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Soccer stars return to booming Brazil

By James Montague, CNN
  • Brazilian international Robinho returns to his home club Santos to a hero's welcome
  • He will be joined in the Brasileirão by a host of stars like Ronaldo and Adriano
  • President Lula da Silva, a huge soccer fan, passed laws in 2003 to clean up the game
  • Brazil's booming economy has been credited for the revival in the domestic league

London, England (CNN) -- As befits a returning prodigal son, Robinho's entrance was anything but understated.

Thousands of Santos fans crammed in to the Estadio Vila Belmiro in São Paulo state to watch a private helicopter drop out of the sky.

Manchester City's $51 million striker -- the most expensive player in English Premier League history -- stepped out on to the pristine pitch to embrace another famous Santos son: Pele.

A few years ago, with the domestic game riddled with corruption and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, the return of a Brazilian star from Europe would have been seen as a failure; an inexorable sign of declining talent, but not anymore.

Robinho, a first choice for the Brazilian national team, is just one of a host of stars who have decided to return to the Brazilian soccer league.

Three-time FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldo, as well as seasoned European performers like Roberto Carlos, Adriano and Fred all now appear in the Brasileirão, underlining what some commentators see as a growing sense of self-confidence in the game that is emblematic of an economically booming Brazil.

The Real [currency] is really strong and that is ... helping players come back
--Alex Bellos, author of "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life".

"Domestic football was a total mess," explains Alex Bellos, author of "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life" as well as the ghost writer of Pele's 2006 autobiography. "There were so many different competitions.

It meant that some teams would play three or four times a week, some wouldn't play for months. A lot of people who ran the clubs were corrupt, the stadiums were falling to pieces and smelt of urine.

The [derby games] were really exciting, but no one cared about the other matches. Most would only have a few hundred fans."

It was not until the election of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a soccer mad Corinthians fan, that the political will existed to reform the country's national obsession -- legislation followed in 2003 with mandatory relegation being introduced for the first time.

"The law brought in by Lula regulated football," admits Bellos. "Now you have a proper league with relegation. Before, they didn't get relegated. TV companies had too much power and wanted the big teams in the top division."

On Lula's watch, as well as winning the right to host the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup, Brazil's economy boomed.

The country has undergone a period of sustained growth that has seen it become -- along with Russia, India and China, the so called "BRIC" countries -- one of the most important developing economies on the planet.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Brazil's economy grew 4.7 per cent year-on-year between 2004 and 2008. They predict that growth will be close to 5 per cent again in 2010.

"Brazil's recent growth goes beyond the effect of natural resources," explains Luiz de Mello, a senior economist at the OECD and co-author of the organization's recent report on the Brazilian economy. "This strong growth also comes as a pay-off from...efforts to put the public finances in order since the 1990s. If the Brazilians consolidate and build on these achievements...then they can expect to grow solidly in the future."

Others are less circumspect. "Brazil was hardly touched by the credit crunch, they have had an amazing time with oil, sugar and bio fuels," says Bellos. "The average man on the street can feel it, the poorer classes can see noticeable improvements in their health. Brazil is still full of massive problems. But the Real [Brazil's currency] is really strong. And that is, partly, what's helping the players come back".

Though other reasons contributed -- Robinho didn't want to sit on the bench at Manchester City and risk missing the World Cup finals, while Adriano used his move to Flamengo to successfully put his career back on track -- but Brazil's new money still made such moves possible.

According to British newspaper The Observer, such is the positive economic climate in Brazil that Ronaldo made over $10 million last year, including licensing and local sponsorship deals.

Santos, on the other hand, could only afford to bring Robinho back home with the help of commercial sponsors and with Manchester City paying half his wages. Still, they managed to pay him more than $90,000 a week.

"The history of Brazil is boom and bust, so we'll wait and see how it goes," Bellos adds cautiously. "It might still all go wrong."

It has not started too badly for Robinho, though: he scored with a back heel on his debut.