Last summer Thiago Neves was talked about across Europe as the summer transfer target. The young winger was earning rave reviews in Brazil with Fluminense and looked destined to follow in the footsteps of many of his countrymen who have graced Europe’s stadiums.
Germany won the race, with Hamburg signing Neves to replace the Real Madrid-bound Rafael Van der Vaart.
But Neves froze in the limelight, the weight of expectation too heavy a burden. By January he had been sold to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal club and he’s now back at Fluminense on loan.
He doesn’t have to look far for consolation though. Remember Nilmar? The striker who burst onto the European scene four years ago with a brace on his Lyon debut is also back in his homeland, with Internacional.
Both just 24 Neves and Nilmar, while not exactly on the football scrap heap, are having to rebuild careers and reputations that, in the eyes of many fans and coaches, were destined for the very top.
Rafael Sobis is no different – another with a glowing reputation, damaged by two years in Spain with Betis before being lured to the millions of Abu-Dhabi’s Al-Jazira Club last summer.
There are hundreds of similar sob stories, and they’re not just confined to Brazil. A friend of mine in Chile describes the region’s contempt: “The national team is full of players who have gone to Europe to sit in the reserves for loads of money and rarely, if ever, play.
“When they were in Chile, they were huge stars. Their leaving has not only proved detrimental to their careers, but also to the entertainment value of the regional leagues.”
But no-one can argue that Matias Fernandez playing for Villareal in the Champions League or Udinese’s Alexis Sanchez testing himself against resolute, well-drilled Italian defences hasn’t helped to put Chile in with a real shout of World Cup qualification next year.
Former Boca Juniors president Mauricio Macri has an interesting formula. He wants South American clubs to keep their top young players for three years: one to adapt to senior football, and two more to display their talents and gain the experience of winning trophies, before the inevitable move to Europe.
Hypocrisy filled that statement, when Macri oversaw the transfer of 19-year-old starlet Ever Banega to Valencia in January 2008 – although 18 million euros may have eased the pain of selling out his beliefs.
In truth keeping players beyond their will isn’t the answer, particularly when the clubs can take advantage of such huge transfer fees. For so many youngsters across South America, football is the route out of poverty with the cash lands of Europe their destination.
But Macri does have a point: too much pressure, too much responsibility at too young an age, is not a winning formula.
And until a formula is found, a return to the motherland as a failed icon will become an all too regular, and depressing, occurrence.