Home, sweet home!

Football: With clubs offering big money, Brazilians are shunning Europe

Displaying the image on its front page, one daily paper asked: "Europe, what for?".

The 19-year-old striker from a poor family had just signed a lucrative new contract with Santos, the team where soccer legend Pele spent most of his career, that will keep him there until at least 2014 when Brazil hosts the World Cup.

For years, Brazil exported most of its best young players, especially to European clubs.  But as the country's economic power catches up with its time-honored soccer talent, celebrated players like Neymar are shunning big European teams and enjoying the comforts of home for similarly fat salaries.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea are among the teams that tried to tempt Neymar to Europe, the traditional route to success, wealth and recognition for Brazilians over the years.

But Santos put an end to months of speculation over Neymar's future by announcing a package worth about $20.4 million a year in salary and sponsorship that vaulted the attacker into the ranks of the world' best-paid players.

"Today Brazil is a different world economically speaking. Clubs know how to make money now and can pay the best players well. You only go to Europe now when you really want to," Neymar's agent Wagner Ribeiro told Reuters.

When Brazil claimed its fifth World Cup victory in 2002, few could have imagined its top players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo wanting to play in Brazil, whose teams' financial clout reflected an economy that was only just emerging from years of instability.

While Europe struggles through a deepening economic crisis, Brazil's economy is still growing relatively strongly after a long boom and its soccer league appears to have woken up to its own potential for profit.

Deals for television rights to matches played by Brazil's biggest clubs like Flamengo and Corinthians were signed this year at up to 15 times the sums they fetched a decade ago, reaching 85 million reais ($48.4 million) for each team.

Some teams have also seen revenues balloon ten-fold from sponsorship and the sales of club merchandise. The doubling in the value of Brazil's currency, the real, against the dollar since 2003 has also increased the appeal of staying at home.

Neymar is the only player among 23 nominees this year for the FIFA Golden Ball award who does not play in a European team, but his decision is the latest in a trend of Brazilians electing to stay put or return home. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano, Fred and Elano are among the big-name players to have made the homecoming recently.

As foreign interest rises in the national league with the approaching World Cup, Brazil looks likely to hang on to more of its home-grown talent.

"These are choices that we have to make in life and mine was to continue in Santos," said a smiling Neymar, announcing his decision to stay on at Santos on Wednesday. He wore a baseball cap and T-shirt that read "It's good to be the king".

Barely out of adolescence and close to his family, the player said his three-month-old son, born out of a short-lived fling, was an important consideration in sticking with Santos. Some Way to go: The talented Neymar has turned down offers from several European clubs and signed a lucrative deal with Santos. Brazilian players in the past have returned home from Europe having failed to live up to the early promise they had shown, saying they simply missed home. But the successful ones have typically spent most of their careers abroad.

Brazilian fans cheered Neymar's decision to stay put this week, plastering his image over social networks, and his contract renewal also caught the attention of big business, eyeing marketing opportunities.

State-owned companies Banco do Brasil and the postal service Correios are close to sealing sponsorship deals with the player, according to sources involved in the deals.

"Neymar is one of the main idols of the sport in Brazil, which has the potential to mobilise youth and has a great ability to communicate in mass marketing campaigns," the bank told Reuters by e-mail.

More sophisticated sports marketing deals -- a crucial component of the Neymar package -- have been important in pumping up players' salaries to attractive levels.

Two-time FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho returned to Brazil in January to join Rio de Janeiro team Flamengo in a deal that sees his salary mostly footed by an investment fund that has the right to exploit his image. Ronaldo, who was World Player of the Year three times, returned to Brazil in 2009, joining Sao Paulo team Corinthians under a similar deal.

The president of Santos, Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro, was delighted by Neymar's decision to stick with the club.

"Neymar is following in Pele's footsteps," he said.

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