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Latino London: How Latin Americans Are Shaping the English Premier League

LONDON, England -- Fancy some typical Brazilian pão de queijo (cheese rolls) before catching a Chelsea F.C. soccer match in London? Stroll a few yards from Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium, crossing Fulham Road, and you’ll find ‘Café Brazil,’ a small, family-owned restaurant that emblematizes the Latino presence in London.

The café serves as a focal point for Latin Americans in the West London areas of Fulham and Chelsea, especially those coming to see a game in the world’s best club competition, the English Premier League. Brazilians living in London, Uruguayan fans on a visit or U.S. Hispanics from Texas will find a home away from home in this small but welcoming venue whose walls are covered with photographs of well-known Latin American Chelsea players posing with the café’s owners, family, and friends.

Cafe Brazil, a small, family-owned Brazilian restaurant, is located a few yards away from Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium. Diego von Vacano

David Luiz, Diego Costa, Willian, Oscar, Ramires and many other famous players have often stopped by the café, bridging the gap between celebrity stardom and the average fan. It is an example of what former Chelsea great Graeme Le Saux, now a pundit for NBC Sports’ coverage of the Premier League, considers London’s “open, internationally-minded environment” for foreign-born fans and pro players alike.

On match days, the café is full of longtime Chelsea supporters eating traditional Italian pizza and having a pint of Brahma, the Brazilian beer. Twenty seven years ago, the Lorente family opened the café to showcase Latin flavors in an area better-known for trendy boutiques.

Joana Lorente and her mother Dirce make home-cooked meals for visiting fans and regular Latino immigrants who have made London their place of residence. The Lorente family traces its roots to Italian immigrants who arrived to Sao Paulo in the 19th century. It is a reflection, off the pitch, of the transnationalism that also characterizes the Premier League.

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On the day of Chelsea’s last game of the 2016-2017 season versus Sunderland— an unusually hot day in late May which would see the Blues crowned champions of the English Premier League— fans flocked to the café before and after the match. It was also Chelsea captain John Terry’s final game after twenty-two years playing for a single club, a feat surpassed only by a handful of players, such as Italy’s Francesco Totti, who played for AS Roma for over twenty-seven years. It was an emotional match for Chelsea supporters, seeing Terry’s teammates form a guard of honor for his substitution in the twenty-sixth minute (the same number as his famed shirt).

Under a sun-soaked sky, Terry’s tearful adieu found comfort in David Luiz’s embrace as well as goals from Willian and Spain’s Pedro, which gave Chelsea a 5-1 victory and the Premiership title. Italian-born coach Antonio Conte’s first name echoed throughout the stadium, in the same way that Diego Costa (a Brazilian-born member of the Spanish national team) heard his first name as a chorus to all the goals he scored at “the Bridge.”

Diego Costa, a Brazilian born soccer player, plays as a striker for Chelsea. Diego von Vacano

The Latin influence at Chelsea, as well as in most top teams in the Premier League, is thus undeniable. According to Le Saux, Latino players bring “personality, creativity, confidence, and technical ability.” Be they Brazilian, Colombian or Chilean like Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez, Latin players are rated as some of the most talented and glory-hungry in the game.

Football experts like NBC Sports’ Joe Prince-Wright told me that Arsenal’s success in the FA Cup Final a week after Chelsea’s league victory was largely due to the galvanizing influence of the diminutive Chilean from Tocopilla.

For Prince-Wright, another Chilean, Arturo Vidal, “would be a perfect fit for a Premier team, given his intense competitiveness,” physical style of play, passion, stamina, and skill on the ball. It is unclear that a player like Lionel Messi, the best in the world, would have it as easy as he does in Spain’s La Liga if he played against tougher opposition week in and week out in England.

For Prince-Wright, “the distance between top and bottom clubs in the Premier league is much closer,” making it more difficult for English teams to reach the final stages of the UEFA Champions League vis-à-vis elite Spanish, French, or Italian teams such as Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, or Juventus.

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The Premier League, while it is the most competitive in the world, still has room to improve in the area of attracting Latino fans. To be sure, there are large numbers of fans in Latin America and the U.S. who follow teams like Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool.

