Exclusive: Tim Stillman Talks Gabigol, Gabriel Jesus & Brazilian Football

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Our writer Chris Baker spoke exclusively with Brazilian football specialist Tim Stillman about the young talent Brazil is producing, the national team and more.

Gabriel Barbosa (Gabigol) has been on the lips of most this summer as he looks set to leave Brazil for Juventus, is now the right time for him to make the step?

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For a move to Europe? It’s not a bad time, though I think another 6-12 months in Brazil wouldn’t be the worst thing for him either. I don’t think Juve would be a good move for him though, he is 19 and needs to play every week. A ‘bridge’ move to somewhere like Napoli, Sevilla or Villarreal for example would probably be best for him. I’m not sure Juve play a system that suits Gabriel the best either.

Barbosa has had comparisons to former Santos phenomenon Neymar, are these comparisons wide of the mark or does Gabigol look set to follow in similar footsteps?

They’re not quite the same, albeit they’re both attackers that can operate from wide or through the middle of a front 3. I don’t think he’s quite up to the mark of Neymar, but if he gets a good move now and goes somewhere to play regularly, he’ll be a very good player and will certainly feature prominently for his country. He came through the Santos academy and made his debut a month before Neymar left and I think that’s where most of the comparisons come from. They have a similar background but are slightly different as players.

Arsene Wenger said South America produce the best strikers in the world, with the likes of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain I think he has a point, but why is this a repetitive theme? Are the academies in South America different than most in Europe? Or are South America just blessed with sublime talent?

It’s largely to do with how they grow up. Strikers need to be ruthless and hungry and, without wishing to stereotype too much, that tends to happen when a player has a modest background. In England, Jamie Vardy and Ian Wright are also good examples of this, they fought and clawed their way up from non-league football and they had that streak of desperation almost, to make it. Lots of South American players develop this in their home towns. Most of them are ‘street footballers’ and this is very helpful for a striker. They don’t tend to play in academies really, from a young age they are playing against older boys in street games and they need that edge to survive. That translates very well for strikers, that need to be clever to avoid getting whacked and that desire to get to the ball.

Gabriel Jesus is another massive talent set to leave Brazil this summer with Manchester City the likely destination, he has an impressive goal to game ratio for someone so young, should he be patient or is now the right time to make the move?

I think another 6-12 months in Brazil wouldn’t do him any harm, especially since he only just moved into the centre forward position. He emerged last year as a left-sided attacker in a 4-3-3. I think he is ready or close to ready for Europe though, he is a huge talent. But again, he has to play. He has developed very quickly but only through playing regular matches. If he goes somewhere and is loaned out or doesn’t play frequently, I can’t see that helping his development. Especially since the cultural adaptation is so pronounced for young Brazilians. Neymar ought to be considered an example really, he waited till he was 21 to leave Santos, after several years of regular football. If Gabriel Jesus goes somewhere and plays, he will be fine I think.

Is South American football on the rise? Can you see it attracting big name stars in the near future, we’ve seen Carlos Tevez return to Boca, and he’s gone on to reject offers from the likes of Chelsea to stay there, could other big names follow in his footsteps?

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I doubt it, it’s very common for players to return home to end their careers. Tevez is a little different because he went a little earlier than a player of his profile might otherwise. But Ronaldo finished at Corinthians, Juninho Pernambucano went to Vasco, Clarence Seedorf finished his playing career at Botafogo, which was an unusual move for a foreigner, Zé Roberto is 41 and playing for Palmeiras still. Most South American leagues a re a mixture of young talents that are destined for Europe and older players who have returned from Europe, with a lot of average players between those age groups. South America is also being hit hard by the emergence of China, that can offer a similar standard of football for much better pay, and even MLS is a threat in that respect.

South American clubs don’t have the money to attract big stars and usually rely on youngsters, old hands returning home to retire and some players that just didn’t have the discipline to fully realise their talent in Europe, like Robinho and Pato for instance. South American clubs will always lose their best to Europe and China has added an extra dimension. In Brazil, the best players go to Europe and the band just below that go to China, so the quality of the league is decreasing.

Wellington Silva was an exciting talent when Arsenal signed him from Fluminense, he has recently returned home as his time in England was somewhat poor, he is only 23-years-old so what does the future hold for him? Could a big move be on in the future?

