Latin dreamers caught out in the passport game

Bureaucracy can offer safety net as South America's footballers turn to the Premiership
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The most common form of celebration in South American football is for the scorer to run to the crowd while kissing the club badge on his shirt. But such Latin passion is not built to last. Even while professing eternal love for his team, the South American player is already dreaming of a move to Europe. Five years ago his horizons were unlikely to extend beyond Serie A or La Liga. But talk travels fast in football's global village. Word got around that salaries were on the up in the Premiership and England has now joined Italy and Spain as one of the preferred destinations.

The most common form of celebration in South American football is for the scorer to run to the crowd while kissing the club badge on his shirt. But such Latin passion is not built to last. Even while professing eternal love for his team, the South American player is already dreaming of a move to Europe. Five years ago his horizons were unlikely to extend beyond Serie A or La Liga. But talk travels fast in football's global village. Word got around that salaries were on the up in the Premiership and England has now joined Italy and Spain as one of the preferred destinations.

But as Arsenal have found out this week, dribbling round the defence is no substitute for beating the bureaucrats. England remains a fortress for players from outside the European Community. Officially, the drawbridge only comes down for established internationals; the full entry requirement is for the player to have featured in 75 per cent of his country's games over the past two years. Since club commitments make this all but impossible, the authorities may use discretion. There were howls of protest last season when Celtic succeeded in obtaining a work permit for their Brazilian centre-back Rafael Scheidt. The Glasgow club was seen to have benefited from political contacts out of the reach of most English clubs.

Even Manchester United have been turned down, failing to get a permit three years ago for Celio Silva, another Brazilian defender.

Far better, then, to sign a player with a European passport. Many South Americans can trace their roots back to Europe, their ancestors members of the mass immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the various European countries have different requirements for granting citizenship. Italy is notoriously easy, Germany famously difficult, Portugal and Spain somewhere in between.

Edu, Arsenal's £6m signing from Corinthians, is not the first South American player to be turned back at the airport. This time last year Derby County signed the Argentinian striker Esteban Fuertes. He was refused re-admission to this country following a Rams training trip to Portugal, during which his Italian passport was identified as a fake. Jim Smith, who spent £2.3m on Fuertes, said: "We were informed that the lad's passport was a forgery and a very poor forgery at that."

Most of Europe has a more relaxed approach to the influx of non-EC players, but the controversy over faked documents threatens to have serious consequences in Italy, where many of the sides are stacked with South Americans. With three "outsiders" allowed per game, the clubs have a clear interest in equipping their players with EC passports. It is alleged that Lazio's Argentine midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron obtained Italian citizenship with false papers, and Lazio's Serie A title could even be called into question as a result.

Following Wednesday's events at Heathrow, some newspapers illustrated their story with a wrong photo. It was not Eduardo Cesar Gaspar of Corinthians, but another Edu, Luis Eduardo Schmidt of São Paulo, who was captured in action for Brazil's Under-23 team. Such lack of attention to detail is less forgivable from English clubs, whose ignorance of South America leaves them vulnerable to the actions of unscrupulous agents.

Manchester United were saved from their own folly when the bureaucrats stopped them buying Celio Silva in July 1997. A run of dismal performances saw the centre-back not so much dropped from the Brazilian team as hurled aside. His true market value had plummeted when United charged in with a £4.5m offer, and he has played little top-class football since the deal fell through.

Arsenal ought to have learned from their experience with Silvinho, a big-money signing from Corinthians a year ago. Marketed as Brazil's reserve left-back, Silvinho was well down the queue for an international place. But the Brazil coach, Wanderley Luxemburgo, used to coach Corinthians. At the first opportunity, Silvinho was drafted into the national squad.

Luxemburgo told a disbelieving press corps that Silvinho "was voted the best player in the entire English league in both of the first two rounds." In fact he had been on the bench for both. Silvinho's international debut came on the recent tour to Britain. As soon as they had gone back he was dropped. But the Arsenal left-back had been made to look important in front of an English audience, boosting the prestige of the agent who brought him over.

As always, the story of South American football is one of both sun and shadow. For all the sharp practice, it is undeniable that South America has made, and will continue to make, an enormous contribution to the European game.

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