A couple of years ago I spent the Soccerex business conference in Rio sitting in the VIP Lounge, eating the nuts and occasionally doing an interview. In such an environment there seemed one natural question to ask: what could Brazil learn from European football?
Without exception, every Brazilian player with top-flight European experience gave enthusiastic and interesting answers. But when I made the same enquiry to a bigwig director of the local game, he spat back his reply as if the very question was an offence. "Nothing," he said.
There are plenty of intricacies to the rising tension between Brazil's footballers and the game's administrators. But the essence of the thing can be found right there: the players know more about their industry than the directors. They know that if average crowds in the Brazilian first division are lower than those in, say, Major League Soccer, then their game is operating well below its potential. But they are powerless.
Organised across all the major clubs in a movement known as "Bom Senso" (Common Sense), the revolt of Brazil's players is a clear echo of the massive street protests seen last June and July, an uprising with which it shares one giant similarity, but with which it also has one significant difference.
The similarity is the revolt against an outdated power structure, unable to cope with rising and changing demands.
The difference is this: the street protests were by their very nature diffuse affairs, with little in the way of organised leadership or specific demands. The strong emotional content caused one local specialist to argue that they could more easily be explained by a psychologist than a social scientist.
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"Bom Senso," on the other hand, is organised and focused. The players have the backing of medical specialists and top lawyers as they go about making their case that the structure of Brazilian football needs to change. The fact that they have a defined, pro-change agenda would seem to mean that conflict is unavoidable -- because the players' demand for a better organised calendar strikes right at the heart of the game's power structure.
Here is where some of those intricacies have to come in. Brazil is a federal country, divided into 27 states. Power inside the CBF, Brazil's FA, rests not with the major clubs, but with the presidents of the 27 state federations. In turn, these base their power on having as many gaining the support of as many small clubs as possible within their region.
The entire system is based on the control of the small and the weak -- which helps explain why the Brazilian Joao Havelange was such a master of FIFA politics in his reign as president from 1974-98.
The over-riding aim of the state federations is to retain their local competitions, the state championships, which in most cases run from January to May -- this year, they'll run until April as the domestic game pauses for the World Cup. In these competitions, giant clubs face tiny opponents; not in a cup context, where the charm lies in the threat of an upset, but on a league basis. There is no connection between the state championships and the national league, which starts immediately afterwards.
This structure has a number of implications.
There is no time for a proper pre-season, since so many games are being crammed into the year. The national championship has no chance to build to a "big kick-off" extravaganza -- one of the highlights of the season in any normal campaign -- since there is no pause beforehand.
Also, the Brazilian league is thrown out of sync with the rest of the world. FIFA dates cannot be respected -- the clubs are expected to release players for international duty in the knowledge that they will miss domestic games.
It becomes all the harder for Brazilian clubs to hold on to their best players. Who would really want to play a meaningless game on a sub-standard pitch in an empty stadium when they could be in the Champions League?
The structure, then, creates serious problems for the big clubs, making it all but impossible for them to compete with the European giants for players.
But "Bom Senso" is much more than merely a movement of elite players, though some have tried to portray it as such. The current calendar is also hardly in the interests of the players at the other end of the scale, those with clubs outside the four national divisions. As far as they are concerned, the year usually ends in May when the State Championship comes to an end. Thereafter their club typically has no competitive games, and no need of professional players.
One of the slogans of "Bom Senso" is "a better football for everyone" but can this be achieved inside the current structure? Is there room for a typical Brazilian compromise?
There would seem to be only one way out; state championships in which the small clubs play against each other on a league basis, qualifying for the right to meet the bigger teams in a midweek cup. Is the current power structure willing to be this flexible? Or is conflict the only outcome?
The big mystery in all of this is the stance of the big clubs. They are caught in a structure that actively works against their interests and yet do nothing about it.
A good example comes from the biggest of them all, Flamengo of Rio. At the end of last year they were at home in the second leg of the Brazilian Cup final. They raised ticket prices through the roof. A director explained that it was necessary because in the first months of the following campaign, during the state championships, the club would make very little at the box office.
It left an obvious question hanging; why on earth, then, do you bother taking part in the state championships? Why don't you work towards a calendar and a structure that is more in your interests?
The hope is that with the "Bom Senso" movement, the players are doing the hard work for them.