North American millionaire John Textor was greeted like the messiah last week when he landed in Rio de Janeiro to take over one of Brazil‘s most famous clubs.
Botafogo supplied many of the big names to the World Cup winning teams of 1958, 1962 and 1970 — the mighty Garrincha, for example, and his successor Jairzinho, midfield general Didi and immaculate left-back Nilton Santos, after whom their stadium is named. But few players of anywhere near that stature have worn the famous black and white stripes in recent years. True, Botafogo have just won promotion back to the first division but, since their last national league win in 1995 they have become also-rans, drowning in debts that have threatened the very existence of the club.
Desperate measures have brought about changes, with Botafogo taking advantage of a new law making it easier for clubs to turn into businesses. Instead of the traditional model of a social club with the president elected by members, Botafogo now have an owner, with Textor set to confirm the deal giving him 90% of the shares.
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There is an obvious question here; this is now undeniably a business. So where is the return going to come from?
The early signs are clear. Rather than making money from Brazilian football, it seems more likely that Textor plans to make money from Brazilian footballers.
Textor is putting together a global portfolio of clubs. He has an 80% stake in Molenbeek in the Belgian second division, he owns 40% of Crystal Palace in the Premier League, and he is currently negotiating to buy a stake in Portuguese giants Benfica.
This would seem to be a new idea in multi-club ownership. There is no obvious “top of the pyramid” club, in the way that Manchester City head the City Group. That may well be because the objective — the main point of return — is to sell players to the likes of Man City.
Talents can be developed in Brazil, funnelled through Belgium and perhaps Portugal, and then if they shine at Palace they are targets for the giants of the Premier League — and it is here that some of the biggest transfer fees are paid.
A clue that this is the plan comes from the recruitment of journalist Raphael Rezende as the head of scouting. Rezende stands out for the calm of his analyses, uncontaminated by excesses of nationalism. Where many hanker after more Brazilian based players in the national team, Rezende patiently explains why they find it such a step up, that top class football requires quicker decision making and execution. He has a good eye, and an eye for the type of player who can succeed in Europe.
If this, then, is the Textor project, can it be damned as asset stripping? Not necessarily.
— Juan Arango (@JuanG_Arango) January 14, 2022
This would seem to be the most rational project for a contemporary South American football club. On a grand scale, it is essentially the model followed by Botafogo’s giant Rio rivals, Flamengo. They develop and sell youngsters to Europe — Vinicius Junior, Lucas Paqueta, Reinier — to finance a deep squad featuring two types of player coming back from Europe; veterans coming home after successful careers on the other side of the Atlantic, and those in their mid 20s who have not been able to establish themselves in Europe. When Flamengo played the final of the Copa Libertadores in late November, not a single member of the starting line up was under 25.
Some of the proceeds of sales of Botafogo players, then, can be recycled into the team — and in order to shine those young stars benefit from being part of a competitive unit. So it is in Textor’s interests to ensure that the side is stronger than it has been in recent years. But can it fulfil the dream of the fans and lead to titles? This is more complicated.
It is likely that one of the models for Textor is the Ecuadorian club Independiente del Valle. A tiny side from the outskirts of Quito, they were taken over by a businessman 15 years ago and embarked on a project to develop and sell players. They have been remarkably successful — and, to their own surprise, along the way they found out that they could also compete for honours. They knocked out both River Plate and Boca Juniors on the way to the final of the 2016 Copa Libertadores, they won the Copa Sudamericana in 2019 and last year — while selling players during the course of the campaign — they won their first ever Ecuadorian championship.
So the two things — selling players and winning titles — can be done together. It is much harder in Brazil, though, where the competition is provided by giant outfits such as Flamengo, Palmeiras and Atletico Mineiro.
And there is something else. Independiente del Valle have a small support base. Their numbers are growing, but there is no glorious past against which to compare the present day. This is the best it has ever been.
That does not apply to Botafogo. Their fan base is not huge. It comes nowhere near that of Vasco da Gama, let alone Flamengo. But it is passionate and noisy, it has grown up on tales of genuine greatness and some of them are dreaming of conquests to come. This means that there are populist pressures around which could put strain on the relationship between Textor and the fans. Those who acclaimed him last week may turn against him in the future. The new era could be volatile.