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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 09:20 GMT
Kidnappers are forcing stars to flee
By Tim Vickery

Robinho could leave Brazil for more than football reasons
After eight years in Europe, Argentine midfielder Matias Almeyda had decided that the time had come to go home.

He signed for Independiente earlier this year - but before a ball had been kicked he ripped up his contract and went back to Italy.

The reason for the rapid change of heart - he was informed that his father had become a target for kidnappers.

Almeyda was aware that this was no idle threat.

In recent years there have been a number of cases in Argentina where close family members of prominent footballers have been seized and held for ransom.

The sinister logic behind the operation is easy to follow.

The top players can draw wages beyond the wildest dreams of the average worker.

But most come from poor backgrounds.

Often their family have not cut their ties with their former surroundings, making them accessible targets for the kidnappers.

The objective, of course, is the player's money. It helps, then, if he is still based at home. It means that he can easily be contacted to carry out the negotiations.

So fleeing from the kidnap threat becomes yet another factor forcing South America's best players across the Atlantic to the major leagues of Europe.

Brazil has now caught the Argentine disease.

The drive to dribble round poverty is one of the defining features of South American football
Tim Vickery

On Saturday night, the mother of Santos starlet Robinho was kidnapped on the São Paulo coast.

Clubs such as Benfica, Atletico Madrid and PSV Eindhoven have all been knocking on Robinho's door in recent weeks.

Sooner or later he is clearly bound for Europe. This sad case makes it more likely to be sooner.

Hopefully Robinho's mother will soon be safely back at home.

Once she is, no one could blame Robinho for wanting to take the next plane out of the country.

The story of Robinho's mother, Marina, reads like a lesson in contemporary Brazilian social history.

She was born in the country's impoverished North East, and at the age of 12 was given away to a family thousands of miles to the South in the boom town of São Paulo.

A year later she moved on to another family, and lost all contact with her blood relatives.

Brazilian TV brought them back together a few months ago.

One of the most touching moments of the reunion came when it became obvious that Marina's father had no idea who Robinho was.

With a broken TV and little access to other media the emergence of a new Brazilian footballing phenomenon had passed him by.

The drive to dribble round this kind of poverty is one of the defining features of South American football.

It gives the players a sharpness, a capacity to use feints and swerves to trick and deceive the opposition.

Robinho is perhaps the finest exponent of such skills still left in the continent - for now at least.

He must now be well aware that leaving a trail of defenders in his wake is one thing, but dribbling round the social problems of his continent is much harder.

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