There is no nation in world football which is synonymous with success quite like Brazil. The kits are iconic, the rich tapestry of players is unrivaled, and their influence on the modern game is unmatched.
Selection have won an unprecedented five World Cup titles and are the only country to have participated in every World Cup tournament there has ever been.
It is no surprise, then, that Manchester United were eager to get the first chance of signing the next generation of samba stars back in November 2008.
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The United team under Sir Alex Ferguson was already sprinkled with Brazilian talent in the shape of Anderson, the Da Silva twins and Rodrigo Possebon and club officials were eager to ensure they had first refusal on the next batch of South American starlets coming through.
Academy chief Brian McClair, former Academy boss Les Kershaw and South American recruitment officer John Calvert Toulmin put their minds together to set about searching for a feeder club they could work with in order to nurture the brightest young talent.
They would eventually link up with Desportivo Brasil, essentially an academy side, which had been set up by Traffic Group in 2005. Their business plan was simple, they aimed to develop the next generation of Brazilian talent at a multi-million-pound training base 120km east of Sao Paolo, making their money by retaining a hefty 50 per cent sell -on clause when they moved on.
The alliance with the club close to Sao Paulo was to use the same blueprint set down by the successful tie-up United had enjoyed with Royal Antwerp, where they sent a stream of academy hopefuls to ply their trade in European football.
United had previously established tie-ups around the globe with Brommapojkarna in Sweden, Oslo Ost in Norway, Parramatta Eagles in Australia, FC Fortune in South Africa and Nantes in France, to name a few. However, none of the links provided a success and they were all ditched.
In order to try and make this venture a success, United would send coaches out to help Desportivo, whose head consultant was Brazil’s World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, progress their youth system and would then have first-choice of the pick of the South Americans coming through their ranks, though Brazilian players were not allowed to sign for a foreign club until the age of 18.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for our coaches and academy players,” chief executive David Gill said of the partnership.
“They will gain invaluable knowledge and experience from Desportivo. Brazilian football has always been consistent, and we already have a strong Brazilian contingent at the club. This will forge an even stronger relationship.”
Due to confidentiality agreements, the identities of the 100-plus players were not made public, though it was understood that United only had options on about half a dozen of the very best. Despite the scarce details, rumours quickly spread as players began to head to Carrington for training opportunities and others spent time with FC Twente, who were used as a holding club until players were able to obtain an EU passport or work permit.
Agnaldo and Rafael Leao were the first two players to head over to United, and they later returned alongside Gladestony, Bruno Gomes, Aguilar and Lucas Evangelista.
The six starlets would soon grab national attention when they were pictured in the Old Trafford directors’ box, watching United face Bolton in the Premier League, sitting a few rows behind then-England manager Fabio Capello.
“These are wonderful memories,” Evangelista told The Mirror of the experience. “At the time I was between 16 and 17 years old and I was having the opportunity to be a part of one of the biggest clubs in the world.
“The structure was spectacular, their treatment was incredible, which made me feel comfortable immediately. It was something that impressed me a lot.
“It was a dream we were living. All of us who were part of this partnership were still very young, and having that unique opportunity was remarkable.”
While a chance to train with United was enough of a dream come true for the majority of the youngsters, highly-rated striker Gomes was aiming even higher.
At the time, he told reporters, “My goal is to become top scorer in the league, being the first Brazilian to do so, while also to be English champion and to win the Champions League.”
“It was nice. [Ferguson] is a legend in Manchester, where everyone respects him and to be close to him was great. In fact, he only asked about my position and if I spoke English. Then he talked with the club representative who took me to Manchester.”
The one who came closest to joining the United squad was defensive midfielder Leao, who was signed on loan to strengthen the academy squad, with an option to make the deal permanent.
Leao had regularly visited Manchester to train two or three times a year in three-week spells, but was only allowed to be registered as a loan signing once he had turned 18.
The teenager impressed with the manner in which he adapted to the English game so quickly, something he puts down to the warm welcome he received from the fellow Portuguese speakers at the club.
“We had lunch at the club after training, I got my food and then Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at my table. He came over, he said ‘how are you? What’s your name? Where are you from?’
“’Here is the new Brazilian!’, because Rafael and Fabio had spoken about me. ‘I love Brazilians!’
“He told me, ‘if you need any help, you can tell me, I wish you all the best here in Manchester’. It was such an amazing memory in my life.”
Ronaldo wasn’t the only one looking to help the Brazilian settle either, with compatriots Rafael and Fabio going the extra step, by literally opening their doors to him.
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“I stayed in England for one season at first, then Manchester said to me, you will go and stay with an English family just for learning things about England, the language, how the people are.
“I said, ‘OK’, but I told Rafael and Fabio about it and they said, ‘no! We will go to speak to the club, you will come and stay with us’.
“It was fantastic for me, because we all spoke Portuguese, ate Brazilian food. They really took care of me, it was a big support they gave to me. It was great.
“I didn’t know anything about England, so they helped me a lot to adapt, and they are just an amazing family.”
He was impressed during his time in the youth team alongside Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba, but due to work permit issues, it was difficult to agree to a permanent deal.
In order to stay in English football, United would have had to loan Leao out to a lower league club, a risk which Ferguson didn’t want him to take at such a young age.
At the end of the season he was back off to Brazil along with Gladestony and Evangelista who both opted to join Sao Paulo.
Agnaldo wouldn’t return to South America though.
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By the time his United spell was up former United reserve manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge of Molde and looking for young talent to strengthen his side with.
“The same guy who brought me from Brazil to United knew Ole Gunnar and Ole knew me from Man United,” I explained. “They both talked, they decided they wanted me at Molde and I signed for them.
“I didn’t see too much of him at Man United but when I was at Molde, I loved to play forward.
“He would always say go, drive the ball, go one against one, and he was always looking at how to score goals.
“He was that type of coach, I loved that, and in Brazil you have almost the same. The coaches let us be free to do what we want, and that’s the best thing as a player.”
Of all the players who would train with United as part of the partnership, it was the youngest, Gomes, who was the most notable. He had shot to prominence, having scored more than 130 goals in three seasons at youth level and, as a result, was linked to a host of the world’s biggest clubs.
There were suggestions the teenager was set to be taken on United’s pre-season tour and be signed when he hit his 18th birthday, only for Ferguson’s sudden retirement to see the deal collapse.
“I never heard of this story,” Gomes says. “If, in fact, it was true, I feel honoured.
“The only information I had at that time was that Manchester had the priority for any proposals. At the time, other clubs made some offers to Desportivo Brasil, and United didn’t want to cover the cost.
“I don’t know the reason. Maybe for my age, or even Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Who knows?
United’s partnership with Desportivo Brasil ended shortly after Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 with Gomes venturing back to his homeland where he was quickly snapped up by Internacional.
He, like Agnaldo, Gladestony, Aguilar and Lucas Evangelista would enjoy a subsequent career in football while Leao would eventually give up the game he loved in order to focus on a career in law.
None of the starlets would ever reach the heights of playing for a team like United again but a decade on from arriving in England they serve as a timely reminder of how difficult it is to fulfill such high potential.
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