Bob Ley on OTL’s exploration of Brazil’s deep soccer talent pool

“Outside The Lines” host Bob Ley interviews Betinho, the scout that discovered Brazilian soccer icon Neymar. (Nancy Devaney/ESPN)

Brazil, host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup beginning in June, is known for developing elite, homegrown soccer talent.

What’s the secret? The Sunday edition of ESPN’s Outside The Lines (9 a.m. ET) explores that question. For 10 days in March, host/reporter Bob Ley, feature producer Nancy Devaney and a three-man crew from DGA Productions in Boston combed four cities in Brazil looking for answers.

Bob Ley

In the feature, a talent scout recalls the moment he first saw Neymar, the two-time South American Footballer of the Year, displaying potential world-class soccer talent. Neymar was six years old.

The ESPN team worked with DGA’s Aaron Frutman, Michael Andrus and Jeremy Bond as well as local “fixer” Daniel Henrique to capture interviews in Sao Paulo, Porto Felize, Rio, and Nova Iguacu.

For Ley and Devaney especially, these pursuits of World Cup stories are old hat but still inspiring.

“Nancy and I had been in Brazil in 2012 for a first look story at Brazilian World Cup preparations, and she had returned last year to produce several stories,” Ley said. “Nancy and I made two trips to South Africa in 2009 and 2010 to report in advance of that World Cup, as well.”

Ley shared more background on how the Sunday OTL episode unfolded with Front Row.

How did the idea for this story come about?
We wanted to build on our story from 2012, but take our focus from the big picture of preparations to that most valued commodity – Brazilian soccer talent, especially at young ages. It is a vital social issue there – how young players are identified, recruited, signed, and developed.

Brazilian star Neymar was discovered by an olheiro (scout) while playing on a beach. Does that happen often in Brazil?
The very scout who discovered Neymar told us that competitive soccer there actually begins at the age of five – and kids feel the pressure of adult expectations. There are stories of kids found before the age of 10 – and of major adult players who were rejected from numerous tryouts before finally sticking and making their name and fortune. It is very much a story of class and resources; there is an exploding middle class in Brazil, but football is the game of the lower classes – to play, seriously.


How does Brazil’s soccer club development system work?
There are a variety of ways young talented players are identified and signed in a nation of more than 800 professional clubs. These clubs hold peneiras (literally “sieves” – or tryouts) at which anyone can sign up to show their abilities. The best of the lot may be offered a chance to join an under-11 or under-13 team and begin to climb the ladder.

There are scouts – olheiros – who watch at schools and very young teams for standout talent. Teachers have been known to call and tip scouts and clubs about young, undiscovered players. All promising players – even though it’s not permitted legally – have a “manager” or “agent” – who will represent their interests to youth clubs and try to make the best deal, and guide their career.

The newest model is found several hours outside Sao Paulo in the town of Porto Feliz, where Desportivo Brazil operates three youth clubs (and no senior team) with the single purpose of developing players and selling them to Brazilian and European clubs. You have situations where 14, 15-year old kids earn perhaps $40 or $80 (U.S.) a month, which often means they earn more than their parents.

You traveled to Brazil for a World Cup story in 2012. How did this trip compare in terms of the country being so close to WC?
There are many concerns about the full infrastructure being satisfactorily finished in the next month. Domestic air travel may be a challenge. Just this week, an International Olympic Committee official called Rio’s preparations for the 2016 Olympics to be the worst he had seen; that’s the sort of frank language you almost never hear from the IOC, and in fact within several days he had to walk that statement back – but his views had circled the earth by then.

The pressure on Brazil to finish all contracted and promised World Cup projects has taken on a political cast, with those expectations being portrayed by some local politicians as undue external pressure that diverts resources from the needs of Brazilian citizens. Those statements follow the highly visible demonstrations last summer (which have continued sporadically since then and may certainly flare up again next month) which brought popular discontent with the Brazilian power structure to the fore.

When do you leave for Brazil for the tournament? What story are you watching most closely going into the World Cup?
I depart June 3 for 42 days; between the Men’s and Women’s World Cups, this will be my seventh tournament, and it never gets old. We will take the wraps off our remarkable Copacabana Beach studio on June 7, to introduce viewers to it as we host the USA versus Nigeria farewell match in Jacksonville from our perch in front of Sugar Loaf Mountain and the sweeping beach views.

Obviously, the USA’s chances in Group G – The Group of Death – will captivate so much of our coverage, but I’m fascinated to see several other storylines develop: Argentina’s drive to win a third Cup, and do so in Brazil; is Spain hungry and young enough still to possibly repeat?; will Germany’s promise find traction after a disappointing European Championship showing two years ago?

Of course, we will watch the Selecao, the Brazilian team, because they are the heartbeat of the month-long tournament.

Bill Hofheimer contributed to this post.

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