A couple of years back, at the Soccerex business conference in Rio, I asked the following question to one of the administrators of the Brazilian game -- what can Brazilian football learn from Europe?
The answer, spat back at me as if the very question was an insult, was "Nothing!"
I asked the same question all week to a number of prominent Brazilian former players, all of them with experience of European club football. Without exception, they all had something to say, and one word in particular was present in all of their answers -- ‘organisation'.
-World Cup seeds to be based on October ranking
I remember thinking at the time that it would be much better if the ex-players were running the game and the administrators were serving the coffee. And now it seems that some of the veterans of the Brazilian game have come to a similar conclusion. The scent of progress is in the air.
The little acorn that promises to grow into a sturdy tree was a meeting of two old friends in a match just over a month ago between Coritiba and Internacional. Playing for the home side was playmaker Alex, like some chess master able to see how the game will develop three moves ahead. He returned home at the end of last year after over a decade in Europe, most of it spent with Turkish giants Fenerbahce.
Internacional's centre back was the classy former Brazil defender Juan, whose decade in Europe was split between Bayer Leverkeusen in Germany and Roma of Italy. At the end of the game they of them swapped shirts. Alex takes up the story.
“Juan commented that things were difficult at (Internacional), in 10 days they had four games coming up in four different cities, there were lots of players injured, coach Dunga had no time to work with the team on the training ground, and I replied that it was the same at Coritiba -- play a match, try to recuperate, try to patch up the injured, and out to play again three days later. And then (Argentine playmaker Andres) D’Alessandro (played in Germany, England and Spain) came and joined in the conversation. We spoke for about five minutes and then agreed to keep in touch.
“By coincidence, the following week Paulo Andre (Corinthians centre back who spent three years in France) called me and we had a chat along the same lines, and from that came the project of attracting more players to exchange ideas, and then present something to those who control Brazilian football, TV Globo and the CBF (the national football association) so that at least the point of view of the players might be heard.”
Thus was born Bom Senso FC (Common Sense Football Club), an agglomeration of players from up and down Brazil’s big clubs who are pushing for better working conditions -- which means financial guarantees, but which more than anything means the fight for a better organised calendar.
At present, the way that things work for Brazil's big clubs is as follows; for the first months of the year (recently mid-January to mid-May) the state championships are contested, one for each of the 27 states which make up this giant country. Then, immediately afterwards, usually starting at the end of May and going through to early December, comes the national championship, the Brasileirao.
At the best of times, this is an unsatisfactory arrangement. The most basic common sense requires that any long league campaign be preceded by a pause -- it is an essential time for marketing, for the magic of fandom (i.e. hope) to work its trick and make the supporter desperate to return to the stadium. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the European major leagues is aware that the big August kick-off is one of the highlights of the season.
Brazil has no such pause. Starting the Brasileirao less than a week after the conclusion of the state championships robs the national competition of its grandstand entry. A potentially wonderful occasion is rendered banal. In addition, this type of arrangement throws Brazil out of kilter with the rest of the world, and makes it very hard for clubs to travel and compete in lucrative preseason tournaments.
It is also an attempt to fit five litres into a bottle which can only take three. The Brazilian clubs -- usually with smaller squads than the European giants, have many more games. And no proper preseason.
This year, with an obligatory pause for the Confederations Cup, it has proved very hard to fit everything in. Between the end of July and mid-October, the first division clubs will have played 20 games in 11 weeks -- often with huge journeys in between. Next year, with the World Cup, the season will be interrupted for a longer period. Something has to give.
The 2014 calendar recently presented by the CBF suggests that the state championships should start earlier than usual, Jan. 9 -- just four days after the players return from holiday. It was this that forced the players to go public with their discontent.
Said Alex: “Our idea springs from the following consensus -- the main tournament that we have must be the Brasileirao, and so we have to organise around that.”
This is bad news for the state championships as presently organised. In these competitions the big teams, the likes of Flamengo and Corinthians who count their fans in the tens of millions, waste months taking on clubs so small they can barely be called professional -- it is the only place in the world where giants take on absolute minnows on a league basis.
This is clearly obsolete -- but it gets to the heart of the power structure of Brazilian football -- and, in many ways, of Brazilian society as well.
The balance of power in the CBF lies not with the clubs, but with the presidents of the 27 state federations. They in turn base their power on the votes of the little clubs, frequently so insignificant and strapped for cash that they are easily controlled.
The state federations are like the rotten boroughs of 19th-century English politics, representing no one but carrying considerable political clout for those who control them -- and in many cases they have been in the hands of oligarchic groups for decades. And so the small clubs -- or, more realistically, those who control them -- have the whip hand in the development of a calendar that prevents the big clubs from fulfilling their potential. It is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.
The arguments of the players, then, may well be thoroughly rooted in common sense. But that alone is no guarantee of victory. This is politics, a dispute which reveals a new Brazil, enlightened and forward thinking, wanting to be heard above the racket of the old elite.