When full-back Rafael da Silva arrived at Manchester United as an 18-year-old, it did not take long for manager Sir Alex Ferguson to put him into the first-team, occasionally even ahead of the experienced and well-respected Gary Neville.
“[Neville] knows what happens when someone like him breaks into the team,” Ferguson said at the time. “When they’ve got outstanding ability and are showing outstanding form, as Rafael has, there’s not a lot you can do about it.”
Six years later, Rafael remains at Old Trafford—United’s official website even describes him as “perhaps the epitome of the modern full-back”—but he is no longer a first-team regular. Current manager Louis van Gaal has slowly marginalised the 24-year-old, who is tipped by many to depart the club (as his twin brother, Fabio, who arrived at the same time, already has done) in the summer.
If he does so, he will surely leave as the greatest Brazilian ever to represent the Red Devils. This is a startling realisation when you really think about it; United are one of the very biggest, and most successful, clubs in the game, while Brazil is almost universally accepted as the greatest producer of footballing talent in the world.
Logic would dictate that United, like almost every other elite club, would have had at least one great Brazilian during their history—particularly in the modern era, where cash-rich Premier League clubs have been able to pillage all corners of the globe for the best available talent.
Instead Rafael—a man of 170 appearances over seven seasons (an average of 24 per campaign)—will likely leave United as the club's greatest Brazilian, heading a relatively small cast list that includes a World Cup-winning flop and another much-vaunted teenage star whose regression startled many.
Why have United, a club with the resources to sign any player they want, never had a better player from the most successful football production line on the planet?
What is certain is that United’s disappointing history with Brazilian players is not for the want of trying. In 2003, when United made the controversial decision to sell David Beckham to Real Madrid, it was Paris Saint-Germain forward Ronaldinho whom they targeted as a suitable replacement.
Ronaldinho, 23 at the time, was a player of dubious personal character (he was said to enjoy the nightlife in Paris) but undoubted, abundant natural talent (only 12 months earlier he had lobbed David Seaman at the World Cup in breathtaking fashion). Negotiations were held and the outline of a deal was reached, until Barcelona—with a new, ambitious board at the helm—also came in for the playmaker.
“I was almost on my way to Manchester United and only the details needed to be put onto that deal,” Ronaldinho reflected in 2014 to El Enganche (via ESPN FC). “But in the last minute [Barca vice-president elect Sandro] Rosell called me to tell me they would win the election. That made everything happen fast.
“I wanted to play in Barcelona. When I signed, I didn’t feel pressure, I felt joy. I had the chance that all of the players wanted, to play in a great club like Barcelona.”
United were fighting an uphill battle as soon as Barcelona showed their hand. Not only did the Spanish club have the determination to offer the best financial package—wanting to respond in kind to Real’s Beckham acquisition—but the club has a long and proud history of hosting and deifying stars from South America.
“I had the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of my idols,” Ronaldinho noted. “I was proud to play where Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo had played, and I had the chance to be Barcelona’s new 'R'. I loved that.”
Ronaldinho would prove his value unequivocally, winning the Ballon d'Or in 2005. A few years later, history was repeated, as the brightest Brazilian to emerge in a generation, Neymar, chose his next destination. Every major European club sent emissaries to Santos for years, but most were disappointed. Manchester United and Manchester City were seemingly barely ever in the discussion for his services, while Chelsea’s strong pursuit also ended up falling short once Barcelona put their sums in place.
History, or at least a sentimental affinity, can be a compelling draw for any player, but perhaps more pragmatic reasons also tied into Ronaldinho’s decision. Money will have been one of them, but there is no getting away from the fact that the climate and culture in Barcelona is much more akin to South America than England.
To varying degrees, that goes for the rest of Europe’s major leagues as well; it is perhaps no coincidence that the players Ronaldinho mentions (along with the gap-toothed one himself) played in Spain, Italy and France—but never England.
“We miss everything from home,” the Da Silva twins told the Daily Mail within a year of arriving at United. “The heat, the culture, the people, the humour, playing football and volleyball on the beach. But it’s worth it because this is the best league.”
