Why does Manchester United raise a red flag with South American players?
Background image: Pottonvets
If you count Brazilian-born uncapped Italian international Rodrigo Possebon, 18 South Americans have featured for Manchester United in the Premier League era. As a group, they haven’t fared well.
While the Premier League doesn’t feature nearly as many Argentines, Brazilians, et al as Europe’s other top leagues, rival clubs are often more successful when signing Conmebol stars. Think about Javier Mascherano, Lucas Leiva, Roberto Firmino, Fabinho and Alisson Becker at Liverpool. Sylvinho, Edu, Gilberto Silva and Alexis Sanchez all starred at Arsenal. David Luiz is now a Gunner as well. Deco, Hernan Crespo, Oscar and Willian have each charmed Chelsea supporters, Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho, Gabriel Jesus and Ederson are all key contributors to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Lucas Moura can say the same at Tottenham. Erik Lamela hasn’t reached the same status as countryman Ossie Ardiles did at Spurs. Nevertheless, the Argentine is a solid squad player for Mauricio Pochettino. In addition, Colombian Davinson Sanchez and Argentine Juan Foyth wait in the wings to assume starting roles at the heart of the defence. Midfielder Giovanni Lo Celso just arrived on loan.
Outside the big six, Conmebol talents are making names for themselves as well. Everton feature Richarlison, Bernard and Yerry Mina. Newcastle’s two record-signings in 2019 are Paraguayan Miguel Almiron and Brazilian Joelinton. Felipe Anderson is the creative muse at West Ham.
Several English clubs can both look back with pride at South American stars who donned their shirts and forward with optimism for the ones pulling them on now. United? Not so much. At best, scepticism surrounds the Red Devils’ Conmebol acquisitions, at worst, unbridled pessimism.
Why? Is it poor scouting? United’s tactics? Bad luck? Some combination of the three? What?
For comparison’s sake and by my unofficial count, 230 footballers have taken the pitch for United in the Premier League era, 125 Britons, eight Irishmen, 66 Europeans, five Africans, four North Americans, three Asians and an Aussie in a silky oak tree. Sorry, Mark Bosnich, couldn’t help myself.
Graphic: Martin Palazzotto
*Danny Higginbotham suited up for Gibraltar three times but I'm ignoring that and still calling him an Englishman. Any country divided in half by an airport runway is suspect in my unprofessional opinion.
From that talent pool, you'd expect most club legends to come from Britain, Ireland and Europe. But you'd also think South American players have the quality to better North America and the rest of the world. It hasn't happened.
Dwight Yorke is an acknowledged club legend. The Trini was the Red Devils' top finisher two years running, notching 53 goals across all competitions from 1998-2000. Others will argue Park Ji-sung was as well. The Korean's lung-busting runs on the wing are fondly remembered indeed. Javier Hernandez put the impact in impact sub during his time at Old Trafford, scoring repeatedly off the bench although he never could seem to nail down a starting role with players like Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Dimitar Berbatov blocking his path. Add to that solid contributions from Tim Howard and the three North Americans and one Asian arguably left a more lasting legacy than the top South Americans.
Much of the blame falls at the feet of Carlos Tevez. The manner in which he arrived at the club foreshadowed his departure. He and Javier Mascherano left West Ham under controversial circumstances involving third-party ownership. It was all about the money. During his time at the club, the Argentine spark plug won the hearts of United faithful. In two seasons, he scored 34 goals and added 14 assists but again, it was all about the money.
Following the 2008/09 season, he demanded a wage Sir Alex Ferguson was so unwilling to pay that he sanctioned a £25 million sale to rivals Manchester City. A billboard went up in sky blue, welcoming Tevez to Manchester. Overnight he went from adored to reviled. In the next installation of the Manchester Derby, Rafael da Silva ensured he'd never need to buy a drink in Manchester's red half again when he squared off against his former teammate after a tussle for a loose ball.