However, there is a natural affinity among Latin fans for Spanish clubs, especially the two main ones that play in El Clásico, Barcelona and Real Madrid. This is due in large part to the common language.

Bigger inroads into the Latin American and U.S. Hispanic markets are possible, however, given the high caliber of the Premiership and the increasing number of Latin American players it attracts.

One of the most successful models in terms of brand expansion throughout the Americas as well as in local community presence is that of Chelsea Football Club. Historically, Chelsea has a long tradition that goes back to its founding in 1905.

Nonetheless, its sporadic successes could not compare to those of giants of the English game such as Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United. Only in 1955 did Chelsea win the First Division, which was the precursor to the Premier League.

However, in the late 1990s Chelsea became a pioneer in bringing large numbers of immigrant players from abroad. Dutch manager Ruud Gullit led the team to its FA Cup victory in 1997, using mostly foreign players. Gullit’s successor, the Italian Gianluca Vialli, followed suit by fielding a team for a game in December 1999 that was composed entirely of foreign-born players (for the first time in the history of the game in England), including Uruguay’s Gus Poyet and Brazil’s Emerson Thome.

Arlo White and Graeme Le Saux, Premier League commentators for NBC Sports. Courtesy of NBC Sports

As a Chelsea player for twelve seasons, Graeme Le Saux recalls a team full of foreign-born players who nevertheless “adapted to the British culture” of the team and the league. In particular, he told me of Poyet’s deep influence on the squad, for he was a player that “created a very positive environment, with energy and spirit.”

Le Saux was one of the few British players in the Chelsea squad of the late 1990s, but he and others like Dennis Wise made sure that the foreign players stood “on an English base, and that we kept that British identity. All the players that came in, whether Italian, French, or Uruguayan, they felt that they were English in the dressing room. They loved it, it was a nice mezcla [mixture] of different cultures. As long as you’ve got a common spirit, it doesn’t matter where you come from, everyone signs up for the same values. This was the core Chelsea value of the day, which lives on even now.

This model of thinking globally but acting locally encapsulates the best of the Premiership. It represents the idea that the best league in the world should have the best players from anywhere on the planet, but that each club should maintain its local identity.

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The cosmopolitanism of the Premier League continues to this day even as Brexit approaches. For example, Chelsea actively recruits the best Brazilian players, such as the young winger Kenedy, who moved from Rio’s Fluminense to West London in 2015.

For Prince-Wright, the appeal of the Premiership among Latin Americans is not limited to players; some of the best coaches are Latin American, such as Tottenham Hotspurs’ Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentinian followed in the footsteps of his compatriots Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, who in the 1980s made the then-unusual move from South America to England (it is also rumored that Ardiles, as Tottenham’s coach in 1993, tried to lure Diego Maradona to the North London team). Le Saux remembers that, as a young boy, he was impressed by the “glamour” and “flamboyance” of Ardiles and Villa, Latino pioneers in the English game.

Chelsea's Stamford Bridge Stadium Diego van Vacano

For Le Saux, Pochettino breaks with the stereotype of the loud, aggressive Latin coach. Instead, he is cerebral, open-minded and able to get the best out of players despite the language barrier (like many Latino immigrants, he is trying very hard to improve his English).

At the same time, the raw passion that characterizes many Latino coaches is also appreciated by English fans. As Prince-Wright told me, “someone like Atlético Madrid’s [Argentinian coach] Diego Simeone would be very effective in the Premier League, and his intensity would also benefit the league and its followers.” Simeone is ebullient, vocal, and emotional, a counterpoint to Pochettino’s sedate demeanor.

It is widely known that Argentina and England have a deep-seated football rivalry that has sometimes overflowed to the political sphere. But with the growth and expansion of the Premier League among Latin American fans - as well as the increasing number of Latin American players in England - this rivalry is bound to remain confined to the pitch.

Next time you visit West London, make sure you get Brazilian coffee and pastries at Café Brazil. You never know if you might bump into Brazil’s David Luiz of Chelsea, Chile’s Alexis Sánchez of Arsenal, Ecuador’s Enner Valencia of West Ham or Argentina’s Erik Lamela of Tottenham Hotspurs.

Whether you call it football, fútbol, or futebol, the name of the game in London will be increasingly uttered with Spanish accents.

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