Atletico Mineiro won the Brazilian league and cup double last year, and they recently added the Super Copa too. But the player who has been attracting most interest from the European press was not even on the substitutes’ bench.
Seventeen-year-old winger Savio — often referred to in the affectionate diminutive as Savinho — appears to be on his way to Manchester City ahead of Arsenal for around €7 million, with a likely loan move to another club in the City Football Group to follow. City can’t sign him quite yet as he can only leave Brazil once he reaches 18, but the teenager is considered one of the top prospects the country has to offer.
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The Savio story is indicative of how the global transfer market has changed when it comes to South American-based players. If a player has reached the age of 23, their options are already restricted. Now European clubs want to sign teenagers. They want to take them across the Atlantic as early as possible, blood them in a more intense, compact style of football, and quickly get them adapted to life in another culture.
One of the main drivers in this process was clearly Real Madrid’s €45m acquisition of Vinicius Junior back in 2016. He had just turned 16 and had yet to play a senior game for Flamengo, yet Madrid paid out a huge sum to land him. It seemed an insane gamble; a club bidding over the odds in reaction to missing out on Neymar when he joined Barcelona from Santos in 2013. Six years later, Madrid’s move for Vinicius looks like a bargain. Now 21, he is well established as a fundamental part of the team, is one of the most exciting young players in Europe, and has 30 goals and 33 assists from his 152 games to date.
Might Savio be on the same path towards global stardom? The answer is so obvious that it might come across as trite, but it is too early to say. However, this is a gamble which big European clubs are prepared to take.
He is a mirror image of Vinicius — a left-footed winger who likes to cut in from the right — and there has been a buzz around him for a while after starring for Brazil at youth level. He has been in and around the Atletico Mineiro first-team squad since he was 16 and, with his sustained pace, fine ball skills and changes of rhythm, he is full of promise.
There is, of course, a long and winding road between promise and reality. And there is an obvious problem if he does make the move after he turns 18 in April: how many opportunities will he get? After all, the City Football Group have already signed a player in the same position with similar characteristics: 18-year-old Kayky, who arrived from Fluminense for €10m last summer.
Slighter of build than Savio, but another left footer with sinuous dribbling skills who favours the right flank, Kayky has spent most of his time playing in the Premier League 2 since his arrival. When the big clubs stockpile young players, there is not enough space for everyone and is an issue that players joining a club like City will have to contend with.
Fluminense are a club who have been kept afloat by the excellence of their youth development work, but Kayky is not the only wide striker the club have made a profit from letting go. Marcos Paulo moved to Atletico Madrid for around €7m, and is currently on loan at Famalicao in Portugal; Joao Pedro left for €4m to join Watford. And now they have a new star.
Luiz Henrique has just turned 20 but is already an important player in the Fluminense first team and was a strong candidate to be considered the revelation of last year’s Brazilian Championship. Tall, strong and increasingly versatile, Luiz Henrique is yet another inverted winger — a left footer operating on the right — and is surely destined for a big move before long.
There is a trend here. With deep defensive lines in Brazil, there is space, especially on the flanks, for these types of wingers to pick up possession and accelerate with the ball to cut inside on to their stronger foot. One of the reasons that the European teams want to sign them so early is to take them out of this comfort zone and force them to grow in a type of football where real estate is not so plentiful.
Savio, Kayky, Luiz Henrique, plus 17-year-old Angelo of Santos, the youngest scorer in the history of the Copa Libertadores, are all fine examples. Angelo, in particular, is pure talent and comes from a club that has rebounded strongly in the current century as a consequence of giving youth a chance.
The current Santos crop is especially exciting, though the club’s well-documented financial problems mean that they are having to grow up fast. Their 18-year-old striker Marcos Leonardo is a squat figure who excels in the tight spaces of the penalty area. There are a couple of 19-year-old midfielders: Gabriel Pirani is an attacking midfielder of interesting fluidity, while Sandry, now recovered from injury problems, is a highly promising all-rounder. Behind them, 18-year-old centre-back Kaiky is a defender of genuine class, quick over the ground and comfortable in possession. He has clear traits of PSG and Brazil superstar Marquinhos and Barcelona have reportedly agreed a first option to sign both him and Angelo.
This generation of Brazilian talent have grown up globalised. Two decades ago, talented kids had dreams of starring for their local sides, but now their sights are set on the European giants.
Possibly the most exciting player of them all, the 15-year-old Endrick of Palmeiras, for example, admits to an affinity with Real Madrid. Endrick was the star of this year’s Sao Paulo Junior Cup — five years younger than many of the players, but five steps ahead of many of his opponents — and is already accustomed to being on the back pages of the Spanish sports papers. A diminutive left-footed striker whose talent looks dazzlingly complete, he can’t even sign a professional contract until he turns 16 in July but it is almost certain that he will be on his way to Europe two years later.
However, Endrick can look to a teammate for a cautionary tale. Palmeiras winger Gabriel Veron is only 19 and still has plenty of time to come good, but two years ago it looked as if he would already be a global star by now as he was being linked with Manchester United, Manchester City and a host of other top sides in Europe. Injuries struck and held back his development, showing that for any young Brazilian star, the path to greatness is seldom smooth.