"I do not want to criticize those who do it, but when you have a certain identity with a team and you go to a rival, well, that's not something I would do. I love so much Manchester United and he [Carlos Tevez] might not feel the same way."
#MUFC 🔴 https://t.co/oeeQFG7Gd2
Tevez spent four seasons at the Etihad posting numbers consistent with his time at Old Trafford. Then he went off the rails again, refusing to report for training after another contract dispute. With a chance to become a club legend in both parts of the City, the Argentine burned all his bridges.
Beyond Tevez, no South American has made Old Trafford his own. Gabriel Heinze proved a reliable left-back upon arriving from Real Vallodolid by way of Paris Saint-Germain but only stayed three years before moving on to Real Madrid, Marseille, Roma and finally home to Newell's Old Boys in Argentina.
Juan Sebastian Veron followed a similar career path. After racking up well in excess of a century in Serie A caps with Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio, La Brujita spent two campaigns in Manchester before switching to Chelsea. He liked London even less, accepting loans to Inter and Estudiantes before returning home for good.
Because life is harder and sometimes politically unstable in South America, Conmebol footballers tend not to become so attached to clubs or to take it so hard if they're let go. As well, there are the three Cs. Climate, culture and especially cuisine are much different in England than South America. Portugal, Spain and Italy feel closer to home for players who cross the Atlantic.
During his travails, Tevez made no bones about his preference to be in Buenos Aires rather than Manchester. Paris Saint-Germain suffered the same problem with an unhappy Neymar this summer. When preseason training began, the disillusioned Selecao was nowhere to be found.
Salary and comfortable surroundings aren't always the issue, however. Diego Forlan arrived at Old Trafford alongside Veron, shared a cab to the airport two years later but didn't fade away like either Argentine once he left United behind. Greatness awaited elsewhere.
The Uruguayan went on to Atletico Madrid where he snatched a Pichichi out from under Lionel Messi's nose with 35 La Liga goals in 2009, his second scoring title with the Rojiblancos. His time at Old Trafford wasn't horrible but he needed roughly 40 minutes more to contribute a goal or assist for United than the 120 minutes per he averaged at the Vicente Calderon.
As well, he apparently clashed with teammates. Roy Keane took the ball away from him in a Champions League qualifier, handing it to Ruud van Nistelrooy to take the penalty with the Red Devils already up 3-0. Gary Neville trashed him in his memoir. On the other hand, Forlan didn't let it stop him. He won many fans with a brace against Liverpool and Keane would later admit the man he'd earlier denied was a hard worker even if he still considered him an outsider.
If a player tried, and Diego did, we’d drag him with us. We’d try and help him. Diego was honest, so in training, you’d go, ‘Unlucky; it’ll come good tomorrow,’ not, ‘You can f----in' do better than that.'
Sir Alex Ferguson gave up on Forlan only to see the player thrive as soon as he returned to La Liga and then claim the Golden Boot at the 2010 World Cup. When his time with Atleti ran out, the player didn't pick up his ball and go home. Instead, he took it to Inter, apparently a popular destination for United castoffs, then Brazil, Japan, India and Hong Kong. He loved the game more than the money, making his failure to settle at United a tragedy. He was exactly the type of player supporters desperately crave.
A long list of players followed Veron and Forlan through Old Trafford's revolving door chasing money or happiness. Alexis Sanchez seems pegged as the former but Angel di Maria was cast in the Forlan mode, simply wanting to be appreciated. Injury also chased some stars away. Radamel Falcao and Marcos Rojo figure highly on that list. Then there were those for whom Roy Keane would have some choice epithets. Anderson likely heard a few. Fred would have.
Finally, there have been moderate successes such as Sergio Romero and Antonio Valencia, willing to accept a role to be at one of the most respected clubs in the world even if it means that few will remember them when they're gone. Whatever the reason it doesn't work out, the players themselves will always have their memories. That's really all that matters.