Brazil flagSonically speaking, Avenida Conde da Boa Vista in Recife is a typical Brazilian urban drag. Swarms of unsilenced motorbikes buzz back and forth, battalions of buses grind through the gears, and cheesy local pop blasts out from clothes and shoe stores. Endless verbal churn rattles back and forth between the shoppers and the coconut water sellers and the snack peddlers. Brazil’s big cities, it’s fair to say, are not always places to wander as lonely, or as peacefully, as a cloud.

Salvation for ravaged ears, however, may be at hand. Oases of serenity now exist in every Brazilian metropolis. Brazil’s football grounds offer the perfect place to relax and kick back in roomy surroundings, safe in the knowledge that the harried urbanite will not be troubled by much in the way of pushing and shoving.

Crowds, which boasted a paltry average of 14,000 in 2011, are down even further this year. A few Saturdays ago, 2,852 huddled together for warmth at the boondoggle that is Rio de Janeiro’s Engenhão for Fluminense vs. Portuguesa. Flu’s neighbours Flamengo, who boast the biggest supporter base in the country, shouldn’t crow too much. Only 4,200 paying customers showed up for their game with Atlético Goianiense this Sunday just gone. Not to be outdone, São Paulo’s Palmeiras were watched not by a crowd so much as a small gathering of 2,580 last weekend.

The grim reading goes on. Three home games into the Serie A season, the average attendance at Santos, current Libertadores holders, is less than 5,000. The home opener of Botafogo, Clarence Seedorf’s new club, drew 4,836 paying fans. Across the board, the Serie A average gate in 2012 is hovering around the 10,000 mark.

Down in Serie B things are even more pitiful. Three weeks ago, the home games of each of Barueri, Bragantino, São Caetano and Ipatinga were watched by crowds of under 1,000, with the last drawing an attendance of 232 – which presumably meant there were as many people working at the game as there were paying to watch it.

There are a great many reasons for Brazil’s attendance blight, both footballing and otherwise.  Here, in no particular order, are perhaps the nine most important.

1)    Stadium closure – The most palatable excuse. For the last two years or so, Brazil has been stripped of many of its great footballing theatres, closed for rebuilding work in preparation for the 2014 World Cup. The Maracanã in Rio, Belo Horizonte’s Mineirão, Salvador’s Fonte Nova, and Fortaleza’s Castelão have all been closed, meaning that nine clubs have had to seek alternative accommodation. Palmeiras have also been made homeless while the new Arena Palestra Itália is being built. Perhaps the worst hit have been the two Belo Horizonte teams, Atlético and Cruzeiro, who have had to stage their home games 70km from the city in Sete Lagoas. As a result, Atlético’s average crowd fell from 38,000 in 2009 to 14,000 last year. Good news came recently with the reopening of another stadium in Belo Horizonte, the Indêpendencia, and both clubs recently played their first games back in their home town in front of boisterous crowds.

2)    Logistics – The demands of television mean that the bigger midweek games can only begin after the nightly novela das nove, or nine o’clock soap. This means kick-off at around ten o’clock, with the game finishing around midnight. The fan then faces a long trek home, often courtesy of what can be an extremely rickety public transport system. Your correspondent well remembers getting home at around 2am following an Atlético Mineiro vs. Flamengo game at the Mineirão a few years ago. Other inconvenient kick-off times, such as nine o’clock on a Saturday night, are common.

3)    Television – When clubs celebrated signing fat new individually negotiated TV contracts last year, only a few lonely voices protested about the effect that live televising of games is having on attendances. Local blackouts generally apply to games broadcast on the big terrestrial and cable networks, but the cable TV companies also offer a not particularly expensive pay-per-view service, which broadcasts every single Serie A or B game without restrictions. What this means is that while stadiums sit empty, bars and restaurants across the city are packed with fans watching the game on TV.

