Manchester United have a rich history with South American players, with the continent producing some genuine club legends and cult heroes.
Academy players will naturally always have the most significant relationship with the Manchester United crowd; but after them, perhaps no other player demographic has quite won the hearts of the Old Trafford faithful the way those who have crossed the Atlantic ocean have.
In the past, players such as twins Rafael and Fabio da Silva, Gabriel Heinze, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, Antonio Valencia, Diego Forlán, and Edinson Cavani have been held in high regard by the Old Trafford faithful – and some are still sung about even to this day.
Footballing cultures in South America and England vastly differ, but there has always been a huge level of mutual respect between them. Socioeconomic and historic factors play a huge part in creating this mutual respect.
To begin to understand this relationship we must understand the context of the time in which Manchester United was created, and who it was created by. Newton Heath LYR was founded in 1878 by members of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath, initially only playing against fellow railway sides.
The formation of this club came during the industrial revolution in England, a time when Manchester was nicknamed ‘Cottonopolis’, inspired by the city being the global epicentre of cotton production at the time. It is a city built on industry – the world’s first industrial city – and this is reflected in the social values of the people who live there. This is true for much of the north of England.
Sean Dyche once said, speaking on the High-Performance Podcast, that when he interviewed with Lancashire-based Burnley for the manager’s job, he said that he may not be able to guarantee beautiful football but one thing he would guarantee is that players would ‘put sweat on the shirt’.
He explained that knowing the socioeconomic history and values of the region, the fans would want to see before anything the players working hard and giving their all and he felt this is what would get through to the club, to get him the job. This is relevant to Manchester United too, with the core of the fanbase being made up of a similar demographic.
You may wonder, what does any of this have to do with South American football? Sometimes we talk about players living for football. Maybe after a particularly hard-fought performance, the term ‘played as though their life depended on it’ is used. For many South Americans, their life does, in fact, completely depend on it.
South Americans love football.
In fact, saying they love it feels like an injustice to their true feelings about football. It is ingrained deep into the culture in that part of the world, a hugely important part of their society. It is also how many escape very difficult lives.
Latin America is also, alongside sub-Saharan Africa, the most economically divided region in the world. Income inequality is incredibly steep in these countries, many of which are already poorer or economically unstable countries.
The Gini coefficient is a measure of income distribution across a population, based on household income. The range of the coefficient is between 0 and 100, a higher figure indicates greater inequality. Whilst the coefficient has its limitations, and may not give a totally accurate representation of income distribution, it is generally considered the most accurate measure of income inequality.
In Latin America, the top 10% of the population own around 54% of income, as stated in a study by LSE.
When looking at Gini coefficients by using data via the World Bank between 2010-2019 (the COVID-19 pandemic years exacerbated income inequality for a multitude of reasons so were omitted), and data for Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and the UK, The Latin American countries were all far higher every year.
These countries mostly averaged between 40 and 50, compared to the UK scoring between 32.6 and 33.7. The Gini coefficients for Brazil and Colombia in this period of time almost exclusively ranked above 50. This should give you an idea of how divided the region is.
Many now-footballers grew up on the lower end of this economic divide that exists. If you read some of the stories detailed in The Players’ Tribune, you will get an idea of the level of poverty that some of these players faced, and understand the environment they grew up in, as well as the sacrifices that were made both by them and also their families and the people around them to get them into football.
We know about the culture of street football in this part of the world, and how players have taken this style – in some ways an art form – and put it on display for the entire world to see. We all know the term “Joga Bonito”, translating from Portuguese as ‘Play Beautifully’. This was popularised by none other than the great Pelé himself.
But there are reasons why players are playing and developing on these streets in the first place. One of those reasons is this gap in income. If not for football many will never escape this, falling into lives far worse or even losing their lives entirely in some cases.
Fans see a lot of passion in the game of South American players. As well as the beauty in their play, there is a level of fight and intensity that stands out on the pitch.
The aforementioned Casemiro and Martínez are perfect examples of this – with the latter even earning the nickname “The Butcher”. When they are on the pitch for United, they leave absolutely everything on the line.
The same goes for the likes of Alejandro Garnacho, Fred, and Facundo Pellistri: because it took everything to get them there. Many South American players would consider it an insult to the struggles they faced, to their families who made such immense sacrifices, to not give everything they had.
United fans see this passion, this love, this desire, and it goes reciprocated, thus creating a truly special kind of bond between the South American players and the fans.
On one side you have a club born through industrialism and playing in a region characterised by it– they live and breathe football. On the other, you have a demographic of players who had to fight for their lives to get to where they are, and who possess a love for the game incredibly pure in nature. Linking back to what Dyche said, these players put sweat on the shirt, and usually some blood, too.
At the core of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’s respective philosophies, philosophies that have defined Manchester United for generations, was the idea that fans pay money that they work incredibly hard to earn to come and watch their teams play, and so the players should recognise that and repay them by working hard and giving them beautiful football to watch. The South Americans are the players who make this a reality maybe more so than any others.
That is why Old Trafford loves South Americans.
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