Brazil flagThe death of Brazilian football. The collapse of the Euro. The continuing success of Justin Bieber. Brazil’s state championships sure have a lot to answer for.

When discussing the subject, normally reasonable, intelligent commentators can come to resemble firebrand evangelist preachers, pouring forth hellfire and damnation from the pulpit. The impression given is that the idiosyncratic estaduais, which run from January to May every year, are dead or dying, of interest to no one, and a calamitous hindrance to the development of the Brazilian game.

Not quite.

The estaduais are the oldest footballing competitions in Brazil. The first was the Campeonato Paulista, back in 1902, followed briefly by the Campeonato Baiano in 1905, and the Campeonato Carioca a year later. In those days, long distance travel across Brazil’s 8.5 million km2 was impossible (some might say it’s not much easier today), making a national competition impractical – the first national Campeonato Brasileiro took place in 1971. Almost from the outset, Brazilian football has developed along state lines.

This tradition sustains today, both in football and everyday life. Brazil is a federally governed country, with everything from education budgets to local bank holidays the responsibility of the individual states. Every state has its own government, its own flag, its own anthem, its own governing football body. Brazilians identify tremendously with their states, as Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Marcelinho Paraíba, and Juninho Pernambucano will attest.

For many people the roots of football lie with the estaduais. In the midwest of the country, those who remember still talk of Tão Segurado, the Hero of The 33 Fans in the 1956 Campeonato Goiano (upon hearing taunts from rival Vila Nova supporters that Goiás had only 33 fans, he promised to score 33 goals, one for each of the faithful few). Up in Pernambuco, last year’s Campeonato Pernambucano was marked by Sport’s attempt (and failure) to equal Nautico’s historic mark of six titles in a row, the famed hexa, set in 1968. And arguments over the legends of the Campeonato Baiano are common in the bars of Salvador.

Furthermore, in large swathes of the country, tough financial reality makes competing for trophies on a national level an impossibility, meaning the state championships are the only realistic prize on offer. The sul and sudeste is the wealthiest and most developed part of the country, and, as footballing glory usually, though not always, bears a close relation to financial power, this is where the most successful Brazilian teams are based.

The last time a team from outside the sul and sudeste lifted the Campeonato Brasileiro was 23 years ago, when Bahia were champions. In such an environment, it’s no wonder that the 7.5 million residents of Pará, 3000km away from São Paulo and Rio, take such an interest in the Campeonato Paraense, when the odds are so heavily stacked against them on a national level.

A good example of this regional diversity is the Campeonato Pernambucano, which has been running since 1915. This is a vibrant, competitive league, and, with average crowds of around 8,000, the best attended of Brazil’s state championships (the average crowd in 2011’s Brasileirão was just under 15,000). Both Sport (Serie A in 2012) and Santa Cruz (Serie C) boast massive popular support (Santa had the biggest crowds in Brazil last year, with an average of around 40,000), and Nautico (Serie A) are not that far behind. Salgueiro, from the parched backlands interior of the state, will play in Serie C in 2012, and Central and Porto, from the market town of Caruaru, are usually decent, intermediate level opponents. Last year, when Santa beat Sport in the final, the second leg in Recife was watched by over 63,000 people.

Historic and much loved, then, and in large parts of the country, still relevant. Public interest in the state championships remains high. Media coverage is of the same intensity as it is for the Brasileirão – a phalanx of TV stations, both terrestrial and cable, devote hours to the analysis of games and performances, there are multi-page supplements in newspapers, and special editions of magazines such as Lance! and Placar.

True, crowds may frequently be poor in the earlier stages of many estaduais, but then Brazilian crowds are disappointing across the board. There are a number of reasons for this, such as poor spectator facilities, fear (real or imagined) of crowd violence, easy access to games on television, often awkward kick-off times, and a culture of fickleness and glory hunting – huge crowds turn up when there’s a trophy at stake, then fail to reappear for months afterwards.

And sure enough, when the state championships’ Domingo De Decisões rolls around, vast crowds are guaranteed. It is one of the most exciting days in the Brazilian footballing calendar – watching a television round up, as reports whizz in from across the country, is dizzying stuff: 27 champions, 27 wild celebrations, 27 local rivals vanquished for another year. Better yet, 27 different types of party, each reflecting a little the characteristics of the state in question.

Shambles

In short, people still care about the estaduais.

