RECIFE Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil is deadly serious about developing young footballers in a factory-like environment, shattering the romantic image of bare-footed youngsters honing their skills on ramshackle streets and sandy beaches.
Young players are the financial lifeblood of Brazilian clubs and the production line that grooms them into saleable assets starts at a tender age.
“It is designed to be a factory. At the big clubs in the south, the kids are professionals at 13,” Henrique Schlithler, CEO of Brazil’s Sport Club Do Recife, told Reuters.
Schlithler was describing the new training facilities he hopes will produce a stream of talented players to be nurtured and then sold off to fund their continued growth.
Standing in the club’s storied trophy room, where each piece of silverware seems to have its own intriguing tale, Schlithler paints a picture of the hard economics that underpin youth development in the country of the World Cup hosts.
It is incongruous with the mythical image of children knocking about on the streets, freely learning skills that will one day wow the world.
“They are paid 2,000 euros a month, their fathers are given jobs and their families apartments. You hear stories of people listing their profession as ‘athlete’s father’,” Schlithler said.
“At this club we only give scholarships and selling the really young players is not part of our culture.”
But last season’s promotion back to Brazil’s top flight means the club is changing, he says, before describing the “factory” he hopes will bankroll a new chapter in their history.
“If someone comes with a couple of million euros for a player, we’ll sell,” he said.
The competition for the best youngsters is cut-throat, with talents changing hands swiftly and the beady eyes of scouts always on the lookout for those who are likely to attract the most interest.
As Schlithler explains, Brazil’s biggest clubs are not among the 20 richest in the world, where the financial might of the European behemoths ensures some players leave the country without kicking a ball in their own league.
“When these diamonds appear, there are too many people around,” he said. “If we have a top player it is maybe two weeks (before the bigger clubs snatch them).
“For us, we see Brazilian players who have never played in Brazil and we are like, ‘who is that guy?’”
In the 2012-13 season, there were 138 Brazilian players in the top five European leagues, more than any other country, according to the CIES Football Observatory Group. Some estimates pitch the number playing professionally around the world at 10,000.
Last year the players’ union, FIFPro, published concerns on the exploitation of minors in South American football, following reports of children being bought by agents and transferred to Europe.
Although Schlithler said his club had no interest in selling players at such a young age, he is aware of the need to bring them into the professional environment as early as possible.
“Even 13 is sometimes too old,” he said. “In the south they will start them at seven...If someone comes to me and says ‘I know a great player, he is 15’. I say ‘forget it. He is too old’.”
In the shadow of the club’s hulking concrete stadium, daubed in their red and black colors, a group of youngsters kick and head the ball over a volleyball net with deft touches and neat flicks.
Among them is Yuri Silva, captain of the club’s Under-20s and a towering center back, with one dream and no real back-up plan.
He grew up in Balsas Maranhao, almost 1,500 kilometers from Recife, and talks openly about his desire “to become a famous player all over the world” but also about his humble background and the need to support his family.
“Ninety percent of the players here come from poor backgrounds,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why we have this dream.”
Although he wants to make his name in Brazil, Europe remains the ultimate goal and Real Madrid the dream club. He is very aware of the qualities that make Brazilian players sought-after on the other side of the Atlantic.
“We play in a completely different way. We are born to play soccer, we improvise,” he said.
It is that maverick ability and technique that are the prime assets the club look for when bringing youngsters on board.
Yuri’s coach and the co-ordinator of their youth system is a stocky middle-aged man called Neco.
Sublime technique is the first thing to catch his eye, closely followed by good behavior.
“I am looking for those who can become true professionals,” he said.
He is not fond of the rapacious industry that strips young players out of the clubs at a tender age to flog them to the highest bidder, and talks about the need to create fully-rounded skillsets before they are sold off.
Three of his players are currently with the senior squad and there is one he is tipping to go all the way to the top.
“Neto is really special. If he doesn’t end up playing for Brazil then for sure he will be something.”
Whether that is in Brazil or abroad, for Sport or one of their wealthier rivals, he comes out of a finely-tuned system designed to place as many players as possible into the professional game.
Editing by Ed Osmond