In December 2014 Sāo Paulo FC announced the return of Breno Borges, once considered one of the biggest defensive talents in the game. But in the official statement São Paulo revealed little about Breno’s difficult road back to Brazil from Germany.
In 2007 Breno was a transfer target for several large European clubs after he played a near perfect season with São Paulo. The usual suspects: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Chelsea, were all willing to sign the 18-year-old defender whose game appeared far more mature than his age suggested. Bayern scout Giovane Élber described Breno as an “absolute bomb-shell”, a player that has already reached a world-class level. In the end Bayern Munich signed the young Brazilian for €12.3 million.
But Breno, who was supposed to eventually replace Bayern’s long-time centre back Lucio, arrived at a club that was amidst a philosophical change. Signed in January 2008, Breno was to be the centre of the future defensive line of a club that was about to embark on a project with former Germany national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann.
The Faithful Night at Barcelona
But the Klinsmann project ended after less than a season with the club struggling to finish in the top three of the league, which at the time was necessary to qualify for the Champions League. The chaotic tactical approaches by Klinsmann also meant that young players like Breno stalled in their development at the club.
It also didn’t help Breno that he was part of the Bayern squad that was taken apart 4:0 by a brilliant FC Barcelona in the first leg of the quarterfinal of the 2008/09 Champions League. At the traditional post-match dinner Karl-Heinz Rummenigge found strong words for Bayern’s debacle: “I am not sure if I am shocked, sad, or angry”, next he pointed to Bayern’s former coach Udo Lattek, who was part of Bayern’s delegation that travelled to Barcelona: “I saw our old friend Udo Lattek during halftime, and he was in tears.”
The match was the beginning of the end for Klinsmann at Bayern who was fired after just 10 months in office, and replaced by Jupp Heynckes for the remaining five games. Heynckes successfully steered Bayern to a second place finish that saw the club qualify for a Champions League spot.
With the beginning of the 2009/10 season, Louis van Gaal became the new head coach at the Säbener Straße. While van Gaal would later catapult the career of several younger players such as Holger Badstuber and Thomas Müller, Breno’s career had stalled, and at the end of 2009 he had only played 7 games in the Bundesliga, 5 games in the Champions League, and another game in the German Cup.
Nürnberg – A tragic injury
Now at 20 years of age the leadership at Bayern believed that Breno needed more first team experience in the Bundesliga. He was therefore loaned to 1. FC Nürnberg, a club who was fighting a tough relegation battle. It appeared that he would indeed make an instant impact at Nürnberg. With Breno in the squad, Nürnberg managed to stabilize its defence, and Breno became one of the best players at the club.
In the first eight games after the winter break Nürnberg managed to climb from 17th place to 15th place, and it appeared that the club would be able to easily fight off the threat of relegation. But then came the 25th round of the season when Nürnberg faced Bayer Leverkusen, it was here that Breno’s season came to an abrupt end with when he suffered a torn ACL injury, effectively ending his season.
While only having played eight games for the Glubb, as Nürnberg fans often refer to their club, Breno left a strong impression, and it was widely expected that he would break into Bayern’s first team squad after his loan contract ran up at the end of the 2009/10 Bundesliga season.
The Return to Munich
Breno returned from his ACL injury in November 2010, when ironically enough he played his first match for Bayern against Nürnberg on November 14th. The German press celebrated the return of the Brazilian emphatically, with the Bild Zeitung running the following headline: “Breno and Badstuber are Bayern’s future”.
Breno, however, could not live up to these expectations, and instead struggled throughout the remainder of the season just like the rest of the Bayern squad. This impression was further manifested in another fateful Champions League game, after which the player would become a symbol for the failed season.
Bayern faced Inter Milan in the round of 16 in the Champions League, and after beating Inter in Milan in the first leg 0-1, Bayern appeared to be poised to go through. Bayern were on track as the scoreboard read 2-2 until the 88 minute, a result that would have been enough for Bayern, but then Breno lost the ball to Inter striker Samuel Eto’o in what can only be described as a blackout. Moments later Inter was in front 3:2, and eventually advanced on the away goal rule.
Breno was widely criticized in the media for his blackout, even though Bayern had plenty of chances to secure a comfortable victory before Breno’s mistake. For Bayern the result against Inter would not remain the only humiliation of the season, as the club also failed to defend its league title and lost to Schalke in the semi-final of the German Cup.
