Europe offers take toll on Brazil’s child stars

Hat tipped cockily backward, thick silver chain dangling around

his neck, Andrigo talks breezily about his brilliant future in

European football, where riches and all manner of off-field

delights await.

He could ply his trade for teams such as Barcelona, Manchester

United or Inter Milan, dazzling European fans with the brilliant

footwork that seems a Brazilian birthright.

Never mind that Andrigo is just a pimply faced 15-year-old. He’s

already orchestrating his multimillionaire future while his peers

navigate first dates and master the latest video games.

Andrigo’s situation is increasingly common among Brazil’s

football prodigies – being handed the world before passing through

puberty.

For teens such as Andrigo, personal growth isn’t all that’s

jeopardized by leapfrogging childhood. Their development as players

can also suffer, derailing their careers and possibly costing

Brazil a future star.

Psychologists and other experts say many will not cope with the

pressure of having to succeed so early in life, increasing the

chances that off-field problems will affect their performances

before they can deliver on their athletic potential.

”These kids sign huge deals, but most of the time they can’t

keep up to the expectations that come along with these multimillion

dollar transactions,” said sports psychologist Joao Ricardo Cozac,

president of a sports psychology association in Sao Paulo. ”If

they are not prepared emotionally, they won’t be able to perform as

well as they did when they signed the deals and ultimately will

fail and return to Brazil earlier than expected.”

For years, European teams have craved Brazil’s talented players,

flocking to the nation looking for the next wonder Pele or

Ronaldo.

More and more Brazilian youngsters, often from poor backgrounds,

look to cash in at the first opportunity to play in Europe, no

matter the cost to their social development and family life.

But many don’t adapt to being away from home. About 1,000

Brazilian players leave to play abroad every year, but in 2009

alone more than 700 returned to Brazil, according to the country’s

football federation.

Midfielder Rodrigo Possebon was one of them. He signed with

Manchester United as a promising 17-year-old, but was unable to

establish himself with the English team and now is back with

Brazilian club Santos, where he is not even a regular in the

reserves.

Possebon, now 21, said the lack of a family structure abroad

unquestionably plays a role in the performance of young players,

but he thinks it’s a risk worth taking.

”It’s not easy to be away from your friends and from your

family, to have to adapt to a different culture, to a different

weather,” he said. ”But I don’t think any teenager would reject

an offer like the one I got, to play for Manchester United, so I

would definitely do it again, it was a good experience.”

Brazilian club Internacional signed a pre-contract with Andrigo,

but the agreement doesn’t guarantee that he will stay in Brazil for

much longer. Team directors acknowledge that it’s hard to hold on

to young players who are promised the good life abroad.

”Sometimes it’s hard to contain the anxiety and the

expectations of the kid and his family,” said Internacional club

director Bernardo Stein, who is in charge of the team’s youth

squads. ”We have many cases of kids who leave and then after a

year or so they are back asking if they can play for us

again.”

The goal for Andrigo and others like him has been to try to sign

deals with clubs abroad but stay in Brazil until they turn 18, the

age at which FIFA removes some restrictions on international

transfers and when players are better prepared to handle life away

from home.

This was the case of playmaker Philippe Coutinho, who reached a

deal with Inter Milan when he was 16 but stayed with Brazil’s Vasco

da Gama for two years before moving to Europe. Coutinho’s patience

paid off and he is now a regular on Brazil’s national team.

”It varies from player to player, but in general, they have

better chances to keep playing well if they stay longer in

Brazil,” said Rodrigo Falcao, another Brazilian sports

psychologist. ”There are more things that can go wrong if they

leave the country too early.”

Andrigo needed only one tournament to impress international

scouts. After playing well with Internacional at a competition in

England in June, several teams reportedly became interested in the

forward, known for his powerful shots and bursts toward the

goal.

The player’s agents said Manchester United, Manchester City,

Tottenham, Chelsea and Udinese contacted them about the possibility

of signing the teenager.

Internacional said Barcelona offered a partnership to sign the

young player, and Andrigo said Inter Milan also contacted his

family to talk about a possible transfer.

”I don’t really have a preference, I want to go to a place

where I know I’ll be happy, that’s all,” Andrigo told The

Associated Press at his agents’ office in Sao Paulo.

Andrigo was 11 when he left his home just outside the southern

city of Porto Alegre to play for Internacional. For the past four

years he has been living at the team’s headquarters, going to

school in the morning before dedicating himself almost completely

to football the rest of the day.

His parents make a living selling homemade sandwiches, earning

just enough to take care of Andrigo and his two brothers and two

sisters. Their biggest chance of leaving their modest two-bedroom

house in the farming town of Estrela lies with Andrigo’s future,

which they have fully supported even though it keeps them apart for

now.

”In Brazil, these kids necessarily need to give up their normal

lives in order to dedicate themselves to football,” Cozac said.

”They end up missing on key phases of their lives, going from

childhood to adulthood faster than everybody else. Most of the

time, this ends up hurting them in the future.”

Cozac and other psychologists say it’s imperative that these

young players and their families get counseling as early as

possible to avoid behavioral problems.

Andrigo is attracting attention just months after 18-year-old

sensation Neymar got into trouble for swearing at teammates and his

coach after not being allowed to take a penalty in a Brazilian

league match. The rant earned him a fine and a suspension, and cost

him a place on the Brazilian squad in recent friendlies against

Iran and Ukraine.

Just days earlier he had rejected a multimillion dollar offer

from Chelsea and extended his contract with Santos until 2015, in

an unusual decision that made headlines in Brazil and abroad.

”They are only kids but people look at them differently,”

Cozac said. ”They have bigger responsibilities now.”

Andrigo talks like a grown-up and already has many of the

responsibilities of one, including an agreement with Nike that

requires him to wear the company’s gear every time he is

photographed or videotaped by the media.

The deal does not involve money, but Andrigo’s agent, Cleber

Desiderio, says another agreement will likely be negotiated when

the youngster turns 16 and is allowed to have a professional

contract.

”In the beginning it’s all great,” Cozac said. ”They start

making all this money and start buying a lot of things that they’ve

always wanted to buy, all at an early age. But if they are not well

prepared, this becomes a problem later in their lives.”

Andrigo isn’t worried.

”I’m a lot more mature than most 15-year-old boys out there,”

he says before returning his attention to text messages on his cell

phone.