However, for established stars, ones who will attract interest from clubs from countries across Europe, those missing factors become a more significant issue. Even players who do not come from stereotypically “warm” climates have struggled with moving to the Premier League.
"I will never stay to live in England, that’s for sure," Serbia’s Nemanja Vidic famously told a Russian magazine in 2008 (via the Daily Mail), two years after he joined United. "The climate here is something special!
"The winters are mild but in summer the temperatures seldom go higher than 20 degrees Celsius. And it rains, rains, rains!"
Even then, Vidic seemed to dwell on ways of getting out of Manchester.
"In England they say that Manchester is the city of rain," he continued. "Its main attraction is considered to be a timetable at the railway station where trains leave for other, less rainy cities!
"In future I would like to test myself in another top league. I’m thinking of Spain. At least there will be no reason to complain about the weather."
Last summer, Liverpool perhaps experienced a taste of this perception when they missed out on Alexis Sanchez, as the Chilean instead opted to join Arsenal—London apparently considered by Sanchez (who reportedly rejected Manchester City and United when he joined Barcelona back in 2011) to be more multi-cultural and comfortable for him and his family.
“Geography dictated where he wanted to go—simple as that,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said, via the Daily Star, just days after Sanchez joined the Gunners. “It’s been the other way. It wasn’t due to a lack of ambition by the club. It was about where the player and his family wanted to choose to live.”
Perhaps this was Liverpool experiencing the widespread prejudice that exists among those handful of elite South American players coveted by Champions League sides, a prejudice that United have been combating for a number of years.
South American players generally don't want to come to England; but if they have to, they prefer to be in London over Manchester.
It is worth noting that United have not failed completely to sign Brazilian players, or South American players in general, just they have not necessarily picked them with great success or seen them flourish as initially expected.
In 2002, United signed Kleberson on the back of a World Cup-winning summer with the Selecao, yet the midfielder lasted just two seasons (playing in only 20 Premier League games) before being shipped off to Besiktas.
Six years later, Anderson, a teenager from Porto, arrived to great fanfare; the all-rounder initially performed well for the club but injuries and other off-field issues (most notably with his weight) eventually saw him ushered out earlier this season, even before his contract had fully expired.
Anderson is still only 27, at a stage in his career when most would assume he should be entering his prime. Instead he is rebuilding his career back in Brazil with Internacional.
Others have been more unfortunate. Rodrigo Possebon, who also had an Italian passport, seemed to have real promise at United until a horrible broken leg punctured all momentum in his fledgling career. He too is now back in his native country, trying to rediscover his form.
The hope is current youth star Andreas Pereira, another Brazilian with a European passport, will avoid a similar fate—although for a while it looked as if the 18-year-old would leave the club for another opportunity, likely on the continent, until he signed a contract extension on May 1.
Pereira’s prevarication may have been driven by finance—as a much-touted prospect, he would undoubtedly have been able to command a lucrative salary on the open market if the transfer fee was going to be minimal—or the prospect of greater first-team opportunities, something current United manager Louis van Gaal has struggled to give him this season.
It may also have been driven in part by a desire to leave Manchester, although it is worth noting that disliking the city you live in does not always affect how players perform on the pitch.
Vidic, for example, was arguably the best defender in the Premier League for much of his eight-year stay at the club (he joined Inter Milan this summer). As far as South Americans go, Gabriel Heinze, Carlos Tevez and Antonio Valencia were all valuable long-term contributors for the club (as they also were at other English clubs). Yet Juan Sebastian Veron was a high-profile flop, while the likes of Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Radamel Falcao have all conspicuously struggled to adjust in their first season in the Premier League.
Perhaps that is as much about the style of football, however, with the Premier League notoriously more hectic and physical than other European leagues (although that is perhaps slowly changing). All the aforementioned players previously excelled in other European leagues, after all.
Of course, this might be another reason players may opt not to move to the Premier League, especially if they have alternative options where all other parameters are equal.
“Juan Veron was capable of exceptional football and was talented. But, at times, he found the Premiership a bit difficult,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. “He was a European player and that was where we got our best form from him.”
