No Happy New Year for Brazilian Football

Posted by James Young

The mascot of the FIFA Brazil 2014 World Cup, Fuleco, poses during the FIFA World Cup trophy tourGettyImagesThe mascot of the FIFA Brazil 2014 World Cup, Fuleco, poses during the FIFA World Cup trophy tour

"It will be the best World Cup ever!"

The war cry of Ronaldo, Sepp Blatter, the President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff and the rest of Brazil and FIFA's great and good is about as considered a pronouncement as a turkey's gobble. And yet in its sunny patriotism and glossing over of the cold reality of delays, mismanagement, overspending and dead construction workers it neatly captures a chunk of the troubled optimism/pessimism dichotomy that lies at the heart of Brazilian society.

Everything may be a mess and there isn't much sign of improvement on the way, but hey -- God is Brazilian, carnaval is coming, we're still pretty good at football and the weather is nice most of the time. So things could be worse. Life in Brazil can sometimes seem not so much a case of if it isn't broken, don't fix it; but rather it's always been broken, so there's not much point in trying to fix it.

In the right hands -- a kid from a favela cramming for his or her university entrance exams, the hundreds of thousands of young people who took to the streets last June to protest against well, everything being broken, a cheery micro-entrepreneur trying to grow his empire amidst the ashes of the periferia (outskirts) -- this refusal to let how things are drag one down can be an optimistic, hopeful emotion.

In the wrong hands -- the arrogance of those who have overseen (and we can probably bang the gavel now, no matter how rich the footballing or touristic buffet on offer at next year's FIFA festa) the botched World Cup campaign, or the overlords of the rottenness at the heart of the domestic game -- it seems not so much optimism as wilful blindness, perfidy and decadence. The results could be seen throughout 2013, not just on the pitch but also in the stands and, sadly, in the courtrooms.

Violence continues to cast a shadow

San Jose players hold a banner in homage to Kevin Spada
GettyImagesSan Jose players hold a banner in homage to Kevin Spada

The year in Brazilian football was bookended by violence, beginning with the death of Kevin Espada, a 14-year-old fan of Bolivian side San Jose killed by a naval flare launched by a group of visiting Corinthians supporters at a Copa Libertadores tie.

Nowhere is the theory that football is a mirror for wider society truer than in Brazil, where the game provides a perfect reflection of the country's problems. And while 12 members of the Corinthians torcida organizada (ultras) Gavioes da Fiel suspected of the crime were arrested by Bolivian police after the game, the aftermath of events in Oruro could not have been more indicative of the lack of accountability that runs through Brazilian society.

Soon after the incident a 17-year-old presented himself to police in Sao Paulo, saying that he had fired the flare. Conveniently, as a minor the boy could not be extradited to Bolivia. "He's very upset, even more so because his little brother is called Kevin too," proclaimed Ricardo Cabral, lawyer for both the young man and, curiously, the Gavioes da Fiel. The whiff of oranges (laranja being local slang for a political or criminal stitch-up) hung heavily in the air. Irrespective of the youngster's claims, the imprisoned Gavioes members were eventually released after five months due to lack of evidence.

Meanwhile Corinthians sent a firm moral lesson to ne'er-do-wells everywhere by doing their level best to reverse any punishment passed down by South American football's governing body, Conmebol. President Mario Gobbi dedicated the club's Sao Paulo state championship triumph in May to the supporters held in Bolivia, and after Corinthians were eliminated from the Libertadores by Boca Juniors, suggested that Conmebol should punish referee Carlos Amarilla (for some dodgy decisions) just as they had punished his club (for the death of a child).

Fast forward to August, and two of the fans brawling with Vasco da Gama supporters at a league game in the new seats of the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia were identified as being among those arrested in Oruro. A third member of the group was then injured in a shoot-out with police in September and charged with illegal possession of a weapon and attempted murder.

