared for A Seleção at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ and whose goals proved vital to their present teams’ causes.
That is not the only common trait linking the Carioca giants, however, with the most gifted creative player in both teams’ line-ups hailing from outside Brazil. The goals and impudent genius of veteran Serbian Dejan Petkovic were key to Flamengo’s successful title tilt, with the left-sided attacking midfielder voted best in his position in a Brazilian Football Association (CBF) poll.
Meanwhile, pulling the strings for Fluminense was Argentina’s Dario Conca, who received over nine million internet votes to win the award for the division’s top performer. With Petkovic finishing second in that poll, should it be a cause for consternation that 2009’s two most popular players in a country famous for producing footballing talent are both foreigners?
That said, foreign players enjoying success in Brazil is hardly a new phenomenon, with the likes of Chile’s Elias Figueroa (Internacional), Uruguayans Hugo De Leon (Gremio) and Dario Pereyra (Sao Paulo) and more recently Argentina’s Carlos Tevez (Corinthians) all going on to attain iconic status. However, what used to be exceptional is rapidly becoming the rule, with the mass exodus of Brazilian players abroad combined with a strengthening Brazilian Real compared to other South American currencies enablng local clubs to look further afield for reinforcements.
Never before have the Brazilian national champions boasted as many foreign players within their ranks as Flamengo this year, with Petkovic, Chileans Claudio Maldonado and Gonzalo Fierro, and the Argentinian Maxi Biancucchi all donning the Rubro-negro jersey. During the Brasileirao 2009, no fewer than 18 of the top tier’s 20 clubs had foreign players in their squads, the only exceptions being Avai and Goias.
“Nowadays a good coach needs to know what’s happening outside Brazil, mainly elsewhere here in South America,” Muricy Ramalho, current Palmeiras coach and a three-time Brazilian champion with Sao Paulo, told FIFA.com.
“Previously we were mainly concerned with the teams we were due to face in continental competition. But nowadays you need to have your finger on the pulse because often the best signings can be found abroad,” added Ramalho, whose Palmeiras squad featured Chile’s Luis Pedro Figueroa, Jose Ortigoza of Paraguay and Colombian Pablo Armero.
Keeping it in the continent
According to CBF records, there are now 119 foreigners playing professional football in Brazil, with Argentinians (32) the most numerous, followed by Colombians (21) and Paraguayans (17). Though Petkovic and Conca lead the way in the popularity stakes, Argentinian trio Ariel Nahuelpan (Coritiba), Maxi Lopez (Gremio) and particularly Pablo Guinazu (Internacional) are not far behind. Indeed, the latter was voted the championship’s best holding midfielder and is quite possibly the man who currently inspires most devotion from the Inter faithful.
“I saw it as a challenge. I knew that being Argentinian it’d be more difficult to win over the fans, but on the other hand we tend to have that grit and determination which usually helps create a bond with the supporters,” Guinazu told FIFA.com. “I was so proud to see how I earned the respect of the Colorada faithful,” added a player whose exuberant style has seen him affectionately dubbed Cachorro Louco (Mad Dog) by the Internacional fans.
The Porto Alegre powerhouses have three more foreign players in their squad, in the shape of Argentinian creator Andres D’Alessandro, Uruguay’s Gonzalo Sorondo and Roberto Bolanos of Ecuador, while they have just hired Sorondo’s countryman Jorge Fossati, who guided Liga de Quito to Copa Sudamericana 2009 glory, as their new coach. Now that playing imports appear to have won the battle for acceptance at stadiums across Brazil, could Fossati’s appointment be a sign that the trend is set to spread to the bench too?