English clubs have traditionally harboured a deep-seated suspicion of stylish Latin stars. To the conservative coach, such players have always represented a big gamble. A gamble which many Premier League clubs, unlike their Spanish and Italian counterparts, have long been unwilling to take. After all, for every Ossie Ardiles there’s been a Mirandinha. For every Juninho; a Kléberson.
Sure, they might turn it on for glamour ties in the early-season sunshine, but what of wet, windy Wednesday nights in Hull or Wigan? They’d go missing, it was said, when the pitches muddied and the temperatures dropped (i.e. by early October). They’re over-elaborate, ‘luxury’ players, who could never adapt to the frenetic demands of our hundred-miles-an-hour football.
Yet it’s clubs such as high-flying Hull and battling Wigan which have, in fact, owed a significant chunk of their recent successes to exotic imports from as far and wide as Brazil, Honduras and Ecuador. Ex-Barcelona midfielder Geovanni has enjoyed an electrifying start to his time by the Humber; Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa and, particularly, Luis Antonio Valencia have each added a dash of élan to Steve Bruce’s pragmatic side.
Elsewhere, Chilean winger Carlos Villanueva has settled well alongside Roque Santa Cruz at Blackburn; Lucas and Fábio Aurélio impress intermittently for Liverpool; and, of course, Elano and Jô were followed to Eastlands by record-breaker Robinho. Chelsea, who boast Juliano Belletti, Alex, and Brazilian-born Deco amongst their ranks, have even gone so far as to hire a South American boss, for goodness sake.
Several of these players did not even arrive at their current home via another European club; which is considered the safety-first method of filtering out those without the mentality to adapt to the unique challenges of top-flight English football.
It’s arguable of course, but the impact of one man has done much to lay the foundations for fellow Latin imports. That man is Manchester United’s Carlos Tévez.
The arrival of Tévez at West Ham – in somewhat shady circumstances – from Brazilian club Corinthians was greeted, initially, by astonishment. When the dust had settled on his and Javier Mascherano’s bolt-from-the-blue switch to East London, the early excitement turned to scepticism. Boss Alan Pardew – clearly not enamoured with the high-profile Argentinean duo being foisted upon him – was reluctant to give Tévez a regular first team slot. Still, who needs a world-class attacking talent like ‘Carlitos’ when you’ve got Marlon Harewood working the channels?
As any Sheffield United fan will tell you, with the appointment of Alan Curbishley to the Upton Park hot-seat came a dramatic upturn in Tévez’s fortunes. Much has already been said about the issue, but there is little doubt that the stocky striker’s improved input was the critical factor in West Ham’s survival at the Blades’ expense. He’d proved entirely that – despite the cynicism which still surrounds such signings – flamboyant South American stars can adapt to life in English football.
Last year – his first at Manchester United – could hardly have gone much better for the boy from downtown Buenos Aires. Domestic and continental success came on the back of a season in which his relentless work-rate and telepathic understanding with Wayne Rooney illuminated the Premier League.
But Dimitar Berbatov’s impressive integration into the United line-up has disrupted the serene progress 24-year-old Tévez has enjoyed at Old Trafford. As Sir Alex Ferguson recently said: three into two won’t go.
He also said: “He (Tévez) has not started as many games as he would like but he is just as important to us as the guys who have hogged the headlines of late. I stressed to him last week that our faith in him remains absolute.”
That may be the case, but speculation persists that Tévez could be on his way to sunnier climes come the end of the season and, subsequently, the end of his two-year loan from (nominally) West Ham. The Rooney/Berba partnership is clearly now the first choice one. Can Sir Alex really justify a transfer fee reckoned to be in the region of £30m being lavished on a third-choice forward? If not, Tévez will, sadly, be lost to the Premier League.
Post-Tévez, the trickle of Latin players into the country has turned to a flood. Now, with a larger support network surrounding them, players from South and Central America are in a better position to make a lasting impact.
The hurdles of an alien culture, cuisine and style of football are significant ones, it’s true. But in the days of Brazilians in Uzbekistan (see Rivaldo) and Ivorians in Romania (see multi-national CFR Cluj), it’s not so hard to accept that – given the right backing – Latin stars can succeed over here.
If once they were considered a luxurious accessory; now few self-respecting Premier League clubs take to the field without one. The next generation – that of Rafael da Silva and Franco di Santo – are already making their presence felt. It’d be a shame if pioneer ‘Carlitos’ wasn’t here to enjoy their success.