Rags to riches: The meteoric rise of Rio futebol player João Pedro; a near nobody in his own city, he lands contract in England for millions
By Marques Travae
I swear this sounds like a story that was dreamed up in a Hollywood flick. Don’t get me wrong, it is a well-known fact that Brazil is a breeding ground for some of the world’s top futebol (football/soccer) players and as I write this piece, there are probably hundreds of thousands of poor Brazilian children kicking balls around dreaming of their big break.
And playing on a Brazilian team isn’t the ultimate goal. It may be a stepping stone, but the ultimate goal is landing a multi-million-dollar euro deal to play on a major European team. Brazil’s futebol leagues just don’t have the bucks to pay for its top talent so its elite teams act as a sort of minor league prep for players to get “drafted” into the big leagues of England, France, Spain or other European countries.
Since just 1994, Brazilians have been named the best players in the world 8 times, spread out among 5 players: Romário (1994), Ronaldo (1996, 1997, 2002), Rivaldo (1999), Ronaldinho (2004, 2005), and Kaká (2007). This list doesn’t even consider Neymar’s two third place finishes in the voting in 2015 and 2017. Of course, Neymar’s star seems to have dimmed quite a bit since then, but that’s another story.
With the possibility of earning millions of euros on every player’s mind, it’s understandable why so many kids lose interest in school and devote most of their time honing their skills on the field. Currently, four Brazilians are among the highest paid players in European leagues, all of them having contracts paying them over 100 million euros, which is currently worth over 425 million reais, the Brazilian currency. Compare this to the average salary of a tenured professor in a Brazilian federal university, which is about BRL $13,626 (reais) per month, worth about USD$3,159 (dollars) and you see the reason why kids dream more of scoring goals than writing scores on test papers.
Which brings me to the latest case…
In October of 2018, 17-year old João Pedro Junqueira de Jesus, better known as simply João Pedro, agreed to sign a five-year contract with the Premier League Watford club in England that could come to a value of 10 million euros, worth about BRL$42.3 million reais. In December of last year, he bid farewell to his Fluminense team in Rio de Janeiro and the club’s directors. In reality, there’s nothing really strange about this scenario. Brazilian aces bidding their families, fans, coaches and even girlfriends farewell as they pursue fame and fortune in Europe is quite common in Brazil. More common than most not familiar with Brazilian and European players and leagues realize.
But just how common is it?
According to a recent report, as of November of 2019, there were 466 Brazilian players showing off their dribbling skills in European leagues, with 105 of them playing in just England, Germany, Italy and France alone. Since 2009 when this information began to be tracked, Brazil has always come in first place as the top player exporting country in Europe. France comes in second at 350 players. You see this investment in foreign talent come to the fore when you consider the number of foreign players that led to France’s 2018 World Cup victory.
Brazil also leads in the numbers of exported players playing in Russia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Finland and Portugal. In fact, only Scotland doesn’t have any Brazilian players in elite division soccer teams. But even these data don’t truly give us an idea of how huge the market of Brazilian players around the world really is.
According to the same report, Brazil is also the top exporter of top soccer talent in the world. In 147 foreign leagues, there are a total of 1,330 Brazilian players playing on teams outside of Brazil. In other words, if we were to consider the number of players on Brazil’s 2018 seleção (National Team) World Cup team with 23 players, there would be enough Brazilian footballers playing outside of Brazil to create 57 teams. With 57 teams, you could actually create 2 or 3 full leagues! So again, leaving Brazil for greener pastures is the norm for any player making it into Brazil’s big leagues.
What makes João Pedro’s rise so miraculous is the fact that he literally went being a nobody to attracting attention from Europe. In early May of 2019, João Pedro wasn’t even a substitute on Rio’s Fluminense team, but upon his arrival, entering the last 20 minutes in a game, the rookie scored two goals. Then, on May 23rd, in the 2019 South American Cup he scored a hat trick. Even more incredible about that feat was that he did all of that in just the first half, becoming the first player born in the 2000s to score three times in a South American match. He followed that up with another goal against Bahia, bringing his total in four games to seven goals, unheard of for a new player. It was also in May that Watford expressed interest in signing the young star in training.
