A Brazilian Soccer Mine Strikes Gold at Last

A Brazilian Soccer Mine Strikes Gold at Last

A Brazilian Soccer Mine Strikes Gold at Last

A Brazilian Soccer Mine Strikes Gold at Last

CURITIBA, Brazil — In many ways, there is nothing extraordinary about Renan Lodi. A defender at the Spanish soccer club Atlético Madrid, Lodi is among the hundreds of Brazilian players who have crossed the Atlantic to play for European clubs in elite competitions like the Champions League.

More than 50 Brazilians, in fact, have played in the final. Lodi, 22, hopes to join that group later this month, when Atlético Madrid and seven other top teams gather in Portugal for the pandemic-delayed completion of this year’s tournament.

But while Lodi is still three wins from lifting the trophy, his European odyssey has already proven profitable for the company that discovered him at an out-of-the-way soccer school when he was 13. It has also validated a curious business project built around early investments in a precious, and plentiful, Brazilian export: soccer talent.

Since the 1970s, the Stival family has run a successful food supply business, one of the biggest of its kind in southern Brazil, from the southern city Curitiba. About 15 years ago, the family turned its attention to soccer. Like millions of Brazilian families, the Stivals are passionate fans of the game. But they could not help but notice how soccer players had increasingly become commodities, bought and sold for millions of dollars, just like the tons of beans, rice and grains that the Stivals traded every week.

If players had become commodities, the Stivals reasoned, surely they could find a way to make money trading them, too.

“The idea was to invest in this business because Brazil always makes money in this business,” Rafael Stival said in an interview last year, four months before Lodi joined the exodus of more than 300 soccer players who swapped Brazil for overseas leagues in 2019.

Sitting in his office at Trieste Futebol Clube — the amateur team in Curitiba that serves as the base for his soccer interests — Stival, a burly man with dark hair and a rich baritone voice, described how after early hiccups and countless errors he had fashioned a business out of scouring Brazil for the youngest talents, nurturing them briefly at Trieste and then getting them signed by the country’s elite professional clubs at the earliest opportunity.

To Stival, who runs the family’s soccer operation, investing in young players is a long-term bet, a process he likened to planting seeds that will one day grow into fruit-bearing trees. And Lodi is his biggest success to date.

Spotted in 2012 by one of Stival’s scouts at a soccer school in the interior of São Paulo state (population: 44 million), Lodi, then 13, was invited to travel to Curitiba for closer inspection. He performed well enough to be signed to Stival’s amateur program before moving on to live at the training center of Athletico Paranaense shortly after his 14th birthday.

Last summer, at 21, he made the move to Europe, in a deal that was notable for its size (16 million euros, or just over $18.8 million) but also for its destination, Atlético Madrid, one of the continent’s best clubs.

In an interview from Spain, Lodi said he remembered those early days in Trieste well: the loneliness, the fear, the nightly calls with his father during which he would beg to come home.

But he also remembered how he ate better at Trieste and, later, Paranaense than he ever had at home, and also how his soccer skills were always about more than a professional career. His feet would determine the future for an entire family mired in poverty, something that even a 13-year-old could understand.

“I always put that goal in my head, you know?” he said after a recent training session. “I said to myself: ‘I’m going to be the father of the family. I’m going to chase my dreams, and I’m going to try to give them a better condition ahead in the future.’”

Last year’s transfer fulfilled that dream, but it also finally produced a major payday for Stival, who got a 30 percent cut (about 4.8 million euros, or about $5.6 million) of the transfer fee.

Payments like that are the key to Stival’s soccer ambitions, and the reason he signs dozens of young players and then quickly moves them on to one of the bigger clubs with which he has had development agreements: the more seeds he plants, the better his chances of seeing one bear fruit.

Lodi’s transfer to Madrid represented only the second transaction of a player discovered by the Stival operation since it started in 2005. But in that one deal, Rafael Stival said, the family recouped more than half of its total investment.

Stival said he expected the rate of sales to grow now that dozens of his recruits had moved up the soccer food chain. More than 100 players who were once on Trieste’s books are now registered with professional teams, with most at Athletico Paranaense or the Rio de Janeiro giant Flamengo. Both clubs have had partnership agreements that gave them the first right of refusal on Trieste players.