Breno’s mistake against Inter, and van Gaal’s struggle to defend the German championship meant that Breno, as it was the case under Klinsmann, was caught in a situation where the coach had to put results ahead of player development. At the end of the season no one mentioned Breno as the new future of Bayern’s defence, instead van Gaal was fired, and Breno was almost forgotten.
The Fire at Grünwald
Bayern began the 2011/12 season with a new coach as Jupp Heynckes once again took over the reins at the club. But Breno’s struggle continued as he suffered several smaller injuries at the start to the season. Then in September 2011 a fire in Breno’s villa located in Munich’s suburb of Grünwald would have far reaching consequences for Breno’s future as a professional football player.
A long investigation revealed that Breno himself had set fire to the rental house while intoxicated. During the court procedures, psychiatrist Henning Saß stated that Breno had already started to drink heavily during the first major injury he suffered while playing for Nürnberg. Saß stated that Breno had told him that every time he had a set back he would drink either ten bottles of beer or a bottle of whiskey.
Speaking to the court Breno revealed his frustration with life in Germany: “I spend most of my time at home”, and because of the language barrier he did not manage to build a relationship with other players in the squad, “I have always tried to build contacts with other players, and later even psychologists. But my German wasn’t good enough.”
Along with these social problems came the lack of games for Bayern, which made him “a little sad, as all I wanted to do was to play [football].” He also revealed that up until his injury he was happy in Nürnberg: “I had a different life there, a joyful life, and I played every game.” But the injury in many ways broke Breno, who had to endure three operations within two years.
The day before the fire he had a fight with his wife over another potential operation. Breno was drunk, and the police noted 1.66 alcohol level in his blood. According to the police report Breno had handed policeman on the crime scene three lighters telling them to “make them disappear.”
As the court proceedings progressed further details emerged, as Breno admitted that he had also developed an addiction to sleeping pills, which he had taken from Bayern’s medicine cabinet. Breno’s former player agent underlines the allegation that Bayern players had free access to medication such as sleeping pills: “I knew Breno had free access to medication at Bayern.” Bayern, however, denied giving him free access, as the club stated that players were not able to take pills without the consent of the club’s medical department.
The Punishment and the question of Responsibility
Breno was eventually sentenced to three years and nine months in prison, in what appeared to be the end of his football career. The particular events surrounding the events of Breno’s fire also brought about the serious question of responsibilities over young foreign players being purchased by major European clubs such as Bayern Munich.
Giovane Élber for example believes that the club was partly responsible for Breno’s failed integration in Germany. Speaking to Germany’s Stern Magazine he stated: “Breno has told me that in Nürnberg players such as Pinola were always available for help”, this was something that was lacking in Munich. But Élber also criticized the player’s agent: “I spoke to Breno’s agent long before the fire, and offered him help as I am often in Germany. He told me that we don’t need assistance, but later Breno mentioned to me that his agent never resided in Europe.”
Yet Breno’s case might have a happy ending after all, as after his release, he was able to secure a contract with his former club São Paulo. Upon his return he revealed the tough journey back from jail to a normal life. Speaking to Brazil’s globoesporte.com Breno admits that he had made a mistake going to Bayern right away, rather than a smaller club in Europe: “I was surrounded by bad people, but I have paid for my mistakes.”
The example of Breno highlights the struggle for young South American players who make the trek across the Atlantic to play in Europe’s top leagues. While agencies have discovered Brazilian players as a big business operation, it is often forgotten that the young talent who make the trek into new world are young men, often from poor backgrounds, who find themselves in societies that are completely alien to them. Furthermore, these players carry extreme expectations by the people who own their contracts, but also by their own family, as a contract in European football can be their golden ticket.
In the end Breno was lucky that Bayern, and his former club São Paulo, had given the player every chance to redeem himself. Breno was given a job by Bayern, which meant that he was able to leave the prison during the day, and also meant that his prison term was significantly reduced. This meant that Breno was able to return early to Brazil where his former club São Paulo has now taken a chance by giving him a new contract as a player. Hence, it appears that Breno’s story may have a happy end, but not all stories of failed Brazilian players in Europe will end this way.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus