An array of giant, wealthy clubs, or a collection of institutions drowning in unpayable debt?
Home of the stars, or a comfort zone for over-hyped locals and veteran foreigners seeking to combine some adventure with a last pay day?
A league soon to be set in stunning new stadiums, or one that stands out more for its appallingly low attendances?
All of the these could apply to a championship whose diversity of perspectives speaks volumes about a complex and contradictory country. As bossa nova musician Tom Jobim liked to point out, Brazil is not for beginners.
However, the most fascinating aspect of the current scenario is the huge potential for change. In a number of ways, holding the Confederations Cup this year and the World Cup the summer after may have a transforming effect on the biggest problem faced by the country’s national championship – its inadequate calendar.
Traditionally, the action kicks off in late May and goes all the way through to early December. This throws Brazil out of kilter with the rest of the world and prevents any participation in pre-season events in Europe, Asia and the USA, which leads to clashes with international competitions and FIFA dates. Last year Neymar, the highest-paid player in the league, missed half of Santos’ campaign because he was away on international duty.
Search for a solution
This year the Confederations Cup obliges the league to shut down for a month – and the pause will be even longer for the World Cup in 2014. This will result in a huge fixture pile-up and even the government is getting involved in the search for a solution.
At its heart, this is a dispute about power. The strength within the Brazilian FA lies not with the clubs but with the state football federations. With the country divided into 27 states, it is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog as the power in the state federations resides with those who manage to gain control over the small clubs – and Brazil’s football calendar is a reflection of this. From the middle of January until May, each state disputes its own separate championship, in which the nation’s biggest clubs waste their time playing against opponents who have next to no supporters.
These competitions have a hugely detrimental effect on the start of the national championship.
A long league campaign needs to be preceded by a pause – this is the period when anxiety and excitement build for the big kick off, which should be the highlight of this type of format.
Instead, the Brazilian championship begins with a blizzard of indifference because the state championships have
only just finished – and because those clubs still involved in the Libertadores Cup tend to pick reserve line-ups.
The state championships might be dying on their feet but they remain of great importance to
the power structure. They are the source of revenue and prestige of the state federations, who guard them jealously.
But that power structure is coming under attack as never before; in large part because the upcoming events are giving Brazil an unprecedented global visibility. This shifts the balance of political forces, giving voices from abroad an extra importance.
Campaigning journalist Andrew Jennings must take much of the credit for exposing the corruption scandal surrounding Ricardo Teixeira, the Brazilian federation president between 1989 and 2012, when he scuttled off to Miami. And now he has Teixeira’s octogenarian replacement firmly in his sights.
Jose Maria Marin has a background in far-right politics and his collusion in the 1970s with Brazil’s military government is coming under the microscope. Relations with Dilma Rousseff, the country’s president, could hardly be colder. Rousseff previously refused to have any personal contact with Teixeira – which is a far cry from the days when Teixeira and former president Lula used to hang out together.
These, then, are worrying times for the old oligarchy and there are signs of rebellion in the air.
Atletico Paranaense, for example, refused to take their local state championship seriously, using it as a testing ground for the reserves.
“We were paying to play,” said club president Mario Petraglia. “Only two clubs have any history, the rest have been put together by agents. We can’t keep preserving these feudal state federations. Their championships are a con. We have to change the calendar.”
It is way too early to know where all this will lead. But even in a country as stuck on dubious political compromise as Brazil, it is unlikely that the status quo can hold for much longer.
A change that may be felt on the pitch before long is the probable rise of clubs from the north-eastern cities of Recife, Salvador and Fortaleza. The big teams from these cities can count on some of the highest average crowds in the country, but the region is historically poor and the force of the fan base is rarely felt on the field. But the area is starting to grow and is receiving plenty of investment – with half of the Confederations Cup and a third of the World Cup taking place in the region. With new stadiums and a fresh economic model, clubs from this part of the country may soon be genuine national heavyweights.
This promises to make the championship more interesting. The adoption of the league format and the recent wave of prosperity have taken away some of the unpredictability. At the start of the century, a newly founded club Sao Caetano – who survived on gates of around 2,000 – were title contenders. This scenario is no longer possible and it is hard for outsiders to keep pace with the eight traditional powerhouses from Rio and Sao Paulo, plus the big two from both Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre. Last year these 12 filled the top 11 slots in the table – the exception were Palmeiras who, with their stadium closed for rebuilding, were relegated.
The traditional giants from the south-east and the south should dominate this season, with the pendulum perhaps swinging away from Rio and towards Sao Paulo. For all its defects, the title is never less than intriguing.
There are plenty of glamorous teams in contention, a new crop of talent can always be counted on to appear, and in the run up to 2014 there are some big names with a point to prove by the time the last ball is kicked in December.
By Tim Vickery