To have an idea of how phenomenal João Pedro entrance into the professional ranks truly is, consider this. The then 17-year old played in 11 games in his first season registering 8 goals and an assist in this period, with all of this happening with less than 300 minutes of playing time. These numbers for the beginning of his career are better than some of the best players of all-time, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Brazil’s own Ronaldinho Gaúcho.
In his first season, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo played 33 games (16 as a starter), marking 5 goals and an assist, needing 313 minutes for each goal. In his first season, Messi appeared in nine games for Barcelona, one as a starter, scoring one goal in 236 minutes. In the next season, he played in 25 games scoring 8 goals. Ronaldinho Gaúcho began his career in 1998 playing in 25 games and registering four goals and an assist in 1,678 minutes.
It can’t be expected that young João Pedro can continue his unbelievable start in Europe. One of the reasons that he was exported to Europe so quickly clearly has something to do with the problematic financial standing of the Fluminense team. To keep their finances afloat, a team in such a situation will quickly sell its best players which in turn open the doors for new talent to come in.
And speaking of skills, talent on the field and his good fortunes in landing a contract in Europe aren’t the only reasons for João Pedro’s making headlines. He’s also been front page news because of his relationship with teen Globo TV actress Mel Maia, who has been appearing on television since the age of seven. The actress has earned a number of awards due to her performances in Avenida Brasil (2012), Joia Rara (2013) and Além do Tempo (2015), all novelas (soap operas) broadcast on the television giant, Rede Globo.
What has caught attention is not so much that a black Brazilian futebolista has hooked up with a pretty (white) girl, as that’s pretty much the norm in Brazil, but rather the fact that João Pedro is 19 and Mel Maia is only 15. I haven’t really heard anyone bat an eye on this in Brazil where the legal age of consent is 14, but England ain’t havin’ it. The couple shared a photo of themselves sharing a kiss on a bridge in London on his social media profile. In England, the legal age of consent is 16, as such, Mel won’t be able to visit her love again in jolly old England until she turns 16 in May. According to some sources, the couple began dating in September of last year.
What I see here is just another example of how and why successful black Brazilians can never pass on that wealth and success to secure the success of future black Brazilian families. In this particular scenario, one could argue that Mel Maia is a successful actress in her own right, so interests connected to currency signs could reasonably argued one way or the other. But that’s not really the case. Everyone knows that the media in Brazil is dominated by whiteness, from the vast majority of people appearing in front of the cameras to those directing behind the cameras and the staff. The same goes for the ownership of these networks.
Futebol is one of the few areas in Brazilian society where poor black males have the opportunity for their talent to lead them out of the favela to fame and fortune of the bright lights and huge contracts. And as these social circles of the rich and famous are also overwhelmingly white, when black Brazilians do come into sudden wealth, usually in the areas of sports or entertainment, what will most of the people surrounding them look like? If you remember, we saw what the real middle classes of Brazil look like during the 2014 World Cup hosted in Brazil. Add this to the fact that it’s only been in recent years that black Brazilians have begun questioning why it seems that they all have a preference for whiteness when they think of long-term relationships and having families and we see how the “formula” that brought João Pedro and Mel together was inevitable.
When one grows up in a culture in which oppressed people are indoctrinated to prefer people from the dominant society are the preferred standard, you can’t really blame João Pedro….or Ronaldinho, or Ronaldo, or Neymar, or Péricles or Mumuzinho, or Alexandre Pires or Gaby Amarantos or Érika Januza or Karol Conka. Remember, Brazil is a factory for whitening black skin. But if black Brazilians cannot educate their people on blackness and money in the same way that the culture educates them on futebol, funk, and the “ficar”, the idea of “black money” will be gone as fast as the next poor black kid landing a treasure chest in Europe.