Why, then, the talk of banishing them? Because, in a nutshell, they’re a bloody shambles. As messy and bloated as the collected works of Jeffrey Archer, and often hopelessly uncompetitive. Many are bizarrely and confusingly structured, with a primeiro turno, complete with semi-finals and a final, followed by a segundo turno, also with semi-finals and a final, all finished off with a grand finale between the winners of each half championship.

Worse, by stretching over four months, they strangle the Brazilian footballing calendar into near unconsciousness. There is hardly time for a break between the end of the Campeonato Brasileiro in December and the start of the estaduais in mid January. And there is no break at all between the end of the estaduais in May and the start of the next Brasileirão.

During last year’s Copa America, the Brasileirão had no room for a mid-season pause, and as a result, players as important as Fred (Fluminense), Lucas (São Paulo), and Neymar and Ganso (Santos) missed vital league games. These absences arguably had a major impact on the final league standings.

Worse still, run the accusations, top players, such as Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Luis Fabiano, spend months playing pointless fixtures against weak local sides, running down their batteries for the more important games later on. And young players gain nothing from such games, other than a false sense of their own importance from so many easy victories.

All true. In the sul and sudeste of the country, where teams have genuine Libertadores or Serie A objectives, the estaduais, as they stand, are an encumbrance. The guiltiest parties: Campeonatos Gaúcho, Paulista, Carioca, and Mineiro.

Yet even in these states the great majority of fans still beat the estaduais drum. Taunts bounce back and forward between Grêmio and Internacional supporters over who has the most Gaúcho titles (Internacional, with 40, compared to Grêmio’s 36), and the finals of the Carioca and the Paulista are as eagerly awaited as almost any game in the Rio or São Paulo footballing calendars.

So talk of the natural demise, or even the decapitation of the estaduais, would seem to be premature. And yet the problems they cause for the Brazilian footballing calendar mean that things can hardly go on as they are.

There is a relatively simple solution, generally ignored by the more fire-breathing of commentators (and it is hard, sometimes, not to see some intellectual neo-colonialism at play here – a these Brazilians don’t know what the hell they’re doing, they should do it more like we do in Europe type of thinking).

Restructuring.

In parts of the country where teams hardly have a national profile, let alone hopes of playing in the Libertadores, the estaduais can continue as they are. In such states they are the focus of the footballing year, and, as the local teams rarely participate in the top two divisions of the Brasileirão, cause no harm to anyone.

In the sul and sudeste (and a few other states where teams have loftier ambitions), where the estaduais are far too big and contain too many pointless games, slice them and dice them. Chop them in half. Run them for a month, or six weeks, prior to the Brasileirão (a discussion of the shambolic Brazilian footballing calendar is best left for another time).

Give them a World Cup or Champions League style format, so that the big teams play a maximum of eight or ten games. Reduce ticket prices too, making them a fan friendly event, and guaranteeing big crowds from the outset. The tradition and dignity of the tournaments will be maintained, space will be opened up in the calendar, and top players won’t spend so much time playing pointless matches against feeble opposition.

For there is still something special about the state championships, particularly away from Rio and São Paulo, where the football can sometimes feel a little homogenous. There are the electrifying big city clássicos of Recife, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Salvador, Belém and Fortaleza. There are the long journeys into the backlands, particularly in the norte and nordeste, where the teams from the capital know that a bumpy pitch, a cramped ground and a hostile crowd await. And there are the occasional marvellous upsets, such as, last year, Bahia De Feira’s Campeonato Baiano triumph over Vitoria, or Independente’s victory in the Campeonato Paraense, the first by a team from outside state capital Belém in the competition’s 99 year history.

While Globo and the other giant TV networks try to convince everyone that football in Brazil is 99% Flamengo and Corinthians, the estaduais serve as a reminder that this is thankfully not yet the case. For they are as culturally rich and diverse as the country itself.

By James Armour Young

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  • Sindi

    Maravilhoso o post, mas como sou Paulista, no carioca sou Boa Vista, na Bahia Vitf3ria, e aqui em se3o Paulo o jogo e9 o de niomdgo, Se3o Paulo(Glorioso) e o Palmeiras, vai dar o Grande Tricolor, parabe9ns pelo post, beijos !!!

  • romanista

    Amen! finally someone into de defence of this great tradition.. Tim Vickery, please take notice!