Why coronavirus could see more South Americans playing in Europe next season

Everton, if rumours are to be believed, have long been interested in signing Everton. The former, of course, is a football club from Merseyside, otherwise known as the Toffees. The latter is a fleet-footed, 24-year-old Brazil international currently contracted to Grêmio.

If the transfer were to happen, it would be excellent for all involved. Everton would get a winger who has been spectacular for club and Seleção, Everton would get a dream move to the Premier League, and the fee, as one Brazilian journalist put it, ‘would save Grêmio’s year financially’.

Meanwhile, the world would witness Brazilian football’s most satisfying episode of nominative determinism since the Defendi brothers, Rafael and Rodrigo, made it their lives’ missions to become a professional goalkeeper and centre back, respectively.

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Everton’s sale to a top European club – as well as Everton, a host of others including Napoli, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund are after him – has been mooted for some time. Yet Grêmio’s hard negotiation over a fee has so far proven a hurdle no club has managed to jump. His buy-out clause is €120m and club president Romildo Bolzan said in July 2019 that he wouldn’t sell for less than €40m.

That, though, was long before coronavirus mercilessly ripped up much of what we knew to be normal. Conversely, the pandemic that has seen both football and international trade grind to a near halt may have made Everton’s move more likely. And the underlying reasons could mean we see a throng of South Americans arriving at high-level European clubs over the coming months.

Those reasons will be explained, but first an important aside. Last week, Everton took to social media to lament the passing of his grandfather, killed by Covid-19. Cruelly, the illness that may provide him the opportunity to fulfil his childhood dream has, as he wrote on Instagram, also taken away his ‘biggest fan’ and ‘broken my heart’. The city where Everton grew up, Fortaleza, has been one of the hardest hit in a country that’s desperately struggling to deal with the outbreak.

While state governors and city mayors have encouraged social distancing and even enforced total lockdowns, as was the case in Fortaleza, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been steadfast both in his refusal to believe that Covid-19 is a grave ailment – calling it ‘a little cold’ – and his insistence that people continue to go to work and circulate freely. As a result, many of the country’s less cerebrally endowed citizens have disobeyed the orders of local authorities, accelerating the spread of the disease.

At the end of his Instagram post about his grandfather, Everton took a clear dig at Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. “This is not simply a ‘little cold’,” he wrote, “and it is closer than we think.”

In his stubbornness, Bolsonaro has made many of the governors and congresspeople who were swept to power on his coat-tails turn against him, creating great political tension. Additionally, the president is under investigation for interfering in police work and, in the past two months, Brazil has been through three different health ministers.

As the political crisis has deepened, Brazil’s currency, the real, has dropped dramatically against the dollar, euro and pound. In truth, that crumbling of the real had started before coronavirus came to be, stimulated by the interest-rate cuts of finance minister Paulo Guedes. But the gravity of the political situation has now led overseas banks to define the real a ‘toxic asset’ and seen the currency plunge to its lowest-ever level against the dollar.

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In addition to the currency crash, economic activity inside Brazil has been and will continue to be severely affected by the lockdowns, as is the case in so many nations. And football will not escape that downturn.

On 25 May, directors of Flamengo and Vasco da Gama went to the capital Brasília to sidle up to the president on the day the country recorded its highest 24-hour death toll up until that point. Their desire, one shared by Bolsonaro, is for football to return immediately – even against the backdrop of rocketing deaths – so they do not continue to take such a big financial hit.

All of which brings us back to Everton (the player) and Grêmio. If Flamengo, South America’s richest club, is so desperate for football to return that its directors will shame themselves alongside the nation’s irresponsible president, one can only begin to imagine what the balance sheets of some of the country’s other sides look like.

Brazilian football is full of amateurism, with elected presidents regularly spending far more than is sensible. This leads to long-term financial issues that have been abruptly exacerbated by the pandemic. The need for a quick cash fix has become even more urgent.

Even for Grêmio, a relatively well-run institution, the financial itch will need to be scratched. And what easier way to do so than flogging stars overseas? Bolzan, the Grêmio president, has said that selling Everton soon ‘would interest Grêmio because of this whole crisis’. For Brazilian clubs, he added, the current lack of football will prove ‘catastrophic’.

As well as that desire to bring in cash to cover cost, the current exchange rate means the deal could be done, according to Bolzan, at a ‘lower value’. To put a figure on it, €35m would have converted to 137m reals a year ago. Now, €25m would be worth 138m reals. Napoli, the Grêmio president revealed, are the only side to have made formal contact about Everton, but his words may make Everton (the club) sit up and take notice. Manager Carlo Ancelotti is keen and has spoken to the player by phone.

Owing to the coronavirus crisis, even Premier League clubs are not as flush as they once were, but English and other European giants might feel whatever money they do have tucked away would go farthest if spent in South America. It is a greater risk signing a player who has no experience of European football, but the current price incentive may shift their thinking. If that is the case, many Brazilian clubs would be more than happy to sell.

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Flamengo, though relatively strong financially, may be tempted to offload one of their many talents to help pay their hefty wage bill. Midfielder Gerson has been linked to Tottenham and Nice. Elsewhere, Luís Henrique of Botafogo started the year well and is drawing admiring glances from Juventus; São Paulo’s Igor Gomes has been compared to Kaká and is being monitored by Real Madrid; 17-year-old Gabriel Veron’s lightning speed and fine technique have attracted Arsenal’s attention; Brazil U23 defender Bruno Fuchs’ name has been mentioned in connection with AC Milan.

Elsewhere in South America, currencies are similarly weak. A year ago, one dollar would have bought you 45 Argentinian pesos; now it will get you 68. Over the same period, the Colombian peso has gone from 3,100 to 3,700 to the dollar. The story is similar in Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile. And, without generalising too much, clubs across the region are facing similar issues to their cash-strapped Brazilian neighbours.

As was the case after the 2008 financial crash, the richest will be the least severely affected by the coming recession, at least in the short term. Those further down the food chain will suffer more. In football terms, that means the wealthy elite of western Europe’s top five leagues – those who have a little left over to spend – will be able to pick off the most valuable assets of poorer clubs for reduced fees as they desperately try to stay afloat. With South American clubs still producing quality players but increasingly on the financial periphery of the global game, they will feel the impact more than most.

Why coronavirus could see more South Americans playing in Europe next season
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