Completing the circle, the year ended with the sickening brawl between Vasco da Gama and Atletico-PR fans at the Arena Joinville in Santa Catarina. Inadequate policing and safety infrastructure again threw petrol onto the blaze, and shirking responsibility, rather than an attempt to tackle the root of the problem, was once more the theme after the game. Vasco attempted to have the result of the match overturned due to the lengthy delay caused by inconsiderate injured fans being taken to hospital and order being restored.

In the end the entirely random punishment (as well as slap on the wrist fines, Atletico-PR will play 12 games behind closed doors, Vasco eight) handed out by the STJD (the Brazilian sports court) is likely to be as effective a measure as combating a plague of rats by putting a padlock on the fridge where the cheese is kept.

Results decided in the courts, not on the pitch

It has hardly been a banner year for the STJD or the Brazilian FA, (CBF). For the second season in succession, the lower divisions of the Brasileirao were paralysed as teams squabbled in the courts over who had the right to playoff and promotion spots.

In this case, tiny Betim from Minas Gerais refused to accept a FIFA-sanctioned, CBF-imposed points deduction for the non-payment of an outstanding transfer fee to The Strongest of Bolivia and (successfully, if temporarily) sought an injunction against the penalty in the civil courts. That led to the debacle of the Serie C playoff game between Mogi Mirim and Santa Cruz (whose fans had travelled some 1,300 miles to the game) being called off as the teams warmed up on the pitch.

But perhaps the Brazilian football authority's finest moment came just a couple of weeks ago. Hardly had the players towelled off after the final round of Serie A fixtures before the news filtered through that Portuguesa had fielded an illegible player for the last few minutes of the team's meaningless last day goalless draw against Gremio. The prescribed three point penalty, plus the loss of the point earned from the match, would relegate Portuguesa and save 2012 champions Fluminense from the drop.

"They've brought Fluminense back to life!" chirped STJD prosecutor Paulo Schmitt when the news broke, neatly summing up Portuguesa's chances at the subsequent hearing.

While the penalty was in accordance with the rulebook, its implications (relegation and the subsequent loss of millions of reais) were clearly onerous in the extreme. Nonetheless, no one who follows Brazilian football held out much hope that the decision would go against Fluminense, a club with much influence in the game's corridors of power. As journalist Juca Kfouri put it "they punished a little club to save the big boys."

The little club may not go quietly however -- Portuguesa have promised to take the case to the civil courts, while the Sao Paulo state prosecutor's office is to investigate the STJD decision. Whatever the final result, the imbroglio means that once again, major footballing issues will be decided not on the pitch but in the courtroom.

Financial woes

Flamengo celebrates their Copa do Brasil victory over Atletico PR, but it came at a price for the fans.
GettyImagesFlamengo celebrates their Copa do Brasil victory over Atletico PR, but it came at a price for the fans.

Elsewhere it was business as usual. Attendances were as poor as ever (an average of just under 15,000 per game) with rocketing ticket prices negating the positive influence that new, more comfortable World Cup stadiums might have brought.

While the new grounds certainly saw a few more middle class families in attendance than in recent years, clubs ratcheted up prices to such a degree (Brazil's consumer rights court even took action against Flamengo for the extortionate prices charged at the Copa do Brasil final, where the cheapest full price entry available was more expensive than an equivalent semi-final ticket at next year's World Cup) that many of their core working class supporters were excluded.

Perhaps the avarice can be justified by the precarious financial status of debt-ridden Brazilian clubs, among whom late or non-payment of player and employee salaries is a common occurrence. The situation became so bad at relegated Nautico towards the end of the season that unpaid players threatened to go on strike. Figures released in May put the cumulative debt of major Brazilian clubs at 1.2 billion pounds, with the tax debt of the country's biggest club, Flamengo, estimated at around 104 million pounds.

Disappointment on the field

Economic factors affected the quality on the pitch too. While there has been much talk in recent years about the financial strength of the Brazilian game, based on burgeoning economic growth and a bullish currency, the real (currency) is now cowed and the economy is stuttering.