4)    The Product – Brazilian football does itself no favours. The continual merry-go-round of players and managers creates an atmosphere of short-termism that dilutes the bond between fan and team. It is common in Brazil to talk of supporting your club, whilst having little respect for the current cast of players or whoever is sitting in the manager’s chair, all of whom are likely to be replaced in the near future. Subconsciously, this distance weakens the sense of being “part of the club” that is an essential element of dragging oneself from the comfort of the armchair and off to the ground.

5)    Pontos Corridos – A curiously Brazilian issue, this one. The Brasileiro only adopted a straight league system, with clubs playing each other home and away, in 2003. Prior to that, the championship’s structure changed frequently, but always involved an extensive final knockout stage to decide the winner. To a certain extent the Brazilian footballing mind retains this mentality – while everybody knows that three points in the early going are just as important as three points at the end, no one really believes that they are, because titles are traditionally decided at the season finale. This results in particularly tiny crowds at the start of the year.

6)    Ticket Prices – While prices are not particularly expensive to middle class wallets, at least compared to similar leisure activities, prices are often prohibitive to poorer Brazilian pockets, meaning that football is in danger of alienating its core support – the urban working class. If the kind of gentrification process that so transformed British football in the 1990s was imminent then clubs might not care too much, but the majority of more affluent Brazilians prefer to watch their football at home or in the bar, citing fear of violence (see below) and general discomfort as reasons not to attend matches.

7)    Violence – As in most footballing cultures where fan violence is an issue, the problem in Brazil is probably not as widespread as often portrayed, but at the same time, it’s bad enough. The deaths of a number of fans around football stadiums in Goiania, São Paulo and Recife this year reopened the debate on the notorious torcida organizadas, and the groups were banned in a number of cities. However, while the pitched battles (and occasional murder) that can occur before and after clássicos are a stain on the game, they are also a product of the violence in wider Brazilian society. And while intimidating, the risk of personal injury to a fan not actively seeking trouble is minimal.

8)    The Calendar – The biggest bugbear. The Brazilian footballing calendar is an absurdity. The sprawling and often archaic state championships run from January to May, meaning that a 38 game league season must be squeezed into the remaining six months of the year. This leaves no room for international breaks, or a decent interval to build anticipation prior to the start of the season. It also means that the final stages of the Libertadores and the Copa do Brasil coincide with the start of the Brasileirão, resulting in clubs that are still in the knockout competitions fielding reserve sides during the opening weeks of the league campaign. With such half-hearted attractions on offer, fans can hardly be blamed for voting with their feet.

9)    Fickleness – While the football fan in Niteroi might well love his club as passionately as his counterpart in Naples or Newcastle, there is one significant difference. The sense of it being a kind of duty to go to the game and support your team is entirely lacking in Brazil. Fans pick and choose their games, eschewing the duller looking fixtures in favour of more glamorous ties later on. A fine example came in 2008, when there were 80,000 at the Maracanã to see Fluminense lose the Libertadores final to LDU Quito, yet just over 11,000 turned up for the club’s next home game. When a team hits a poor run of form, fans abandon hope completely, and almost empty stadiums are not uncommon.

Many of the above problems could be rectified with a little thought, though given that the governing body of Brazilian football is the exercise in stagnation that is the CBF, breath holding is not recommended. Perhaps a successful World Cup in 2014, together with all those shiny new stadia, will tempt the middle classes from their armchairs and barstools and into the grounds. Or maybe the youthful talent of Neymar, Leandro Damião, Oscar, Lucas and others will bring a new generation of fans to the stadium.

Yet what is perhaps most worrying is that there is almost no intelligent debate on the subject in Brazil. TV commentators, gazing around the empty terracing, proffer excuses such as “it’s a bit chilly today”, “it rained just before kick-off” or even, “it’s Mothers’ Day, after all”. Clubs content themselves with meaningless market research to gauge how many fans they have – the latest figures had Flamengo in front, with around 25 million supporters nationwide, though how many of these will ever go to a game, buy a replica shirt, or even know the result of last week’s match is open to question.

And so, at least for now, fans can continue to enjoy the silence at Brazil’s football grounds.

By James Young

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