He is one that could come back to Europe. He made his debut for Fluminense last night and played very well- albeit against a Serie C side in the cup. He is a big talent but is another example of how the loan system just isn’t an ideal way to introduce young Brazilian players to Europe. Players’ development isn’t looked after as well by loan clubs and it can be unsettling for young South Americans. Clubs like Shakhtar, Porto and Villarreal have become good finishing schools for young South American talent, where they can continue player development, give them first team football, help them find their feet in Europe and then sell them on at profit. That tends to be the best route. Wellington I think can play for Fluminense for a year or two, find his feet again and look to go back to Europe, possibly Spain or Portugal. That he has a Spanish passport now makes him an attractive proposition for those countries.

Surprisingly, Alexandre Pato has struggled in Europe since his AC Milan days where he was one of the most deadliest strikers in Europe, his time in England was underwhelming, he is destined to make it in Europe and has been snapped up by Villarreal, is this his last chance to prove himself once again?

Yes it is. He has landed on his feet finding a good club like that. His motivation and desire just seems to have totally faded. On his day, he has still got it, he is well free of injury now. But his day only ever seems to happen when he feels like it. He is supposedly not a dedicated trainer either. Villarreal is a great club for him, but if he cannot find his form again there, he is a lost cause really.

What does the future hold for the Brazilian national squad? The embarrassment of the World Cup on home soil, then the elimination in the Copa America is not good enough for a team with so much talent, they have two years to build a squad for the 2018 World Cup, could we see the likes of Gabigol and Jesus become regulars within the squad? A new era seems to be on the horizon.

These players will be in the senior squad after the Olympics I think. Brazil is short on attacking talent and Gabigol will certainly be in the senior squad come September, Gabriel Jesus probably will be too because the squad is very short on good centre-forwards. Those two, Luan, the left-back Douglas Santos and a defender / defensive midfielder called Rodrigo Caio will all come into the squad. Only injury has stopped Rodrigo from moving to Europe (he failed a medical at Valencia last summer, but Lazio are interested now).

Brazil have appointed a very good coach in Tite. But the days of ‘jogo bonito’ are gone. Brazil doesn’t really have the players for that anymore, they tend to develop kids for the European game, they want them to be physical and strong so that academies can sell them to European clubs as quickly as possible. Tite is a coach that focuses on organisation and discipline. He is good, but you won’t see beautiful football. The future is actually quite bleak because the talent pool is shallower than it has ever been and the CBF have little to no appetite for change. There is little to no interest in the national side anymore due to the decrease in quality and the team’s association with the CBF, which is routinely despised by Brazilian football fans. There is a big sense of hopelessness, not least with the predictable stories of corruption in the CBF. I don’t think Brazil will be a major player as an international side again for a long time, maybe never again.

Apart from the names mentioned, who else should European clubs be monitoring closely, any other talents making a breakthrough?

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I have a lot of time for Thiago Maia, a 19-year-old defensive midfielder at Santos who will play at the Olympics. He came into the Santos team aged 17 and he is very accomplished. I think the Atlético Mineiro left-back Douglas Santos will move to Europe too. He is 22 and already had a poor spell at Udinese, but he has rebuilt his career. He is a very modern, technically accomplished left-back. Luan at Grêmio is a late bloomer, he is 23, but I think he will be in Europe soon. He can play as a false 9, as a number 10 or in the wide positions in a front 3. He’s a very modern attacker.

Lastly, what is your opinion on South American football? There has been a wider audience interested in recent seasons, do you think the attraction is bigger and is on the up?

I really enjoy South American football, but you have to see it for what it is. The play is not the same, it is not as fast or accomplished as the Premier League. But I love it for its chaos. Tactically, it’s very chaotic and things happen in the South American game that would never happen in Europe. Fights between managers and players, lights going out in stadiums, teams turning up late is a regular occurrence due to awful traffic. It’s utter chaos at times. If the Premier League is seeing U2 at the 02 Arena, South American football is watching a punk band without a label in a small moshpit somewhere. It’s very spit and sawdust and hugely unpredictable. The structure is so tumultuous and any team that has a good season has its best players picked off by European clubs. So teams that win the league one year can fight relegation the next and vice versa. One good signing can see you move from 14th or fighting for the title.

I’m not sure interest will ever grow significantly, but there is greater access to it through the internet for instance. Most Europeans that watch do so through marital or ancestoral links. My wife is from Brazil, which is how I got into it. I think the Premier League and the Champions League are too big and all consuming and South America doesn’t have the money or the structures to ever compete with that. I’d compare it to lower league football really, there will always be a niche interest, but probably not enough to see it grow significantly.