That progress is nowhere more evident than in Brazil's professional soccer league. It's no surprise that a country famously overabundant with superb players should export its surplus — some 1,500 a year leave for foreign leagues — but in recent years, there's been a spike in the number of returning players: more than 1,100 went home in 2012, up from 974 in 2008. Brazil's trade deficit in footballers narrowed to 315 last year from 556 in 2008. In large part, this is because the Brazilian league, just like its economy, has become more sophisticated and profitable. Not surprisingly, struggling Argentina, Brazil's great rival, is the world's leading exporter of soccer talent — its brightest star, four-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi, plays in Spain.The latest Brazilian superstar is Neymar of the venerable Santos FC. He is the latest in a long line of players coming from that storied footballing country who can readily dribble the ball past myriad defenders with dazzling moves in the great tradition of Pele and his successors. Supposedly, the career trajectory of Brazilian stars went like this before:
Until the economic boom, the traditional arc of a Brazilian superstar's career ran thus: at 14, his talent was spotted by a local club; four years later, he was traded up to one of the smaller European leagues, like Portugal's, where his prodigious performances marked him as the Next Pelé; he had a couple of good seasons before a superclub like Real Madrid, AC Milan or Manchester United came calling. At Neymar's age, he was a full-blown global celebrity, with flashy cars, model girlfriends and big endorsement deals. If he had the right temperament — and durable knees — he could stay at the top of the European tree until his early 30s. Slowed by age, he then moved on to second-tier leagues, like Russia's or Turkey's, where he could still pull down a million-dollar salary; by 35, he was squeezing out the last few paydays playing in Qatar or Japan.