Historically, it would seem United have always struggled to attract that very-highest band of Brazilian players, especially when the rest of Europe’s elite are also interested. With that being the case, United have one of two options if they want to own that calibre of player; sign them away from another of Europe’s elite while they are still at their peak (as they did last summer with Di Maria), or identify them before any of their rivals do and bring them along over a couple of seasons.
The first option is usually exorbitantly expensive (and can also involve dealing with "damaged goods," if the selling club is willing to part with them in the first place), so it is perhaps unsurprising that in recent times United have heavily pursued the latter path. The club have invested significantly in improving their links with clubs in Brazil over the past decade, although it is fair to wonder what tangible results have been recorded.
In many ways, the signing of the Da Silva twins was the first phase of a concerted move on the Brazilian market. When the twins signed for the club, it was widely reported that United had first identified them at the age of 15, the club monitoring them closely before bringing them to the club when they turned 18—the age at which foreign nationals can move permanently to England.
The initial success of both signings (Rafael especially) emboldened United, who seemed to suddenly see the market as a brilliant resource they had hardly tapped. The club expanded the Manchester United Premier Cup, a youth tournament in conjunction with Nike, with the beneficial side-effect that the regional events grouped many of Brazil's best young players in the same place for United scouts to observe and evaluate, improving the club's scouting reach while also creating a “brand awareness” among talented Brazilian teenagers eager for success and glory overseas.
In recent years, the most successful teams from each region have even been flown over to Manchester for the final stages of the tournament, giving players a first taste of Old Trafford—a stage they might grace in future.
This expansion into Brazil soon became more formalised, as United agreed a partnership deal with Desportivo Brasil, a club created and run by sports marketers Traffic. Desportivo’s remit was fairly transparent; rather than focusing on first-team results, the club was designed almost exclusively to recruit talented young prospects and develop them to a point where United would have the option to bring them to the UK.
If United picked a player up, Desportivo would receive a set fee and a significant chunk of any future sale. If United opted not to sign them, Desportivo would retain the player’s rights and be able to sell him to another club.
In Brazil, where most clubs struggle to meet monthly bills and many young players come from desperate poverty, the conditions were right for such a system to prove enticing. With the ability to pay reliable salaries and the promise of a fast-track route to Europe, Desportivo lured top talents away from more established clubs, including striker Aguilar from Cruzeiro.
“There is no doubt about his quality,” Aguilar’s former coach Joao Paulo Tardim told the Daily Mail in 2011. “Saying he will become a great player is an exercise in predicting the future, but the chances of it happening are very high.”
For United, the scheme was complicated by United Kingdom work-permit rights, which make it difficult for football clubs to sign any non-EU player who does not fulfil certain official criteria (e.g. international caps earned over a set period, which most teenage players will not have, or demonstrable evidence that they are of “exceptional quality,” an amorphous term).
United had thought of that eventuality too, striking a deal with FC Twente in the Netherlands—where work permit regulations are different—to house talented youngsters until they are both good enough and eligible to move to Old Trafford.
“Twente are a partner, helping United to resolve the problem of their EU passports,” Jochen Losch, president of international business of Traffic, said. “For two reasons it’s good that a player goes first to Holland. First, after two or three years he’s considered to be European. And of course it’s easier to play in the Dutch league than the Premier League.”
Initially this arrangement looked promising, with five Desportivo prospects photographed in the stands at a Manchester United game back in 2011—with them and others, Aguilar included, then getting a taste of life at United and Twente with short stays at both clubs.
“It is clear that Manchester United is far greater in terms of structure; they offer everything a player needs,” Aguilar said in 2012, in an interview translated by Sambafoot. “But, Twente is also a great club who give many opportunities for young people and can be a useful entry point so that I can adapt myself to the continent.
“I had the opportunity to exchange at Manchester United and for me the play is better there. I hope to mature faster, both physically and technically.”
Many shared similar opportunities, with Rafael Leao even going on loan briefly to Middlesbrough thanks to his EU passport. Agnaldo, another striker, is currently at Molde under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer—United's reserve team manager at the time the Desportivo link-up was most productive—but none of those ultimately made the switch on a permanent basis to United itself, while the laundry list of subsequent Brazilian starlets the club have been linked with over the years has not resulted in a subsequent signing either.
