For several years a dispiriting pattern has emerged in Latin American football, with the continent’s finest young talents leaving to make their names in the European game.

From Maradona to Ronaldo and other heroes of times gone by, to modern superstars Lionel Messi and Neymar, a succession of world famous names started out with a trip across the Atlantic in search of footballing fame and the riches that come as a result.

In particular, South American powerhouses Brazil and Argentina have long been associated with producing some of the world’s best players, but why is it that they so often choose to leave at the first opportunity, and what can be done to stop the continent’s footballing exodus?

The Globalization of Sports

In a globalized world, a concentration of the best talent in a few small areas is to be expected in any industry. This is slowly becoming the case with football, as European clubs pull away from the rest in terms of quality and financial muscle. Because of this, it’s natural that the best players from all over the world will gravitate towards the top divisions in England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany. With each passing year the problem is perpetuated, and the best sides in South America have now become little more than talent pools for wealthy clubs across the Atlantic.

On the one hand, if the wages in South America’s domestic leagues could rival those in Europe, clubs would have more chance of holding onto their best homegrown players. Unfortunately this is too simplistic a view. Even the continent’s most affluent leagues in Brazil and Argentina are awash with club debt, poor organization, decaying infrastructure and fan violence. Until domestic governing bodies take charge and make their leagues more hospitable, the trend of players looking to leave at the first opportunity will continue. There have been suggestions that European leagues could introduce salary caps, in the way that is commonplace in North American soccer, which could in turn help to narrow the gap and make top teams in England and Spain less appealing. However this is in all likelihood a complete non-starter. Parity has never been a popular concept in European football; it’s a dog-eat-dog world where money talks and the best clubs pay the going rate for the players they want.

There are perhaps two silver linings for South American football.

First, national teams across the continent are experiencing an unprecedented strength in depth. The likes of Colombia and Chile, who recently celebrated their first Copa America win, are beginning to challenge heavyweights Brazil and Argentina on a regular basis. This is in part because of more and more of their players learning from the world’s best in European leagues. There’s also solace to be found in the fact that those who leave in their youth tend to return in the twilight of their careers, once money and ambition are no longer influential factors. The emergence of this new pattern, of old heroes returning to the clubs where they spent their formative years, could be one of the continent’s best ways of developing its domestic game. The likes of Carlos Tevez heading back could inspire the next generation to stick around a little longer.