Common sense grows in Brazil

Posted by James Young

FlamengoGettyImagesFlamengo's players huddle up ahead of their game, which saw an unusual protest.

For fans of Cruzeiro, November 13, 2013 will be remembered as the night their team clinched this year's Brasileirao title with a 3-1 victory over Vitoria. But the date may have greater long-term significance for Brazilian football as a whole, and maybe even the country itself.

The origins of Bom Senso FC (Common Sense Football Club), a group of leading players seeking better working conditions for footballers in Brazil, were discussed in an excellent Tim Vickery article for ESPN a few weeks ago.

The movement, which includes former Fenerbahce legend Alex, Juninho Pernambucano, Gilberto Silva, and influential Sao Paulo goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni, is demanding a reform of the overcrowded football calendar, which crams the semi-archaic state leagues, the national championship, the Copa do Brasil knock-out competition, and continental tournaments such as the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sul-Americana together in an awkward, unholy mess.

The players also want a form of 'financial fair play' to be introduced -- in short, that their wages are paid on time, an often infrequent occurrence in Brazilian football.

Bom Senso representatives met with the Brazilian FA (CBF) and club presidents on October 28, and the initial response from the authorities was amicable enough. "It was a great meeting," cadaverous CBF president Jose Maria Marin said afterwards. "The players have obviously given the matter a lot of thought."

The entity promised to consider the group's demands, but also warned that due to the break for the World Cup, which will mean an even tighter fixture squeeze next year, major changes would only be possible in 2015. "The players understand that we can't change things from one day to the next," said Marin. Atletico Mineiro's blowhard president Alexandre Kalil went further. "It's cowardice to demand changes in 2014 when there is a 45 day break imposed by the World Cup," he snarled.

And since then…nothing.

The players waited. And waited some more. On November 5, Bom Senso released a statement saying the group considered the CBF's silence to be "regrettable."

The silence continued. Something had to give.

In last Wednesday's early games, Gremio v Santos and Goias v Ponte Preta, the teams took the field together, carrying a banner saying "Bom Senso FC -- for a better football for everyone." Then, following kickoff, the players stood with their arms crossed for 30 seconds in silent protest.

The CBF quickly cracked the whip. The message came down from on high that if the demonstration was repeated in any of that night's later games, all 22 players would be given yellow cards.

Bom Senso didn't so much as blink. In one of the most memorable moments of this or any other Brazilian season, players from both sides huddled together before kickoff in the Sao Paulo v Flamengo match like mischievous schoolboys planning a prank on teacher, with Rogerio Ceni the ringleader.

And what a prank it was. For the first minute of the game, the two teams simply passed the ball to one another with hypnotic gentleness as the crowd applauded. The protest was repeated in other games.
"This goes further than they realise," said Ceni. "It's hugely significant. We're here, and we're united." As the excellent Brazilian writer Xico Sa put it: "What happened in Itu (the town where the game was played)... was a hyperbolic, gigantic statement."

It was no exaggeration. The significance of Bom Senso goes beyond a simple desire to restructure the Brazilian football calendar, important though that is. The movement has also tapped into the mood of social change that washed over the country last June.

Then, a perfect storm of reasons not to be cheerful -- from bus fare hikes, the awful state of many of Brazil's public services, and the cancerous, institutionalised corruption that seems to pervade government at every level -- brought hundreds of thousands of Brazilians, from all sections of society, onto the streets.

The protests had the support of most of the country, it seemed, something rare (though not unprecedented) in recent Brazilian history. For that, thanks were at least in part due to the remarkable thuggery of the police. While there were violent elements involved in some protests, the way in which the police almost gleefully sprayed rubber bullets and tear gas in the direction of many innocent demonstrators (seven reporters from the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper were shot at one early protest; two of them in the face) doubtlessly unified the country behind the movement.

And there was synchronicity too between the protests and football. At the Brazil v Mexico Confederations Cup game, which took place in the middle of the demonstrations, the crowd continued to belt out the national anthem long after the music from the stadium sound system had stopped. The players joined in with gusto.

"It was beautiful," said Julio Cesar. "Whether you like it or not…that was a protest." The scene was repeated at Brazil's remaining games.

While it is unlikely that Jose Maria Marin will be running onto the pitch to pepper spray a rogue footballer any time soon, the lack of a proper response from the CBF is all too reminiscent of the disdain with which those in authority tend to treat the grievances of ordinary citizens in Brazil.

Chelsea's David Luiz alongside Barcelona's Dani Alves.AssociatedChelsea's David Luiz is a supporter.

It is all too easy to imagine the powers that be groaning at the thought of another meeting with "those tiresome players" -- after all, the separation between the ruling elite and the people has been ingrained in Brazilian society right from the country's colonial beginnings, whether it is in the form of latifundiarios (wealthy owners of immense rural properties) maintaining workers in slave-like conditions, or the impunity that the justice system affords more privileged Brazilians in comparison with their less well-off countrymen and women.

Football may seem a battleground of relatively minor importance compared to other causes in Brazil, and it is perhaps hard to imagine wealthy players as being among the country's dispossessed. But Bom Senso is a reflection of the desire for social change that took hold of the country in June -- a desire that has not gone away, and will almost certainly manifest itself again at the World Cup next year.

As for Bom Senso, the group continues to grow, and players from Serie B have now joined the cause. There were Bom Senso style demonstrations at a number of basketball games in Brazil last week, and at the weekend, players in the Paraguayan league fixture between Nacional and Deportivo Capiata also copied the protest, with the teams passing the ball to each other at the beginning of the game.

There was even talk of a protest at Saturday night's Brazil vs. Honduras game in Miami -- two of the squad, Jo and Victor of Atletico Mineiro, are Bom Senso members. In the end, perhaps fearing CBF reprisals that would put their World Cup places in jeopardy, no action was taken. David Luiz said that while he had not been contacted by the group, he is ready to help. "I'm definitely willing to talk to them," he said. "Anything that can improve Brazilian football is a good idea."

It seems that these protesting players will not be forgotten as easily as the Brazilian footballing establishment might like.

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