The stars may be back, but old problems won’t go away

The 2010 version of the Brazilian championship kicks off with the presence of all four national team strikers from the last World Cup: Ronaldo, Adriano, Robinho and Fred. Meanwhile, Roberto Carlos is back from Europe, as are Vagner Love, Ewerthon and Lincoln.

High-profile stars from elsewhere on the continent have also been enticed, including Argentina goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri, Paraguay defender Julio Cesar Caceres and Ecuadorian midfielder Edison Mendez. Add the usual crop of highly promising youngsters, spearheaded by Santos duo Neymar and Paulo Henrique, and this is the strongest
cast the national league has assembled for many years.

This is the consequence of two significant developments: the considerable rise in strength of Brazil’s currency has made it easier to pay relatively high wages, and the increasing professionalism of marketing departments has brought sponsors on board to share the costs of attracting the stars.

However, it would be wise not to go overboard. As influential Sao Paulo director Marco Aurelio Cunha commented, the return of the big names is “a short-term strategy or an alternative at the end of a career”.

There is no slowdown in the trend of youngsters moving across the Atlantic, either. Philippe Coutinho of Vasco da Gama and Fluminense’s Wellington Silva, two talented strikers from last year’s national under-17 squad, have already been sold and will soon be on their way to Internazionale and Arsenal respectively. In the vast majority of cases, clubs still need to sell to balance the books.

The short-term strategy to which Cunha refers is especially prominent this year, with players struggling for visibility in the run-up to the World Cup. Once that is over, Robinho and Vagner Love are due to return to Europe, where others are sure to join them, while some Brazilians will be repatriated as the global transfer window opens. As a result, teams are torn apart and rebuilt in the middle of the campaign.

Out of sync
The national league has only been staged since 1971, but of the 20 first division teams only six have never won the title. This is due partly to the sheer size of the country and the number of big clubs capable of launching a challenge. But it is also due to a calendar which is out of sync not just with Europe, but the rest of South America.

Quite apart from transfer window disruption, the action gets under way at the exact moment the Libertadores Cup moves into its knockout stage. Clubs inevitably give priority to the continental competition and can then wake up with a hangover to find they are at the wrong end of the league table.

The country’s state championships, staged from mid-January to early May, unbalance the calendar. They are vital to the power structure of Brazilian football, but not to the big clubs, who spend months playing feeble opposition in front of tiny crowds.

A growing consensus says the state championships have become a hindrance, with unprecedented criticism in the press this year. But because the national championship has been operated on a league basis only since 2003, few appreciate that, to operate at its potential, a league must be preceded by a pause in the action.

As European leagues are aware, the big kick-off is one of, if not the most, exciting days of the campaign. It is when fans all over the country, starved of real football for a few months, flock to the stadium in the hope that this could be the season when their team springs a surprise. The great advantage of the league system over any play-off format is that its starts hot.

Yet Brazil throws this all away. The state championships come to an end less than a week before the national competition gets under way. Therefore, come the big kick off, the majority of clubs are in crisis, many have had last-minute coaching changes and the fans are already both familiar and discontented with their team’s line-up. The national championship starts cold.

Only when this problem is addressed will Brazilian football get full value from the size of its clubs and their fan bases, and then have a better chance at holding on to more of its great players while still at their peak.