Portuguesa mess more chaos for Brazilian football

Posted by Tim Vickery

HevertonGettyImagesHeverton is at the centre of the controversy that's hurting Brazilian football.

Maybe it is part of some secret BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) agreement, but Brazilian football is giving a perfect example of the wisdom of that old Chinese saying: Crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin.

Unfortunately, this is a game of heads or tails that has been called wrong -- the result of which is that the 2013 Brazilian Championship rumbles on through the courtrooms and no one really knows what the 2014 championship will bring.

A recap on the situation: Little Portuguesa of Sao Paulo, seen as relegation certainties, battled heroically to ensure their first division survival, barring a ludicrous mathematical miracle, with a round to spare. Their last game was a glorified friendly, with nothing of importance at stake for either side.

On the eve of the match (the timing an insanity in itself), the sports justice tribunal (STJD) judged the case of the club's attacking midfielder, Heverton. He had been sent off a few weeks previously and had served the automatic one-game suspension for receiving the red card. The STJD decided that his offence -- swearing at the referee -- was worthy of a two-match ban. He then had an extra game to serve, and was therefore ineligible for the final round.

It is likely that with safety seemingly achieved, Portuguesa's legal department had taken its eye off the ball. That and the news about Heverton's extended suspension was not published on the website of the CBF (Brazil's football association) until the Monday after the game.

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So, in ignorance but not in ill faith, Heverton came off the bench for the last 15 minutes of a dreary 1-1 draw with Gremio. It has since turned out to be the most important 15 minutes of his career.

The full penalty for fielding an ineligible player is two-fold (or three-fold if you include the fine): the loss of any points gained in the match in question (in this case, one) plus a further three-point penalty. Losing four points took Portuguesa down from 12th position to 17th, inside the relegation zone.

The club favoured in this situation are Fluminense, the 2012 champions who had such a bad run with injuries that they were bound for the second division -- until the lawyers went to work on Portuguesa.

The traditional club of the Rio de Janeiro elite, Fluminense are politically powerful and have benefited from bizarre off-the-field decisions before. In 1996 they were saved from the second division when, as a result of a refereeing scandal, it was decided that there should be no relegation. Four years later, they were allowed to jump straight from the third division into the top flight.

In 2013, the STJD decided in their favour again. Portuguesa were handed the full four-point punishment -- a 5-0 decision initially, ratified 8-0 on appeal.

A grand old club known for their magnificent service to Brazilian football, Fluminense missed the opportunity to distance themselves from the shenanigans of a decade and a half ago. Although technically the case had nothing to do with them, the club still sent a lawyer to both hearings, where he tried to grab the limelight with his histrionic demands that the full force of the law be applied to Portuguesa. Outside the building, Fluminense fans gathered as if for a match, cheering every vote against Portuguesa as a goal for their side.

In the process, the STJD missed an opportunity to show that the laws exist to serve man, and not the other way round. There is a grating lack of coherence about their position, for it is clear that Portuguesa neither sought nor gained a sporting advantage in bringing on Heverton for the last 15 minutes. And yet lawyer after lawyer has argued that this has no relevance; in effect, they are saying that they are unable to judge the circumstances in which the offence took place, yet they were perfectly able to judge the circumstances in which Heverton received his red card, so much so that they decided to extend his suspension.

Why, then, are they unable to do the same with his selection? And of course, if they are unable to take into account the circumstances, how on earth can they administer justice? Can it really be the case that Portuguesa deserve the same punishment as a team that knowingly selects an ineligible player for a vital game and hopes to get away with it?

The fact that the answers to these questions are so obvious means that this case could only go one way -- outside the boundaries of the STJD and into the conventional law courts. It is not even the case that Portuguesa (or Flamengo of Rio, another club facing a similar punishment though in less dramatic circumstances) have to take the case before the courts -- and thus risk the wrath of FIFA.

Any private individual can bring the case forward. Already injunctions have been taken out, with judges ordering that Portuguesa be handed back their lost four points. These can be overturned on appeal. But there may be so many of them that the movement may be too powerful to stop. And now the Sao Paulo Public Ministry, a group of independent prosecutors which forms part of the Brazilian state, are looking into the situation, investigating whether the STJD overstepped the mark in its ruling against Portuguesa.

Where will it all end? With no relegation and 24 teams in the 2014 first division? That is a strong possibility, although it would clearly necessitate a change of format. There is little enough space as it is in the over-cluttered Brazilian calendar, simply not enough dates for 24 teams to play each other home and away. A split into two groups of 12 would seem the only solution.

It needs to be solved well before late April, when the national championship is due to kick off. Before then come the absurdly obsolete state championships, important to the power structure of the game but no longer important to anyone else -- indeed, they might conceivably be interrupted by a players' strike.

All in all, the fascinating times in Brazilian football this year are by no means limited to the World Cup.

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