In 2014, United’s arrangement with Twente was quietly ended, following the abject failure of the one player who was able to overcome the huge amount of red tape involved to make the switch, defensive midfielder Gladstony, to adapt to his new surroundings and new team-mates.
At the same time, United seem to scale back their ambitions throughout Brazil—perhaps propelled in part by FIFA's recent pledge to eradicate third party ownership (TPO), a practice to which Desportivo is inextricably linked.
“The co-operation bled to death,” Twente’s technical director, Cees Lok, said at the time, per European newspaper Tubantia. “The intentions were good. We talked a lot with people at Manchester United and there are new contacts from that. If Gladstony had been a success, it could have been quite different.”
The retirement of Ferguson—the driving force behind everything United did for nearly three decades—also disrupted plans. Before the manager left in the summer of 2014, Traffic believed United were close to signing prolific striker Bruno Gomes, but when new boss David Moyes arrived, he opted against completing the deal.
Perhaps Moyes was correct; Gomes, now 18, remains a prolific goalscorer but is still to break into Internacional's first-time in his homeland. Of the other Desportivo products once tipped for Old Trafford, current Udinese player Lucas Evangelista is perhaps the most successful, while the rest are still to prove themselves even in their homeland.
With the United tie-up not bringing the expected returns, Traffic recently sold Desportivo Brasil and its facilities to Chinese side Shandong Luneng, who are expected to maintain the same overall approach—albeit with the aim of bringing more players to the Far East instead.
As a result, United remain a club with a scarce samba presence. Pereira, the current Brazilian in the squad, was born and raised in Belgium, being scouted and signed by Dutch club PSV Eindhoven before United eventually made their move. The 19-year-old has only recently started representing Brazil, the country of his father’s birth, at under-20 level, have previously been part of Belgium’s fast-track.
Beyond him and Rafael, however, United do not currently have any Brazilians at the club.
It should be pointed out, of course, that United are not exactly alone in their struggle with Brazilian players—theirs is merely the most pronounced in a league full of them.
Manchester City have had Robinho, Elano, Fernandinho and Jo, but none of them enjoyed sustained success at the Etihad Stadium. Chelsea have had better luck with Willian, Oscar, Ramires and David Luiz, but again maintaining that level of performance over more than a few seasons has proven difficult. Arsenal have been burned on multiple occasions, by Andre Santos and Julio Baptista to name just two, while Tottenham Hotspur have also frequently been disappointed (Gilberto, anyone?).
For a nation lauded for the fine attacking players it produces, in the Premier League the most successful Brazilian imports have generally been defensive players or cult figures at smaller clubs; Lucas Leiva, Gilberto Silva in the former group, and the likes of Geovanni and Juninho in the latter. Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, recently named on the PFA Player of the Year shortlist, may eventually change that dynamic (as might Willian and Oscar).
United may have yet to strike gold with a Brazilian player, but that does not mean they have not been linked with trying to rectify that this summer. Chelsea (who have a link-up with another Dutch club, Vitesse Arnhem, for their young players) have seemingly already wrapped up a cost-effective deal for young attacking midfielder Nathan, while United have been linked with a move for the similarly touted Kenedy, a left-footed attacker comfortable coming in off the right flank—a description that makes him sound like another of United’s rumoured summer targets, Gareth Bale.
Whether the 19-year-old can be the man to change United’s luck with Brazilian players remains to be seen. Perhaps it will be another player, one already proving his adaptability in one of Europe's other top leagues, who finally arrives and takes on Rafael’s mantle. Or maybe their scouting network will turn up another name who could quickly mature into the next great Brazilian superstar.
You cannot change circumstances, however, just as you cannot change the climate of a place or its culture. It may be a surprise that Rafael da Silva is United’s greatest ever Brazilian, but it is not necessarily a coincidence.
Just as it always takes a special player to come to Manchester United and make an impact, so perhaps—with all the additional little obstacles in the way—it will take special circumstances to go with that special talent if the player in question is ever to be a Brazilian.