Stival has a separate agreement with Trieste, a successful amateur team set up by Italian immigrants in 1937. In exchange for investing a considerable sum in its facilities, his family has the right to use the club as a base for his soccer business for 20 years, a contract that expires in 2025. That investment also allows Stival to get a cut of the transfer fees because, under international transfer regulations, only teams can profit from player sales.

Still, there has been a learning curve. Stival’s initial business plan focused on older boys, those who needed just a little extra focus to get them ready for professional contracts. It did not take long for Stival to realize the plan’s biggest flaw. “They would go missing at night,” he said, letting out a deep breath. “A total mess. We had to learn.”

His revised plan — turning his focus from 18- and 19-year-olds to boys as young as 11 or 12 — would require more patience.

“When we entered we thought we would make money within two years,” Stival said. “Now it’s 14 years and we haven’t recovered our expenses yet.”

Sitting beneath seven large maps of Brazilian states, Stival explained how the players are discovered. About half a dozen scouts — including Stival — go on monthslong missions deep into Brazil’s interior and watch hundreds of players at a time. Tips about local prodigies come from a network of local coaches, schoolteachers and others, a grapevine that has led Stival to some of the most remote parts of the country, including, on at least one occasion, an Indigenous reserve.

The best players are invited to Trieste for a trial that can last as long as two weeks. Local laws and age restrictions designed to prevent the trafficking of children mean the majority of the players cannot stay on the club’s campus, so families immediately face difficult decisions. Some move hundreds, or even thousands, of miles to accompany a child, lured by the hope of the life-changing opportunities that could follow if the trial is a success. But the plan, at least from Stival’s side, is always for a short stay.

“Our idea is to discover talent,” Stival said. “We don’t want to keep a player from 10 to 20. We want to get him into a club and continue. A kid who is 10, 11, 12, 13 — who has conditions to live close — we will take.

“It’s very quick here: Every day that they spend with us is a cost to us.”

For five years, Trieste had an exclusive agreement with Athletico Paranaense, one of two top professional teams in Curitiba, a city of 1.8 million. More than 60 players, including Lodi, had moved through Trieste to the Athletico facilities, now among the best in Brazil, before the contract was abruptly ended in 2018. Athletico Paranaense, its president said in a WhatsApp message, had simply decided to bring the bulk of its scouting and youth development in-house.

Stival’s disappointment was short-lived. Less than 24 hours later, he said, officials from Flamengo arrived in his office to talk terms. A deal was signed, and now Trieste’s best prospects flow to Rio instead.

Last year, however, disaster struck. A fire ripped through a temporary dormitory at Flamengo’s training facility that housed a clutch of young hopefuls, killing 10, including three boys who had come through Trieste. The deaths brought a belated focus on how Brazil, the world’s biggest exporter of soccer talent, cares for the thousands of boys and young men who enter the soccer pipeline hoping to overcome the odds.

Disturbing examples quickly emerged at other clubs — cramped dormitories, dangerous conditions, poor supervision — and the authorities closed down the worst offenders and promised more oversight.

In Trieste, though, something strange happened. Hopeful parents, now aware of the club’s link to Flamengo’s youth academy, began to get in touch. Could the club, they asked, run the ruler over their sons, too?

Stival could only shake his head at the time. A year later, with the income from Lodi banked, Trieste’s operations continue to expand. Flamengo has recruited more than 30 of Stival’s players to its youth ranks in the last 18 months, and those who can’t find a place there are sent elsewhere. His investments, he hopes, may yet produce another big payday.

On a recent afternoon, Stival switched on his television and came upon a broadcast of Atlético Madrid playing a Spanish league game. Working up and down the left flank was Lodi, now a rising star, living the dream of countless Brazilian teenagers. For the Stival family, he represented something else: proof of concept — a successful business plan in the form of a rampaging left back.

Should Lodi and Atlético make a deep run in the Champions League this month, Stival may see another return on his investment. As part of Lodi’s sale last year, Athletico Paranaense negotiated a bonus payment of 3 million euros (about $3.5 million) based on his performances in Spain.

Manuela Andreoni contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

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