Wendel exit from Fluminense shows Brazil's economy far from booming
This time last year, Brazilian midfielder Wendel was not even a household name in his own home. The 20-year-old only made his debut for Fluminense of Rio in mid-February. And fewer than 60 games later he is already on his way.
Paris Saint-Germain had been very interested, but questions of Financial Fair Play stalled the deal, and Wendel now flies off to Portugal to join Sporting Lisbon. Fluminense's vastly experienced coach, Abel Braga, lamented the fact.
"We're losing a great player," he said.
Braga spotted Wendel's potential while watching the Under-20 side, threw him straight into the first team and was rewarded with some performances of undoubted promise.
Well-built and strong on the ball, though over-dependent on his right foot, Wendel catches the eye with his dynamism. He gives the pass while already on the move, driving the team forward and opening up space in the opposing half -- where his shooting from long to mid-range is dangerous.
He struggled to maintain consistency, and there were times when he turned up late for training and his discipline was called into question. It would seem, though that these are nothing more than problems of transition; no other profession has a step up as steep as that of a young footballer with a big, traditional team. One moment he is an unknown, the next his work is being analysed, praised and criticised by thousands in the stadium and millions watching on television. A minor stumble at this stage is normal.
Should behaviour like this continue in Lisbon, then it is Sporting's problem -- just as the benefits of acquiring Wendel will now accrue to Cristiano Ronaldo's original club.
"Sporting have made a good investment," said Braga on Portuguese radio. "He is going to give the club a big financial return."
There is considerable room for a profit. The reported transfer fee is €8 million. Should Wendel progress as expected, then Sporting can expect to cash in. For relatively little money and after using him for a very short time, Fluminense are losing a bright prospect.
"There was no other solution," Braga said. "The situation of Fluminense is very chaotic."
The Rio club are currently trying to rip up the contracts of several of their senior players -- including centre-back Henrique, a member of Brazil's 2014 World Cup squad.
Fluminense are an extreme case. For a decade and a half they were sponsored by a private health company, who injected large sums of money into the club. The partnership came to an end three years ago, and it seems that only now the vulnerability of the club's financial position has come to the surface.
There are Brazilian clubs basking with a much healthier bank balance. Palmeiras of Sao Paulo, champions in 2016, have a wealthy sponsor. Also, with by popular consensus the most impressive of the country's new stadiums, they are turning an operational profit. In general, however, Brazil's clubs are living a hand-to-mouth existence, promising huge salaries and then struggling to pay them.
The Wendel deal illustrates the imbalance of forces in comparison with Europe; a European club will not only have the player, they also stand to keep the lion's share of the money he generates in the transfer market.
This is all very different from the scenario that many predicted a decade ago. Back then, Brazil's economy was booming while Europe, especially in the south, languished. Moreover, Brazilian football stood to benefit from all the investments being made in the 2014 World Cup.
Even a book as rigorous as the excellent "Soccernomics" was fooled. Authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski predicted "a rosy future for Brazilian football" since "clubs can afford to keep more of their better players at home," and approving quoting a Chelsea official who saw Brazil as "a marketplace of threat."
So far at least, such predictions could not have proved more wrong. In part, the solidity of Brazil's economic boom was exaggerated. The process was dependent on the sale of raw materials to China. Once the rate of increase in the Chinese economy slowed, Brazil was precarious.
And specifically looking at football, the book overlooked the antiquated administration of the Brazilian game. The social club model of organisation, where the club president is an elected position, time and time again leads to directors making outlandish financial promises which their successors struggle to honour.
Additionally, the structure of the game in Brazil is archaic. The power brokers inside the CBF (Brazil's Football Association) are the 27 State Federations, one for each state that makes up this giant country. The main interest of these federations is to maintain the existence of their local state championships -- where, from January to May, giant teams waste their time playing teams so small that they barely exist as professional entities.
This over-clutters the calendar, puts Brazil out of sync with the rest of the world and condemns the clubs to operating well below their financial potential. While this structure remains, there will be more Wendels.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.