Back in the year 2005, there were some 25 or more Brazilian players who graced the fields of Israeli soccer clubs. Names like Indio, Duarte, Romulo, Fabio Junior, Gabriel Lima, Bruno Reis and Dirceu readily come to mind. Some moved on after a year or two, while others settled in for a longer run.

Gustavo Boccoli, whose career spans more than a decade, emerged as one of the top foreign players ever to have played in Israel and Douglas Da Silva is ranked alongside Arik Benado, Tal Ben-Haim and Shimon Gershon as one of the most dominant defenders in a generation.

The Boys from Brazil left an indelible imprint on the pitch, as well as a legacy in the communities where they toiled. With their outgoing and genial demeanor, good humor and warm nature, they were embraced by the local fans like members of their extended family.

They were driven not only by a strong will to succeed but also by a quest for acceptance by the soccer aficionados as one of their own.

It’s mind boggling that none of them spoke Hebrew, only a handful could utter words in English, and only those from the urban communities of San Paulo or Rio could understand Spanish, but through sheer willpower they managed to communicate with coaches and fellow players through sign language or soccer idioms within days of their arrival. They also had a yen for adopting slang expressions like “Haval Al Hazman,” and “Al Hapanim”, which evoked instant laughter and approval from the local fans.

The formula for their success was simple.

Soccer, like coffee, is a major Brazilian export commodity, and soccer players from Brazil have been reared to travel from an early age.

From Malta to Malaysia and from Aberdeen to Azerbaijan, the Brazilians arrive in waves to energize and entertain their fans and steadfastly align themselves with their mission and destiny in the process.

Given the longevity of players like Boccoli, Indio and Da Silva, there are some whose early exit was not reasonably foreseen. Bruno Reis was arguably the best central midfielder in Israel for a brief run when he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the group stage of the Champions League in 2004/05.

However, Bruno was noted for his flair for partying, a lifestyle which in time compromised his performance on the pitch and caused him to fall into disfavor with coach Nir Klinger, who sent him packing with still a year left on his contract to the beach of Copa Cabana of his native Rio.

Bruno’s closest sidekick, Gabriel Lima, was a one year sensation at Bnei Sakhnin where he led the club to the State Cup in 2004, but his nocturnal merrymaking together with Bruno also caused his game to deteriorate during the following season when he moved to Bnei Yehuda.

He bounced around several clubs thereafter, both in Israel and abroad, but was never a factor in those venues.

Finally, Fabricio Bento, a charming and amiable central defender who played for Betar Jerusalem, was released by coach Eli Ohana at the end of the season without even a bare acknowledgment of his contribution to the club.

It’s mind-boggling to see, notwithstanding the mark that the Boys from Brazil have left on Israeli soccer, that in the current season there are only about a handful remaining in Israel.

The reasons for this decline in their numbers cut across economic and political lines which are also intertwined. One factor is the cost of airfare from Brazil, which has more than doubled in the past seven years.

Since only the biggest clubs, i.e, Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Tel Aviv, have traditionally sponsored airfare for trialists, the burden of springing for the airfare has fallen on the players and their families.

As the costs spiraled, fewer and fewer players were positioned to assume this cost. Furthermore, a recent regulation introduced by the Interior Ministry imposes a security deposit of $4,000 on all clubs which invite Brazilians and other Latin American players for a trial or impression.

This policy, which formerly applied only to African players, entails a burden which many clubs, especially those faced with staggering financial problems, are unable or unwilling to meet.

As a result, I was forced to abort trial arrangements for two Brazilian players who were earmarked for Ness Ziona and Umm Al-Fahm of the second division.

The decline in the numbers of Brazilians and their Latin American neighbors has created a vacuum in the foreign slots which are allotted to the clubs under Israel Football Association rules; i.e., five for Premier League clubs and three for those in the second division.

This vacuum quickly became filled by an influx of Eastern European players, principally those from the former Yugoslav republics.

Leading the pack are the Serbs, which now number more than 20, followed by Croats, Montenegrins and Slovenians. In the aggregate, Eastern Europeans now account for approximately 50 percent of the estimated 100 foreign players in Israel.

The explanation for this upheaval in the makeup of foreign players is quite elementary.

As a rule, Eastern European players whose countries are now members of the Schengen Block do not need a visa to enter Israel.

This does not negate the requirement that every foreign player coming to Israel to train or sign a contract must obtain a permit from the Interior Ministry, but it simplifies the entire process in terms of time and money.

Moreover, and far more material, is the fact that Eastern European players are exempt from the Security Deposit requirement.

Coupled with the modest airfares of roundtrips between Tel Aviv and nearby cities like Belgrade and Zagreb, it is easy to understand why the clubs have in essence opened up their floodgates to the Eastern Europeans.

I have contacted the Brazilian Embassy in Tel Aviv in order to ascertain the basis of this new policy which has resulted in the disparity of treatment accorded to Brazilians and other Latin Americans as opposed to Eastern European players. In time, I hope that this policy will be rescinded and a level playing field will be restored, so that a more balanced look in the composition of foreign players will emerge.

Don Barnett is an IFA Player’s agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US, where he practiced law and mediation. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and wrote a sports column for several Jewish publications.

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