It feels like a long time ago that the league boasted Paulinho, Neymar, Oscar, Lucas, Bernard, Ganso and Leandro Damiao among its leading lights -- now only the flawed talents of the latter two remain, while the overly hasty departure of embryonic talent Vitinho from Botafogo to CSKA Moscow was a depressing reminder of the bad old days.

Though Cruzeiro were worthy champions, playing an attractive brand of football based around a group of nippy attacking midfielders, and Belo Horizonte neighbours Atletico Mineiro lit up the first half of the year with a dramatic Libertadores campaign, both sides were arguably based on tactically unsound foundations, and the rest of the league offered up depressing fare.

Even though it was marvellous to see underdogs such as Vitoria, Goias and Atletico-PR challenge for Libertadores spots (though only the last named were ultimately successful), the fact that none of the so-called big clubs from Rio, Sao Paulo or Rio Grande do Sul could mount a serious title challenge suggests problems that go beyond the financial. So, too, does the fact that only two teams from Brazil, which remains South American football's economic powerhouse, made it to the quarterfinals of the Libertadores.

The rot starts at the top

Head coach Vagner Mancini couldn't keep his job at Atletico-PR despite working heroics for the club.
GettyImagesHead coach Vagner Mancini couldn't keep his job at Atletico-PR despite working heroics for the club.

Perhaps the old school leadership techniques that hold sway are to blame, with elected club presidents often acting as though clubs are their own private fiefdoms.

"I called the chairman to talk about renewing my contract," coach Vagner Mancini said sadly, after leading Atletico-PR to third in the table and the Copa do Brasil final in his six months in charge. "But he said he wasn't interested." Mancini, who had been sacked after two months in his previous post at Nautico, had argued with said president, Mario Celso Petraglia, when his boss criticised players in the dressing room after the final defeat to Flamengo.

Such short-termism, with managers lasting months rather than years, shows no sign of abating. Naughty puppies Nautico managed to chew their way through seven coaches in 2013.

Tribalism and personal oneupmanship also adds to the sense of stasis that hangs over Brazilian football -- it is hard to see how clubs can ever hope to join together and achieve genuine change when they are so obsessed with getting one over on their neighbours.

The curious case of the Taca das Bolinhas is a fine example – Sao Paulo and Flamengo continue to bicker over the meaningless trophy, created to honour the first five-time winners of the Brazilian title, which both clubs claim is theirs due to confusion over the identity of the winners of the 1987 championship.

A glimmer of hope

Violence, impunity, corruption and the feudalistic arrogance of many in authority -- as stated earlier, the ills of Brazilian society are handily reflected in the country's domestic football. Only an optimist, surely, would believe that things might ever change.

But, just as in June last year, optimism may come from the streets, or in this case, out on the pitch. Bom Senso FC ("Common Sense FC"), a type of footballers' union that has now swelled to over a thousand players, has emerged to challenge the status quo.

While the group's demands were initially limited -- fewer games, a more sensible calendar, and financial responsibility on the part of clubs -- like the street demonstrations themselves they have grown organically, simultaneously becoming more wide-ranging and less focused. In short, Bom Senso has become a general gripe about everything being, well, broken.

A recent letter from the group to the CBF's president Jose Maria Marin, a politician on the side of Brazil's right wing dictatorship during the 1970s and 80s, mockingly expressed the players' anger at football's governing body. "We are a democratic group, where everybody has the right to vote... we know that you are not used to such democracy," it opened.

Later, in reference to the Fluminense/Portuguesa debacle -- "without discussing the merits of the case... it is clear that it is the CBF that should be relegated to the Second, then the Third, then the Fourth Division."

The letter is occasionally naive, does not offer many concrete solutions, and at times has rather a childish tone. A little like the street protests, perhaps. But, also like the protests, amidst all the torpor and neglect, Bom Senso FC is a force for change. And that is something that Brazilian football desperately needs.

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